Every Story Has a Tipping Point (Plus, an Invitation)

Good stories are made up of moments: good moments, bad moments, but most of all, life changing moments.

Every Story Has a Tipping Point

One of my favorite writing quotes from Robert McKee’s famous book Story is, “The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but to give us a lifetime.”

“The mark of a master is to select only a few moments but to give us a lifetime.” —Robert McKee

Some call the moments in a story scenes or beats or plot points.

A writer’s job is choose the best, most essential moments in a character’s life and throw the rest out. (Share that on twitter?)

You only get so many moments to share in your story. Choose them wisely.

What Makes a Good Moment?

All the moments you share in a story revolve around a tipping point.

What is a tipping point?

A tipping point is that moment that changes everything, when a character is forced to make a decision, take a stand, or do something he or she usually would not.

A moment that changes his or her entire life.

Does your story have a tipping point when all the pent up tension in a character and plot get released in one, surprising decision.

Tipping Points Are Rare

I think everyone has at least two or three tipping points in their lives, but tipping points are rare. These are not every day moments, and that’s why they make such good stories.

Examples of tipping points might include:

  • A character’s decision to get romantically involved with someone
  • A private detective’s decision to discover the truth behind a perplexing case, despite his misgivings
  • In a horror story, the decision to enter a foreboding place (e.g. a haunted house, a creepy island, a graveyard after midnight)
  • In a fantasy story, the hero’s decision to begin a quest
  • In a thriller, the protagonist’s decision to sacrifice it all in order to rescue another

The Key to Every Tipping Point

Did you notice a pattern in the examples above?

They were all decisions.

The psychologist and philosopher Victor Frankl said, “A human being is a deciding being.”

If your protagonist does not decide, he or she is not a protagonist but a side character only tangentially important to the plot. Ignore this character until you find a character interested in making a decision.

A story where the character isn’t sucked up into some greater purpose, a quest, a mission, a love affair, is a boring story.

Is your protagonist making a decision that will change his or her entire life? If not, find a new protagonist!

How about you? Does the main character in your story have a tipping point that changes his or her life? Let us know in the comments section!

Invitation to a New Writing Contest

I’m very excited to announce that this month we are partnering with Wordhaus literary magazine to host a new writing contest based on this theme.

Wordhaus Fiction Writing Contest

Winners will get the chance to be featured on Wordhaus magazine AND here, on TheWritePractice.com. We’d love to have you participate.

The contest’s theme is Tipping Point—that moment that changes everything, when a character is forced to make a decision, take a stand, or do something he or she usually would not. A moment that changes his or her entire life.

You can learn more and join the fiction writing contest here. Sign ups for participation in the contest close Friday, May 15, but make sure to sign up today!

Get published! Join our new writing contest hosted jointly with Wordhaus literary magazine. All writers who enter will have the option to get published. Click here to learn more and join the writing contest »

PRACTICE

A character is about to make a decision that will change the course of his or her entire life. What is the decision? What makes the decision so difficult to make?

Write about the decision for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, share your practice in the comments section. And if you share, please be sure to give feedback on a few practices by other writers.

Have a tipping point story you’d like to submit for publication? Click here to learn more about the fiction writing contest we’re hosting this month.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Joe,

    Great thoughts on tipping points. Your real-life examples were especially helpful in illustrating the true nature of a tipping point.

    I also discovered the primary problem with the protagonist in one of my finished drafts. She’s just along for the ride and makes only two decisions. One at the beginning (which I supposed could be considered a tipping point… she lets a stranger into the house in the middle of a blizzard) and another at the end, when she takes action to save his life.

    I’ve never been completely happy with her.

    Now I know why!

    Thanks and best wishes,

    Carrie

    • Meredith Whitt Burns

      I felt the same way about my heroine. Now that I’ve had her make a conscience decision to do something — and not just being along for the ride — I’m much more excited about her.

  • Love the idea of the tipping point. I wrote a story called “The Outlaw” recently in which my main character had to make a major decision in order to save his daughter. It was a definite tipping point.

    The contest sounds exciting. I’m going to sign up now.

  • Joanna Aislinn

    Tipping points sound like point-of-no-return decisions.

    My protagonist has to decide whether or not to discontinue her husband life support.

  • Kim Wilson

    thanks for your help i didnt know about tipping points theres always room for improvement thanks a zillion joe

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  • Eliese

    This post is so true and helpful. Here is the end of something I wrote a while back for a contest. Definitely has a tipping point, I think.
    ~

    “Join me?” She offers.

    I should kill her. She is a murderer. I think of the innocent lives she has stolen, about the skinny boy at the farm, but then I look at her. Her strawberry blond hair shimmers beneath her hood, her body has slight curves now, and sore pimples mark her face, but to me, she shines.

    I can’t kill my daughter. Everyone deserves redemption.

    “Okay.” I say looking down.

    “You will come? You will help me?”

    I kiss her bumpy forehead. “I will do whatever it takes.” I answer.

    The pregnant clouds above can’t hold onto their weight any longer. They release heavy pieces of snow that begin to cover the corpse we leave behind. The earth will soon be white and new.

    • Joanna Aislinn

      Definitely includes a tipping point.mlove the descriptions!

      • Eliese

        Thank you 🙂

    • Meredith Whitt Burns

      Definite tipping point and beautiful descriptions. I want to know happens next. Good job!

      • Eliese

        Thanks 🙂

    • Well, let’s hear it for tipping to the dark side. I’m wondering how close he/she was to falling that way to begin with.

  • Meredith Whitt Burns

    This post was amazingly helpful! Like Carrie mentioned I realized after reading this post that my heroine was just along for the ride, or worse, a damsel in distress. But when I had her make a conscience decision in the face of her worst nightmare, this is what happened …

    When Sara sees the man who raped her six years ago, her first instinct is to run. Grabbing her daughter’s hand she tries to get away, but there are too many people ambling along River Street window shopping for her to run. She jumps off the brick sidewalk and onto the cobblestone road. The rapist grabs her daughter, lifting her into his arms and takes off with her.

    “Mommy!” Caley squealed hysterically.

    Sara yells for help, hoping one of the many tourist on River Street will help her. A man springs into action to try to stop the rapist from taking her daughter. The rapist turns and shoots the man, killing him right in front of Sara.

    Sara is hurt and she’s terrified beyond belief but she refuses to let the man who raped her take her daughter. He has already taken too much from her already. She runs after them, following him into the lobby of the River Street Inn. She sees him stick a key into a door off of the lobby. She runs after him. The last thing she wants to do is to leave her little girl with that man. She jams her foot in the door just as he is closing it. They lock eyes and she shudders. She thinks this is the first time she has ever looked into those menacing brown eyes. He opens the door just a bit. When he does, she forces her way into the room.

    • Eliese

      This is a great start, full of action. I do think it would be nice to make this longer and really get into Sara’s head to see what she sees and feels. For example, instead of telling us she saw the man who raped her, she could describe him, or add a tag that makes him memorable ( like a scar, or hairy hands :P). Or instead of saying the rapist kills the man, you could describe the wound, how he falls to the ground, his lifeless eyes. Then describe Caley’s horrfied face which shows that she will never forget. Just ideas. 🙂

      This will be a really neat peice I think, very emotional. Would be interesting to read.

    • Like Eliese I think this could use some refining, but the assignment was for a 15-minute writing practice, and I think this captures it. She is driven by a mother’s instinct to confront the demon that has haunted her. But, it’s more than maternal feelings; she is taking control of her own life, a life she has put together in the past 6 years since the incident. And, he’s become less than a demon; he’s become a man.

      We don’t know why the rapist would want to be bothered with a child. I’m not a rapist, but it seems to me that the driving force would not be simply to hurt somebody without sexual gratification; it seems like it would be about the sexual gratification and then split. I suppose it’s possible that the idea is more sinister and ugly with regards to his intentions with the child, but I didn’t get that idea from the encounter. “lifting her into his arms” gives a paternal feel, regardless of the circumstance.

      But, the action is there. The speed, the desperation then it all suddenly stops at the door when they lock eyes. I think that varying sentence length could bring this out more. Longer sentences, and then “They lock eyes.”

  • LilianGardner

    Thanks for this post on the tipping point. I’m working on a story to share. With ‘the tipping point’ in view, my protagonist will make decisions which will add interest to the story, and make it worth reading.

  • Driving down the interstate she came upon the sign overhead for a fork – I10 to the right and I35 to the left. I10 to home; I35 to the unknown. What would happen if she stayed where she was in the road? What would happen if she didn’t merge to the right and continue on the highway that led to her home and to the life in which she had been complicit? She had felt this yearning so many times, but today without the rush hour to dampen her spirits or the setting sun to tell her that this day was over and she had missed her opportunity, with the sun overhead at midday, with traffic moving at a decent pace, today the longing grew irresistible and she “accidentally” drove past her exit. She suddenly weighed 50 pounds less. The weight of the dread and the indecision had blown out of the window back at the fork in the road, and she could feel them whipping around higher and higher in a whirlwind created by the wake of her car driving 75 mile per hour down the sunny, open Interstate 35 to God-only-knows-what. She could breathe.

    • Eliese

      Nice! I love the freedom she feels with her choice. It could also lead to many conflicts, and yet I imagine she made the right choice because of her feelings. Neat tipping point.

      • Thank you, Eliese. This was not part of a story in progress; I just created a tipping point. I’m wondering where the ideal location inside a story would be. I’d say either 1/3 of the way into the story or 1/3 away from the end. The words “Tipping point” seem to indicate it should be toward the end, as part of the resolution.

        • Eliese

          I agree with you. 1/3 into the story or away from the end works nicely, but I also feel like a tipping point could work at any point in a story. It can be a really interesting opening, or a resolved, slightly ambiguous end. It could almost be anywhere in the story, in my opinion.

    • Gary G Little

      Not fair. You intrigued me and I HAD to find out were I-10 and I-35 intersected. I used I-10 for 40 years when I lived in So. Cal. and I-35 for the 10 years I’ve lived in Minnesota. You might use the dash between the I and the number though. They do, by the way, intersect. 🙂

      • 🙂 They intersect in my home town of San Antonio, TX. One goes off to El Paso and then L.A. the other north to Austin, Dallas and then… I don’t know where…

  • Gary G Little

    Tipping points can be part of the environment, not necessarily for an individual. This is just a normal situation causing normal folk to do abnormal things.

    Tom, Paul, and Richard. The Mousketeers, as coined by their fellow employees. Tom, older, portly, and mustachioed, blonde hair mostly turned to gray, was nearly always the first one to arrive, and began the first pot of coffee. Paul, middle aged, tall and skinny as a rail, hairline definitely suffering male pattern baldness, and one of the fastest typist in the building, if not the country, usually arrived just about the time the coffee finished. Richard, you only called him Dick once, the younger of the three, was to hear him say it, “just right”; not too tall, not to short, not to fat and not to skinny, but he was completely bald. Most of the time he walked in with Paul, or just before. Once everyone had their coffee, they convened in Tom’s office to plan the days attack on the code du jour.

    Tom’s office, while not pristine, was comfortably cluttered, and the only one of the three that had chairs available for sitting. The bookshelf over his desk was loaded with tomes for operating systems and compiler languages. Long rows of glossy magazines from various computer companies slumped and sagged against more books that were used as bookends. If you could smell a dead software bug, the air would be filled with their pungent aroma, for many a bug had been slain in this office.

    Tom walked to his chair, slumped his bag off of his shoulder, winced from his bursitis, and hung his coat and ball cap on the hook behind the door. He sat down on his old comfortable chair, the cushion sighing as it took his bulk, and the mechanism squeaking as he leaned back. Turning to the keyboard, he pressed the power on button, and sipped his coffee. When the monitor displayed the login request, he entered his user name and password. Paul and Richard, coffee cups and tablets in hand, entered, and without greeting, the day began.

    “So, looks like QA finished testing the latest build,” Tom said studying the morning report from Quality Assurance.

    Paul hit the Home button on his tablet, scanned his thumb print, opened the Daily Log app and scrolled to the latest QA results. “Good. They passed the driver communication issue. The blue-tooth stack is now finally talking to the data logging stack,” he said.

    “Finally. I didn’t think we’d ever find that one,” said Richard. “Stupid syntax error. Jones left out a comma and then fixed the damn closing parenthesis error that cropped up instead of checking the parameter count for the subroutine he was calling. Good catch Tom.” He too had logged into his tablet and was scrolling through the QA results.

    Tom was looking out his window when he saw something that was fascinating. The power lines in the distance, strung between two huge towers, began swinging. He could tell, because the round orange balls in the middle of the lines were gently moving back and forth. Almost at the same time, he could see the cars in the far part of the parking lot begin moving up and down, like a wave was moving through them and they were nothing but corks. Then he saw an actual wave, not huge, not a towering wall, just a few inches, but definitely there, in the parking lot asphalt, and definitely coming his way.

    “What the,” Tom started to say and then everything started to shake. Tom’s desk was probably the largest desk in the building, other than mahogany row, and also the sturdiest with a massive oak pillar at each corner. Without saying anything, three human butts were all that could be seen under that desk.

    The shaking went on for long seconds. Books pelted down from the book shelf, followed by the book shelf, followed by the ceiling light fixture impacting squarely in the middle of the desk. Tom’s keyboard, and then the monitor, made it to the edge of the desk and then bounced off Tom’s butt on the way to the floor. In the lab, more light fixtures could be heard crashing down from the ceiling, as well as one or two unsecured server bays tipping over.

    “Holy shit,” came an expletive as the shaking began to subside. Then there was silence. Car alarms and distant sirens were the only things that could be heard.

    “Tom, you ok?” Paul asked as he stood up.

    “Yeah, monitor spanked my ass, but that has enough padding. You? Richard?”

    “I’m good,” Paul said.

    “Me too,” came Richards response, followed by some choice Latino expletives. “Watch the cables from the ceiling, I think they’re still live.”

    Tom, rubbing a bruised backside, surveyed his office then said, “Paul, if you can, and no one needs your help, secure the nightly backup. People first. Ricard and I will see if anyone else came in early and see if we can turn off the main light switch.”

    Paul was out the door and heading to the lab, as Tom and Richard began walking the hallway, banging on, and opening doors.

    Hours later, sipping coffee from a paper cup, Tom considered his two co-workers. It had been an interesting day, and had little to do with software bug hunts. The earthquake was already called the Hemet quake, and been measured as a 6.5. Damage in their building, other than a few light fixtures, had been minimal, with only one injury serious enough for the doctor. One of the interns had been burned when the coffee pot fell to the floor and had splashed hot coffee on her. The servers that had fallen, had been returned upright, damage assessed, parts replaced, and everything was back on line. Maintenance had managed to get most of the light fixtures back up and working again. Even Tom’s monitor had been replaced with a new 32″ clear screen.

    “So, homs, when were you planning on telling us about your retirement?” Richard asked.

    “You know?”

    Paul winked and said, “Who wrote the HR program?”

    “Oh, yeah, that,” Tom mumbled.

    “Besides,” Richard said, “Paul has to get used to me as the chief Mouseketeer.”

    Paul choked on his coffee.

  • “If your protagonist does not decide, he or she is not a protagonist but a side character only tangentially important to the plot”

    This line hit home for me. Protagonists are not scared to make big decisions. I refuse to be a dilly-dallying minor character in the absorbing story of my life. I will make the big decisions and forge ahead and leave the hesitancy to the side characters.

    Thank you.

  • Thomas Furmato

    The board meeting was about to start in about five minutes. He stood in the large familiar office near the windows, his hand resting on the folder, his eyes gazing through the open blinds. Even at this angle, three floor up, he could find where the front walkway met the parking lot, where the old bike rack was. He remembered when he first lobbied for that to be placed there, he was nine years old. His dad had sat right behind this same large block of a desk.

    Now he stared down at Maria, her long curly black hair draped patiently waiting for him as she leaned on the gray metal pipes. She would wait for him, he knew that. It wouldn’t take long, just an hour long meeting, then everything could go on as normal. The folder shifted under hand on the desk, almost falling to floor. He drew his attention to it for a moment and repositioned it. Then he slowly lifted his hand off of it and gave it his full attention. Did he want everything to return to normal?

    He glanced back out the window. An elderly woman had stopped and was engaged in Maria’s animated figure, obviously talking about something passionate, keeping the woman entertained. He wanted to go down to her and just be by her side when she was like that. It was a wonderful feeling just to know he belonged to her, and she belonged to him. But, there were duties that he had to step into now. He picked up the folder and held it at his side like a school book. Turning from the window he walked down the hall with a fading image of that long dark hair in his mind. She would wait for him.

    • I’m intrigued. He seems to have made the decision, but we don’t know what it is. At least I haven’t figured it out. But, I love the setting and the way time seems to stand still for this moment. This was well written.

      • Thomas Furmato

        thanks eArnie. I purposefully wanted the reader to be a part of the decision, don’t know if that was a good idea or not, just thought I’d do it.

  • LilianGardner

    This writeup took me a little more than fifteen minutes, to get to the tipping point.

    The sun shone fiercely on the city of Bombay and people
    everywhere tried to avoid it’s direct rays.

    Sheila Barclay lived with her parents in flat of a
    three-storied building on the outskirts of the bustling city.
    She lifted the gaudy cotton sheet hanging over the front door,
    hoping for a faint breeze to refresh her, but there was none. She stood awhile,
    to watch the bare-foot under the trees, kicking an old football and wondered
    how they managed to send it way across the field, without hurting their toes.

    Her thoughts turned to Desmond, the man she loved deeply. A
    small smile played on her lips as she pictured him with their eyes locked, his
    love pouring out like sweet wine from their depths. She longed to be in his
    arms.

    Her mother’s croaky voice rudely jerked her out of her thoughts.

    ‘Dreaming again, beti (daughter)?’ She asked, and continued,
    ‘Tomorrow Javed will be here at ten. I will oil and wash your hair today, and do
    the other beauty treatments this afternoon. I bought a bottle of sweet perfumed
    oil, to massage you with before your bath, but we’ll do that tomorrow. You must
    look pretty and be perfumed for your first encounter with your future husband.’

    Sheila turned to her mother. ‘I don’t want to meet the man. I saw him through the shutters. He’s fat and greasy and I don’t like him one bit. I do not want to marry him. Please help me Ma. Tell my father that I can’t marry someone I don’t love,’ she
    pleaded.

    ‘Come, beti, (daughter) we’ve gone over that before. It’s not a question of love. He asked for your hand after he saw you that day at the fair. You father visited him, and after a few meetings, agreed to give you in marriage. You know you must meet before we set the wedding date. During the three month before marriage, you’ll learn many things, and especially how to please your husband. He says you are beautiful. All men want a beautiful wife. I have spoken to him and he seems quite nice’.

    ‘Honestly, Ma. I do not want to meet him. Suppose I refuse?’ Sheila asked, tears misting her eyes.

    ‘You can’t do that!’ her mother said, shocked. ‘Papa will be humiliated, and he’ll beat you and me too, and force you to meet the man he has chosen for you. Better not to anger him. After all, Javed is a wealthy man and comes from a top class family, Just think, you’ll live in a big house with garden, have servants and many things that your father could not give you’. Pause. ‘I think you should wear the pink, silk sari and silver sandals to match the embroidery,’ she added, changing the subject and coaxing her daughter while smoothing back her sleek, dark hair. ‘Forget that Anglo India boy. He’s poor. I know he’s polite and has good schooling, and that you like him because he’s a Christian, like us, but beti, be reasonable; what sort of future will you have with him?’

    ‘Is that what Papa is after? Money? Trading me for money? What does he think I am? I wish I were as free and as lucky as my brothers. Why are women ruled by their fathers, mothers, brothers, and husbands,’ she blurted with indignation. Her mother was too shocked to answer. ‘I want to be alone, please Ma,’ she said, and stormed off to her room, locking the door behind her.

    I must tell Desmond about it. I will not let anyone take his place. With Auntie Molly’s help, we’ll run away, she planned. Molly was a long-standing family friend who helped raise the Barclay children, and Sheila was her favourite.

    She slipped on her sandals, tidied her hair, and informed her mother that she was making a visit to her aunt to tell her about Javed’s visit tomorrow. Her mother smiled; pleased, thinking her daughter had a change of mind and accepted the proposal for an arranged marriage. ‘Give my best wishes to Molly,’ she said, ‘I know she is your good friend’.

    ‘I will do, Ma. I’ll be back for lunch,’ she replied, forcing a smile while her dark eyes smouldered with wrath behind sunglasses.

    As she walked down the narrow path, she planned on how to escape from her forthcoming marriage. I must see Desmond, to plan together. He’ll be overjoyed that I finally agree with him to get away from it all. We need Molly’s help. I know I can count on her.

    She continued her walk, light hearted from knowing she would not marry Javed. She would meet him next day, as planned, and avoid vexing her father.

    There’s enough time to plan my escape with the man I love. My fate lies in my hands and i will change it, she reflected, revelling in her decision.

  • alanam13

    I’m not entirely sure how you can support that writing contest, or encourage anyone who is hoping to be a professional writer to join it. They make you pay $20 to sign up for the writing critique, which unless I’m reading incorrectly, is required to be published at the end of the contest.

    Good writing critique is worth paying for– not that that’s how they’re marketing this– and it’s true that many contests will require a small reader’s fee. But $20 to be published on a site that doesn’t pay its submitters ANYWAY and you can’t even get paid in something like a physical print copy? Why encourage writers to think being paid in “exposure” is acceptable?? It just makes it okay for publications to continue not paying writers for their content, while the publications make money off that content in the form of ads & subscriptions or web traffic, and NO writer benefits from that.

    As the old artist saying goes, “you can die from exposure.”

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  • Oliver Holsten’s Turning Point
    By Kiki Stamatiou a. k. a. Joanna Maharis

    Oliver Holsten was a fixture on the wall from the time he was a small child. He’d go to social gatherings, but know one would ever notice him.

    At these social gatherings, women would be wearing fanciful gowns made of blue velvet, chemise, or some other expensive fabric.

    All his life he’d was very shy about approaching a young lady he had his eye on.

    One day while walking down the street, he wasn’t watching where he was going. Instead of looking in front of him, he liked to look all around at the scenery. In particular, he was admiring some birds trotting on the ground, eating some bread crumbs others dropped, when he bumped into a beautiful lady.

    “Watch where you are going, my good sir. You are very rude,” she snapped at him, and went on her way.

    Oliver was so intrigued by the woman’s beauty, his words failed him, even to apologize.

    He followed slightly behind the woman to see where she lived.

    She resided at 103 Brickman Street, in one of the apartments in the complex.

    “I think I’m going to ask my good friend Winslow if he could give me the apartment number of this beautiful creature. He passes through this way on his mail route. This apartment complex is one of his stops. Ah, there’s the mail truck now,” he chirped as he ran over to the mail truck to greet his friend, “Winslow, my friend,” offering his hand for a handshake, “Can you give me then name and apartment number of a beautiful lady of elegance who lives in that particular apartment complex,” he asked while point to the complex.

    “I think I know whom you are referring to. That would be Ms. Alice Chime. She is an heiress to the Chime’s Department Store franchise. If you’d like, I can introduce you to her, if she’s home,” Winslow smiled as he grabbed his mail bag from the back of his truck and proceeded with Oliver into the apartment complex.

    “I’m certain she’s home. I just saw her enter the apartment complex a little while ago. I don’t make it a habit of approaching strangers, especially beautiful ladies nor any lady at all. But I must come to know this beautiful creature,” he shrieked in delight while waving his hands in the air, and clapping a couple times.

    “Here she comes now, my good friend. Good evening, Ms Chime. Beautiful weather we’ve been having today, my dear,” Winslow smiled, as he handed over her mail to her.

    “Yes, Winslow. Indeed it is. Thank you for my mail. It’s always a pleasure talking with you,” she said as she started to walk away.

    “Uh madam. If you please, I’d like to introduce you to someone,” he smiled.

    Turning around, looking at him in bewilderment, she replied, “Okay.”

    “This is my good friend Oliver Holsten.”

    “Him?”

    “I, I, I’m terribly sorry to have bumped into earlier today, madam. If you will accept my apology, I should like to take you to a lovely café down the road. If you’d like, we can walk, talk and get to know one another,” he smiled while taking off is hat to her, and bowing his head.

    “Well, alright sir. But only for coffee and chatting a while. After that, I must come back home. I’ve an appointment tomorrow.”

    © Copyright, Kiki Stamatiou, 2015