The Power of Choice –– The Difference Between Salvation and Stagnation

The concept of the Point of No Return was first brought to my attention via Lou Anders in a presentation he gave at WorldCon in San Antonio. As Anders described it, the Point of No Return is the fateful decision in Act 1 that decides if we have a movie, or if the audience rushes the ticket box demanding refunds. Once the world is established, and the initiating event has made the character’s status quo unbearable, they must choose to change their scenario and set out into the rising action. Once they make a choice and cross this line, there is no way for them to return to how they were before.

From the character’s prospective, the Point of No Return can be either a life changing decision or another part of the every day. Not every story starts with a hobbit running through the paths of the Shire, waving a dwarven contract and screaming, “I’m going on an adventure!” It might be as simple as the character quitting a job in order to chase a dream career. The important aspect is that the character is making a choice to change.

Ensuring that Point of No Return in the story is a strong plot pivot does a great deal for reader empathy. Most people would rather choose to stay in the uncomfortable, but familiar status quo than risk making a change and failing or making their situation worse. Stepping out of your comfort zone takes courage and determination, two aspects that most people admire in others. By ensuring that our characters are seen to risk the hard choices to change their status quo, we win the reader’s respect for our protagonists, and in turn their empathy.

When the character starts out by making a choice, there will be consequences that follow. As the protagonist faces those repercussions, they continue to make decisions and in turn create more ripples of possibility. Instead of reacting to the antagonist, the antagonist reacts to the protagonist, and in so doing adds momentum to the growing wave. Eventually, a critical mass of cumulative action is reached and the wave to grows into a tsunami. At this point, the climax is realized and the story ends. Plotting becomes an exercise of understanding your characters and how they will react to given moves and counter moves.

In the classic dramatic story structure, the initiating event pushes the protagonist from their status quo and into the rising action. However, I feel that this model was lacking the key element of character initiative. As authors, we want our protagonists to be respected by our readers and for their actions to have meaningful consequences. To achieve this, our characters must be active. Protagonists should drive the plot as they seek to accomplish their goals, not be subject to the story’s mercies (or lack thereof).


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