Turning Points and the Reveal – Applying the techniques of fiction in your non-fiction

Dorothy, Wizard of Oz

Dorothy starts out on The Hero's Journey

If you’ve studied storytelling, either in books, in plays or in cinema, you may have noticed the concept of Turning Points. It’s the point in the story where something suddenly changes and the course of the narrative has to continue on a new path. It’s different to the Reveal, where the story opens up and even diverges.

In plays and films, the narrative is usually split up into a three-act structure. So in a 90 minute film, these acts often consist of 30 mins each. If we take an archetypal story like the original Star Wars (or equally The Wizard of Oz which is almost exactly the same story) we can see how the story divides up into three clear parts, the three Acts:

Star Wars:

Act 1: On Tatooine (From R2D2’s arrival with Luke to blasting off from Mos Eisley with Han and Chewie)

Act 2: Escape from The Death Star (From learning about the Force with Ben Kenobi to Ben Kenobi’s death with Darth Vader)

Act 3: Attacking the Death Star (From arriving on the Rebel Base on Yavin to the Awards Ceremony)

The Wizard of Oz:

Act 1: Arriving in Munchkinland (From Dorothy running away until setting off on the Yellow Brock Road)

Act 2: The Yellow Brick Road (from meeting the scarecrow to arriving at Emerald City)

Act 3: Defeating the Wicked Witch (from meeting Oz to the journey home)

The Acts contain a whole section of the story, perhaps as in these examples, set in one place or with a particular problem or set of characters. But the start and end of each Act do not reveal the Turning Points that I want us to understand. Let’s look in more detail. Each Act is split into chapters:

Star Wars Act 1 has four chapters:

1. R2D2 and C3PO escape from Darth Vader on Princess Leia’s ship with the stolen plans

2. R2D2 and C3PO are captured by the Jawas and sold to Luke’s family

3. R2D2 escapes and finds Ben Kenobi who rescues Luke from the Sandpeople

4. Luke, Ben and the droids go to Moss Eisley Spaceport and meet Han Solo who takes them to Alderaan

The Wizard of Oz Act 1 has four chapters:

1. Dorothy runs away from home and meets Marvel

2. Returning home in the storm, Dorothy’s house is lifted off and lands in Oz

3. Dorothy meets Glinda and the munchkins

4. Dorothy gets the ruby slippers and is threatened by the Wicked Witch of the West

So those are the chapters within which are the turning points that take the stories up a level, change what we expect, raise the stakes or the threat and mark points of no return. These are different from the Reveal that adds to our knowledge in the story or opens it up. Let’s see what they are in those chapters of our stories:

Luke, Leia and Han

Luke follows in Dorothy's footsteps...

In Star Wars Act 1 there are two turning points within those four chapters:

1. Reveal: Darth Vader and his Stormtroooers board Princess Leia’s ship and search for the plans she hides in R2D2. The Turning point comes when C3PO decides, against his better judgement, to use the escape pod.

2. Reveal: R2D2 plays part of the message from Princess Leia, Luke realises the droids were involved in the Rebellion.

3. Reveal: Ben Kenobi reveals that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father and asks Luke to join him on the quest. Luke refuses. The Turning Point comes when Luke discovers his Uncle and Aunt murdered. Now he must join Ben.

4. Reveal: We are introduced to the dangerous world of Han Solo. The Turning Point comes when we learn that Alderaan has been destroyed by the Death Star and a tractor beam pulls the Falcon in. Now they can’t simply deliver the plans to the Princess and have no idea what to do next.

In The Wizard of Oz Act 1 there are two turning points within those four chapters:

1. Reveal: Miss Gultch wants to take Toto away and Dorothy runs away from home.

2. Turning Point: Dorothy lands in Oz and finds herself in a world of colour

3. Reveal: Dorothy learns there are good witches and bad witches and the Witch of the East is dead.

4. Reveal: there is an even worse Witch. The Turning point comes when Dorothy can’t get the Ruby slippers off and must ask the Wizard of Oz for help to get home.

So how can we apply these concepts to our non-fiction books? A way to think of it is like this (the numbers are just for convenience here as an example):

Let’s assume your book will have a total of 40,000 words. Let’s split it into three Acts’ or Parts of 10,000 words each. Each Part has four chapters of 2500 words each. Each chapter has at least one major Reveal and alternative chapters need a Turning Point.

So our structure could look like this:

Part 1: 10,000 words
Chapter 1: 2500 words, Reveal
Chapter 2: 2500 words, Reveal, Turning Point
Chapter 3: 2500 words, Reveal
Chapter 4: 2500 words, Reveal, Turning Point

With Parts 2 and 3 following the same structure.

You might be saying that I’ve just spent a proportion of this book going on about the non-linear nature of our books and yet here I am comparing them to a story narrative that is clearly linear. The truth is that both work but the ultimate method is to get them to both work at the same time. So the book can be dipped into (unlike a story) but if it is read from beginning to end, the Reveals and Turning Points are there to drive the reader on.

Let’s summaries the difference between the Reveal and the Turning Point in the context of our non-fiction book:

The Reveal is a startling piece of information that opens up the material. It adds depth and detail, drawing the reader in. This is the facts and examples that they learn from. It’s you showing the many ways of doing things.

The Turning Point is the shocker, the twist that closes down the material. It’s the part where you tell them there is only one way of doing things. It’s where you catch the reader out by showing that things are not as they seem.

You need just one Turning Point per 5000 words. Too many Turning Points can get tiring and confusing. You need at least one big Reveal per 2500 words. There’s always room for more Reveals.

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