I found myself in a dark forest,
For the straight way had been lost to me…
A major problem many memoir writers have with their first draft is a really saggy, full-bellied manuscript that lags and sags for dozens (or hundreds) of pages.
Why? Because there are no clear turning points for miles.
Maintaining a reader’s interest depends on turning points in every chapter and a scene which illustrates the turning point.
Every chapter will need to have at least one turning point – otherwise nothing has changed and there is no story. When you write your chapter outlines, it’s important to summarise the turning point.
What is a turning point?
At a turning point in a chapter, a value is at stake and a motivation changes.
You may be deciding to finally enter the special world of your memoir. You may so affected by the inciting incident or question of your story that you decide to begin your memoir’s quest. These all require scenes to be written that show your main character at a turning point.
Remember: If there is stasis, there is no story. Something has to change to move you – and your story – forward.
Turning points in story
A turning point is literally a turning point in the story. It’s quite poetic that I’m writing this on the solstice – literally, the turning of the wheel of earth – moving from light to dark (depending where you are on the equator). It’s a significant shift, and involves reflection on what’s gone before, and decisions about what’s coming ahead.
Let’s say your memoir is about learning who your late father was (sorry, it’s just easier for me to use my own story!): Before I can get to the major turning point which is actually to learn that he was a completely different person to who I thought he was, I need to build that up via key scenes which show the backstory and the contrast, so that the turning point is more meaningful to the reader.
I needed to show the smaller turning points: raising of the curiosity of who he was. How long I’d ignored the question. Who I’d always thought he was (so the contrast, when I do truly learn who he was, is starker). And I need to show why and how I once didn’t want to know, and why.
Turning points are best shown in scenes. And the key with turning points is to show, not tell, how you made a change or reached a decision.
A turning point always shows a shift in priorities, a choice or a change in the main character.
In memoir, this is always you.
Internal turning points
I was at the most beautiful film the other night – it was a quiet, slow film, but it had me gripped. And I think this is because the turning points were so beautifully-shown.
The Ideal Palace (based on a true story) it was about the French peasant Monsieur Cheval who decided, almost at whim, to build a palace for his young daughter in the south of france in the late 19th century.
The first turning point was so subtle, and so beautiful, that I realized turning points build in strength, almost like a musical crescendo, until the major turning point of the film. (Which usually comes near the end of the second act. You don’t want the major turning point to come too early in the story – or why would you bother watching the rest?)
It’s the same with books. But the problem is, we can’t use music, visual scenes, an expression on a face, to convey this shift. We must write all of this into the scene.
What we can use is backstory, dialogue, events, description, contrast.
Don’t assume the reader knows why the turning point was so significant to you. Show, don’t tell. That means, have a clear scene or example which shows the ‘before’ the turning point so it’s much stronger. This could even just be a scrap of dialogue. If it’s clear and strong, it will be enough.
Writing Prompts to find turning points
When you’re thinking about your memoir / creative non-fiction, focus on the following:
- What changes needed to take place before you could embrace the ‘quest’ of your memoir?
- Write three scenes that illustrate these changes – a conversation, an experience, a dream, an argument, a chance encounter that shifted your perception / priorities.
- Think about your priorities at different stages of your story – when and where did they shift, and why? It’s said that our characters don’t really change (in life) but our priorities do. What and how were your priorities shifted?
- Remember that a turning point involves a change of motivation or priority or a choice or a change. What series of choices and changes needed to happen before the major change of your memoir?
- Thinking about your memoir focus sentence (the nub of your story), pour onto the page all the different experiences and encounters and scenes that would illustrate the changes and choices you went through to build to the biggest one.
- Now, start to polish and add to each scene: dialogue, sensual details (sounds, sights, sense, taste). Raise the stakes via adding a risk. Polish and add again.
- What was at risk in your turning point? There usually has to be something at risk – this builds tension. The risk can be internal: the overthrowing of an old story or physical rejection. Risk – and the possibility of conflict – are key to turning points.
This is the real fun when it comes to crafting your chapters – reflecting on the experiences in your personal story and when and where your priorities changed.
Sometimes it’s a very small thing that can cause a massive shift in our lives. Not all seismic shifts look big at the time (in fact, more often they don’t).
We go to work. We sleep. We dream. Meanwhile, our cells are dividing and closing and healing and dying, underneath the skin. A DNA kit. A conversation. An event. All these things can completely change our lives – but how? It’s all about who we were then versus who we are now, and that comes from priorities. How and why did your priorities change so that the quest of your memoir became so important?
Perhaps, like Monsieur Cheval in An Ideal Palace, your shift from solo widower trekking ten kilometres of French mountains to deliver mail by hand to falling in love came from the simple choice to accept two glasses of water from a stranger. This was key to the major turning point of the film: when he completes the palace. He would never have built the palace without the wife or the child.
For him, it all started with the water.
What seemingly insignificant events and changes does your memoir’s major turning point rest upon?