Turning Points and Plot Development

When creating a backstory for your characters, it helps to write a list of turning points – times when a choice or a chance event changed the character’s life. The bigger the turning point, the more likely it is to appear in the story itself. The small turning points are things the writer needs to know in detail, but the reader might not. That doesn’t mean small turning points are unimportant. Case in point – the small decision my son made that changed my life.

My son wanted to take karate when he was six. I thought he was too young, but told him I would enroll him when he was eight if he was still interested. He was, so I enrolled him in classes. Small decision so far, yes?

Yes and no. He continued in karate, earning a black belt, but in the process my husband got interested in the sport, then my daughter. I followed along because it was something the family could do together. Small decision, yes?

Yes and no. I took classes for twenty years. I liked the discipline, the people who ran the dojo, and the other students. I’m also really bad at letting things go (as my sewing room proves), so it wasn’t until I accepted that my joints couldn’t take the impact anymore that I retired.

Here’s where plot development comes into the conversation. The effect of exercise on brain health is amazing. Moderate exercise can help maintain cognitive function well into old age. There is evidence that adding more exercise can improve cognitive function even when there is some brain damage or cognitive decay in progress. The decision to take karate doesn’t advance the plot of my life, but it does influence the quality of choices available to me as I age. If I were basing a character in a novel on me, this would be part of the backstory, but might I be able to incorporate it into plot development as well?

For instance, if my character ended up being a caregiver for a family member, I could have her family be susceptible to a disease that she avoids because of a small decision regarding diet or exercise she made years ago. That could become the basis for animosity against her by other family members who are envious of her apparently undeserved good fortune, and that is definitely part of plot development.

Luck and wisdom!

A Turning Point That Wasn’t

Last year at a memoir-writing workshop I wrote an outline of turning points in my life. This past week I was reminded of a career path I didn’t take and how grateful I am for that. When I graduated from college, I considered applying to the State Department. My father – a long-time civil servant – sorta kinda maybe talked me out of it. I found a different job, didn’t like it, moved to another city, married, moved across country, and discovered quilting. The brilliant career I dreamed of never materialized, but I’ve made art, contributed to my community, and even co-authored a series of sci fi novels (shameless self-promotion, you can buy the latest one here). Not too shabby, all things considered.

Whenever I wonder about the life I might have had, I remember 1979 and the hostage crisis in Tehran. Bruce Laingen (pictured above) was stationed there, the highest-ranking diplomat among the 52 U.S. Embassy workers held in Iran for 444 days. He was also a graduate of my alma mater, Saint Olaf College. In my imagination, I could see myself getting sent to Iran for my first posting, maybe even meeting Laingen at an embassy function and mentioning that I too was an Ole grad. Then the revolution would come, and I would be running for my life. That’s when I breathe a prayer of thankfulness for my (relatively) calm and peaceful existence.

Laingen died recently at age 96. He grew up on a Minnesota farm, interrupted his education to serve his country in World War II, then returned to complete his degree before continuing his service in government. The Iranian hostage crisis brought him to the world’s attention, and he responded with dignity, calm, and presence. He earned every bit of respect due him. I am very grateful to Laingen for showing America at its best.

Luck and wisdom!

Memoir, Turning Points, and Character Development

Linda Joy Myers has a lot of good advice for memoirists. The most useful (in my opinion) is to note the turning points in your timeline. We moved around when I was young, so those were both anchor and turning points in my list. Times when I said yes to a new challenge went in, as well as times when I ran for cover and thanked my lucky stars I got out before the (metaphorical) bullets started flying. Then I put in when I met those special people who befriended me and changed my life. That’s when I realized I was missing something.

My brother, mother, father, Dennis Franklin, and Hal Franklin (taken by me in 1966)

The man on the far right is Hal Franklin, who befriended my father and changed his life by teaching Dad about photography. Dad dabbled with photography, but having a mentor made all the difference in the world. It made all the difference in the world to me as well, since Dad introduced me to the camera. Because Dad and Hal explored creating art with their pictures, I learned – without really noticing it – that everyone can be an artist. Put in enough time to learn technique, train your eye to really see, and you can create beauty.

While I may not write a memoir with this epiphany, I will keep it in mind when I am writing backstories for my characters. Who they are doesn’t depend solely on the turning points in their own lives, but also on the turning points of those who have influenced them. Whether those influencers appear in the book or not isn’t the point. They may deserve a book of their own sometime. Can you say prequel?

Luck and wisdom!