For most authors, setting up the right Act 1 feels natural – you introduce a character, give him a problem, invite him on a journey and then. . .
All the fun starts. But what do you DO during the party? You can’t simply throw up obstacles, because obstacles do not create tension. Great tension is created by a sympathetic character who wants something for a good reason, who has something to lose, so they create a goal which is then met with a realistic and overwhelming obstacle.
It’s the push against this obstacle that causes tension.
More, it’s the AFTERMATH of confronting that obstacle that causes that character change. And that, after all, is the goal of your story – to create a powerful character change.
But what kind of obstacles are worthy of your story?
The best obstacles are external devices that cause an internal dilemma. And it’s this combination of Obstacles + Internal Dilemma that are the TURNING POINTS in your novel.
I got sucked into Last of the Mohicans last night (can it truly be that that film is 22 years old?). Great character change, great external obstacles leading to internal change.
Meet Hawkeye. He’s a white man adopted into the Mohican tribe, wanting nothing to do with the war, or the military, or rules, for that matter. His external goal – to have a family (he is unmarried), but also to stay a free indian warrior. His values are loyalty (to his family) and freedom. (remember this.) However, Hawkeye’s big flaw is that he doesn’t want to get involved, he wants nothing to rule him.
Hawkeye and his party (his father and brother) happen upon a British garrison who have been attacked by a Huron war party. Hawkeye helps save the women, and agrees to help them get to Fort William Henry.
This decision is bolstered by the presence of Cora, the pretty daughter of Colonel Munroe. Cora is different than the other “white” women – she seems to understand Hawkeye and he begins to fall for her.
Enter the Turning Points.
A great Turning Point contains the combination of an External Obstacle that leads to an Internal Confrontation (usually the battle between two values) and results in a Change of Character.
Let’s take those Turning Points apart.
First, start with the External Obstacle. A great ExO always stands in the way of the External Goal. Hawkeye’s short term goal is to get Cora and her sister to Fort William Henry (and back to their father.)
His long term External Goal is to keep Cora alive.
The result of confronting the External Goal is the effect it has on Hawkeye’s values – Freedom and Loyalty. With each step, he gains one and loses another.
Let’s take a look.
The first Turning Point (after the Inciting Incident) occurs when they come across the destroyed homestead of a friend. Hawkeye knows that a war party has committed the violence, and refuses to bury the bodies, lest they return and discover Hawkeye’s trail. His goal – keep Cora alive by hiding their presence. The obstacle – she wants to bury the dead. The conflict – she doesn’t trust him. He wants to keep his word to her that he’ll get her to the Fort safely, so he tells her a story about himself (in MBT we’d call that the Dark Moment Story – and for those who were in last week’s Premium Member Peptalk, note that it happens in Act 2A!) which makes her respond in a way that strengthens the bond between them.
However, with this step, he’s compromised, just a little, his freedom. He’s starting to get involved.
External Obstacle causes Internal Confrontation, which leads to a Change of Character.
The second Turning Point happens when they reach the fort. There, the Colonel is informed of the attacks on the homesteaders – many of whom are the wives and children of his militia. He refuses to let them leave to protect them, so Hawkeye engineers their escape from the fort. . .an act of sedition. However, instead of leaving with them, he decides to stay.
Jack Winthrop: You’re not coming with us?
Hawkeye: I’ve got a reason to stay.
Jack Winthrop: That reason wear a striped skirt and work in the surgery?
Hawkeye: It does. No offense, but it’s a better looking reason than you, Jack Winthrop.
More, the FRENCH are digging in and are going to overrun the fort, and he knows it.
Let’s return to our equation:
Goal – To keep Cora Alive. External Obstacle – His crime of sedition and the need to escape before he’s discovered. Internal Confrontation – freedom versus loyalty. He again chooses loyalty (which is morphing into love) and that choice puts him in Cora’s arms. . .and then in prison.
Note how while the obstacles increase in danger, it’s the effect of the decision as a result of the obstacles that worsens Hawkeye’s situation. Authors often confuse making the obstacle worse when actually the worsening OUTCOME, or the EFFECT of the obstacle is the goal.
The Final Turning point happens when, after the fort falls and the British surrender, the escaping troops are ambushed by the Huron and Hawkeye and Cora (and friends) flee their attackers. They find themselves trapped in a waterfall and Hawkeye must face his final External Obstacle – stay, and fight to the death and lose his chance to keep Cora alive. Or flee, and hope that he can rescue her. Remember, those External Obstacles always block the character from his main goal. (Keep Cora Alive!) He then has an Internal Confrontation, choosing between loyalty and freedom, again. This time, although it looks like he’s choosing freedom, he’s actually choosing to rescue her.
Cora Munro: You’ve done everything you can do. Save yourself. If the worst happens, and only one of us survives, something of the other does too.
Hawkeye: No. You stay alive. If they don’t kill you, they’ll take you north, up to Huron land. Submit, do you hear? You’re strong, you survive. You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you. No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!
(Most romantic dialogue in history. Next to – “it wasn’t over! It still isn’t over!”)
He is choosing to save her by escaping – and then racing to free her. But the character change here is that he binds himself to the task of rescuing her. He’s no longer free and is now completely involved in this war, in saving her.
He’s gone from uninvolved hunter, answering to no one, to warrior, answering to the call of his heart.
The Black Moment, of course, is up next, when he tries to trade himself for the woman he loves, sacrificing his freedom, and life for love.
How do you make your Act 2 compelling? In MBT, we rely on a book by Brandilyn Collins, Getting into Character, where she talks about the D’s – building your story around creating a series of increasing disappointments, – Disaster, Destruction, Devastation. We affectionately call them the D’s. But you can simplify – Bad, Badder, Baddest. Or whatever you want to call them – just make sure that each Turning Point contains the following:
An External Obstacle that is set against the main Goal (Keep Cora Alive),
which causes an Internal Confrontation (between values),
and results in a Character Change (even if it is a small step).
Not every obstacle is a turning point. Not every value choice is a character change. But the lethal combination of the External Obstacles combined with the Internal Confrontation can make even the most hard-hearted, leather-clad, long-hair warriors (with incredible brown eyes) sacrifice themselves for the sake of love.
Next week we’ll touch on 5 quick touch ups to add tension and make your scenes more emotional.
You CAN write something Brilliant!
P.S, if you’re not a Premium Member, you might consider checking us out this Thursday for our weekly Peptalk as we continue our Build-A-Book series, talking through how to take a rough story idea and turn it into a plot, including the inciting incident! Try us out for a week, free – click HERE.