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Monday, August 14, 2023

Using Turning Points to Nail Exposition

Hey everyone! Lately, I've been thinking and writing about turning points (also known as plot turns) . . . if you haven't noticed. And I've had a new rule of thumb developing in the back of my mind that I want to share with you all today.

And it actually has to do with exposition, which in some ways seems like the opposite of a turning point. 

A turning point (or plot turn) changes the direction, the trajectory, the story is going. It was heading in one direction and then bam! an action or revelation (or perhaps better said, an event or new information) comes along, and sends the characters in a new direction, on a new trajectory, which heads toward a different outcome. I like to think of it as being on a railroad, and the track switches, so now the train is heading toward a different destination (all metaphorically speaking). That is how turning points work. I've written about them several times, so if you need more info, you can go here, here, or here.

The biggest turning point is the climax. Notice how, visually, it turns the direction of the story.

Each act should also have a major turning point. Act II is commonly split into two parts, so there is usually a major turning point for each quarter of the story.

Nearly every scene should also have a turning point--it's just that a turn in a scene is smaller than that of an act or the whole narrative arc.

Exposition is information. So, obviously there is some connection, because information can create a turning point. Perhaps the protagonist discovers he's a wizard and has been invited to a wizarding school--that is a big revelation that completely turns the direction he was going, it completely turns his life trajectory, his destination (assuming he accepts the invitation).

But when we use the term "exposition" we are almost always referring to information that comes in elsewhere. It is information that comes before or during the rising action.

Since probably the beginning of time 😉, exposition has been a big stumbling block for writers. Beginning writers usually put in way too much. They may write long about the protagonist's likes and dislikes, or the history of the setting, or explain previous events, or over-explain magic systems. And soon the pacing is slower than a slug.

But if you don't put in enough information, then the audience doesn't have context to follow and appreciate what is going on.

So where is the balance? It can be difficult to know how much info to put in, how much to leave out, and when to relay it to the audience.

There is some okay advice floating around in the community about how to handle this: Tell the audience what they need to know, when they need to know it.

It's a good starting point, but it's a little vague.

I'd like to shed some light on handling exposition in regard to turning points.

When trying to decide what information to leave in or out, ask yourself: What does the audience need to know to make the turning point most impactful?

And in some cases, you may even dare ask, what needs to be withheld from the audience to make the turning point most impactful?

Already I feel the tension rising on the web--isn't it bad to withhold important information from the audience? Often it can be, because many beginning writers withhold the wrong things and withhold them improperly.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. That is more advanced.

Back to turning points.

As I've said time and again, there should be a turning point not only in the story as a whole (which is the climactic turning point), but there should be a turning point for each act (which is frequently referred to as a "plot point"), and a turning point for nearly every scene. The difference is that, generally speaking, the smaller the structural unit, the smaller the turn.

For example, in The Hunger Games, the climactic turning point is the stunt with the berries. After that moment, the main conflict of the story is resolved and Katniss (and Peeta) win the Games. Act II (Part II) has a major turning point as well--it's when Katniss blows up the Careers' supplies and Rue dies. An example of a scene-level turning point, would be when Katniss has her private session with the Gamemakers, and shoots an arrow at their heads. Each unit has its own rising action, peak, and falling action. Now sometimes the writer will cut the unit so we don't see the whole thing on the page (like cutting off the falling action), but let's keep this simple.

What do we need to know to make the stunt with the berries most impactful? Well, if we want to work backward, we need to know that the Gamemakers have decided there can't be two victors. We also need to know that the berries are poisonous (so Foxface needs to die from them earlier). It's also only effective if Katniss and Peeta are the only tributes left, so we need to know everyone else has died. We need to know why it's important for Katniss to keep Peeta alive. We need to know why it's important to Katniss she survives. We need to know how the society and the Games work. In short, we need to know just about everything the author tells us prior to that point.

I think we get how the climactic turning point works. And I think it's easier to see what readers need to know to make one impactful. Plus, we have the whole book to sneak in the necessary information for that moment. But I wanted to go through that to establish an example.

Let's go down a step.

What do we need to know to make the destruction of the Careers' supplies and Rue's death most impactful? Well, we need to know the Careers have replanted the mines around their supplies. If we don't know that, the explosions may still be surprising, but they will probably also be confusing. It's likely more impactful if we know there could be explosions. We also need to know where the Careers are and the fact they are hoarding supplies. For Rue's death to be impactful, we need to know who she is and how she reminds Katniss of Prim. All the pertinent information is both told (and shown) to us during the setup and rising action of Act II, Part II (if we are going off the book version).

What don't we need to know? Well, we don't need an irrelevant backstory about Katniss fixing a leak in her roof back home. We don't need a bunch of info about how the banking system works in Panem. We don't need to know about what Europe looks like in this post-apocalyptic world. Some of those things may be interesting to the writer, but writing paragraphs about them would not help make the turning point impactful. In fact, it may take away from it.

And again, this is just a rule of thumb.

Let's go down a step.

What do we need to know to make the fact Katniss shot an arrow toward the Gamemakers most impactful? Well, we need to know what the private session is and why it is important. We need to know that she is going to receive a score that will influence how many sponsors she gets. We need to know the potential consequences (the stakes) of different outcomes. We need to know the Gamemakers aren't paying attention to her.

What don't we need to know? Well, we don't need to know the backstory of the person who brought in a roast pig. We don't need a long explanation about the fancy wine the Gamemakers are drinking. We don't need to know what kind of light bulbs are used in the room.

Now if the scene and turning point were different, then maybe it would be more impactful to know those things. But for this scene, this turning point, it's not.

Think about the scene or act you are working on. What is its major turning point? What does the audience need to know to make that moment hit most powerfully?

For an act's turning point, you have more time to convey what's necessary. For a scene, you have less. But since the turning point of a scene is smaller than an act's, that shouldn't be a major problem. As you work on your scenes, you'll have to find proper opportunities to feed information that is important to the act. 

But even that may not be so difficult, because often the scenes are building up the rising action of the act, so usually that information will still somehow be relevant to the scene.

Let's talk about the very beginning of your story, which is usually where exposition is the most tricky. The audience opens the book, and essentially has zero information.

And there is just so much information you need to convey to them, so they can appreciate the climactic turning point!

While Act I tends to have the most exposition, please remember you don't need to convey all necessary information at once. You have almost the whole book to weave in info for the climax.

Ask yourself, what does the audience need to know to appreciate Act I's major turning point?

If it's Harry Potter (which has the turning point of Harry learning he's a wizard and subsequently going with Hagrid), we need to know Harry is hated and treated badly by the Dursleys. We need to know he was told his parents died in a car crash. We need to know he lives unloved, powerless, and essentially unknown in a cupboard under the stairs. We need to know the Dursleys hate anything odd, imaginative, or out of the ordinary.

If that wasn't conveyed then Act I's turning point wouldn't have been as impactful. What does it really matter that Harry belongs to a wizarding world where he is loved and famous, where he can learn magic, if we don't know he's abused by the Dursleys? Would it matter as much that Voldemort killed his parents, if he hadn't been lied to about how they died? Would magic be such a big deal if the Dursleys didn't hate anything out of the ordinary?

Truth be told, it's not that these things wouldn't matter at all or wouldn't be effective at all, but that having that information at that time makes the turn so much more impactful.

What does the audience need to know for the inciting incident to be most impactful?

In Harry Potter, we need to know that Harry is not only hated, but has no friends or other family members. If we didn't know that, the arrival of the letter wouldn't be as impactful. Because we know that, we wonder who in the world would be writing him? And how could they know he lives in a cupboard under the stairs? No one has come to visit him.

What is the turning point of the scene, sequence, or act? And what does the audience need to know to make it most impactful?

With those questions, you can better discern which information to give, and when to give it. You can then find ways to tell and show the information. Or better yet, weave it into the plot.

To show how much Harry is hated, we contrast how he is treated with how Dudley is treated, particularly on Dudley's birthday. We have a scene where they all go to the zoo for Dudley's birthday (plot). 

What is the turning point of the scene? It's when the glass over the snake's habitat vanishes. What do we need to know to make that most impactful? We need to know how Harry has been punished previously for odd things happening around him.

Suddenly it begins to become clearer and clearer what information to give, when.

I'm not going to say it will fix all your problems, but it's a darn good principle to follow.

Focus on the unit's turning point, and what info will make it most impactful.

And sometimes, as I alluded to earlier, it will give you a better idea of what information to withhold.

Sometimes not having certain information, makes the turn more impactful. Or sometimes delivering it at the most opportune time makes it most impactful.

Recently I was reworking a scene, and in the original version, the main character knew someone else would be staying at the house he'd be staying at. In the new version, I realized it would be more impactful if he didn't have that information--if he thought he was going to be staying at this house alone. In fact, I made that one of his determining factors to go to this location. (I know I'm being a bit vague, but I don't want to explain everything right now 😉.)

When he discovers someone else will be there with him, it's a big surprise that throws a wrench in his plans, but he decides it's too difficult to back out now.

So, withholding that information and then delivering it at a later time made the scene much more impactful. It went from being just information, to being part of the rising action (as it's an obstacle for him to now address).

In his book Story, Robert McKee has an adage: Turn exposition into ammunition.

This is what he is talking about.

While we need to give the audience enough information to interpret the story (they need context for what is happening on the page), it can be very effective to turn additional information into "ammunition" (often through turns, reveals, and gaps).

I could simply have my main character know Character B is going to be at the house with him from the very beginning. Or, I could instead turn that info into a surprise that throws a wrench in his plans.

Discerning this sort of thing is definitely more advanced.

And many of us have been discouraged from doing such things, because we were told so much to avoid withholding information from the audience. But like anything in writing, it's a balancing act. Don't withhold contextual info from the audience, and don't withhold info the viewpoint character knows in order to try to create false tension. (Though even then, there are exceptions and rule breaks, but they are just that: exceptions and rule breaks.)

So, at the end of all this (which I admit, are some ideas I'm still ironing out), remember to ask: What information needs to be given--or sometimes withheld--to make the turning point most impactful?

You'll be that much closer to discerning how to best handle exposition and what to deliver, when.


  1. Great post, and you have made things clear. Thank you. It will help with my current WIP.

  2. Fantastic article. I have read Mckee's book Story but I never grasped the idea of "turn exposition into ammunition" in such a way. This helps a ton!

    1. Yes, it has taken me a while to grasp as well! I liked the idea, but for a long time, couldn't quite figure out how to actually do it. Thank you!


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