Writing Tip – Turning Up the Heat Part 6: The Point of No Return

WritingHintsPhotoIn previous weeks I have been discussing turning up the heat in your story as a way to build toward the climactic event. Here are more ways to make the action sizzle.

  1. Impossible Dilemmas
  2. Double Jeopardy
  3. The Black Moment
  4. The Point of No Return
  5. All Factors Culminate at Once

Today I will focus on “The Point of No Return.”

A point of no return occurs when something happens that cannot be undone. Often, such a point comes about without a character’s input, that is, the character has no power over it, such as a crisis that starts the hero’s journey, or other factors outside of the character’s control, such as a murder, a financial collapse, or a crippling disease.

The most intriguing points of no return occur when a character makes a decision that causes it, knowing (or believing) that the decision cannot be reversed. Readers are especially engrossed when the character realizes that the decision will cause himself permanent harm but he decides to go ahead anyway, believing that it is for the greater good. In other words, he sacrifices to his own harm expecting that the harm can never be repaired. This is real love, and readers are captivated by it.

A good story has several of these points. Some are simple without high stakes, especially in the beginning stages. With each point of no return, the stakes can get higher and higher. Here is an example from Reapers:

“Familiar?” Anger flickered in her eyes. “I attended reapings before you were born, and I have followed your career ever since—” Her brow furrowing, she picked up a pill from the mattress. “What is this?”

“Candy,” I said without hesitating. “I always bring some when a dying child has siblings. Molly has two sisters.”

“Is that so?” She extended her hand, her voice calm, even in the midst of Molly’s continuing gasps for breath. “May I see your supply?”

I rose and patted my cloak, trying to ignore Molly’s travail and her family’s looks of desperation. “I gave them all away.”

“You are kind to give so much to the grieving siblings.” She sniffed the pill, then wrinkled her nose. “Or perhaps not so kind.” Pinching the pill at arm’s length, she scanned the room again, her eyes shifting from the night table to Molly to the family trio as they stood stock-still. Finally, she nodded at Colm and spoke with tightened lips. “Empty your pockets onto the bed.”

After a quick glance at me, Colm dug into his pocket, pulled out the pill bottle, and dropped it to the mattress.

Alex picked up the bottle. “An odd candy container, don’t you think?” Her tone carried only the slightest hint of sarcasm.

I focused on her gun, still visible inside her open jacket, likely a sonic gun—short-ranged, but deadly. Trying to disarm her meant I would have to kill her if I succeeded, or face execution if I failed. There had to be another way. “The pill bottle is mine. I traded for it at the shroud. I hoped to help Molly.”

Phoenix knows that his admission will cost him something, and there is no turning back from the admission. Alex will know he is guilty. The cat is out of the bag. This is a point of no return.

As you escalate the stakes in these points of no return, readers look forward to an expected peak, and you can bring in the biggest point of no return when you introduce the story’s culminating black moment.

A great example of a black-moment point of no return is in the movie Tangled when Flynn makes a decision that he believes will bring about his own death, yet he carries it out anyway because the sacrificial act will set Rapunzel free by ensuring that her hair cannot be used to imprison her. (Spoiler Alert)

If you have any questions or comments about points of no return, please post them.

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