How to build a complex plot based on a simple message (Part 7)

Part 7: The Point of No Return

Turning Point Two will bring you to the beginning of Act Three where all hell breaks loose. Everything hits the fan. And all other catastrophic clichés probably apply as well.

Act Three will be the shortest act, usually. It will be the most fast paced. And it will be the most tense. These are the parts of your plot that need to move quickly, and the tension needs to be off the charts.

We left our main character is in a horrible situation. Let’s review:

Message: Stealing is wrong.
Direction: External.
Genre: Steampunk.
Character: Confused Robin Hood.
Conflict – Turning Point One: Confused Robin Hood chooses to accept the accolades of his people even though he neither wants nor deserves them in order to preserve his relationship with his Beloved Uncle and Unlikely Maid Marian. We learn that Sheriff wants the Golden Arrow for himself (maybe we learn this, maybe we don’t, but either way it’s understood) and thinks that Confused Robin Hood knows how to use it. And he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win.
Conflict – Turning Point Two: Confused Robin Hood is forced to admit his crimes, and the people blame the Professor’s death on him. And by putting him in prison, it puts Sheriff in charge.

We are rapidly approaching what is commonly called The Point of No Return. It is the point in the story where your hero has to make a decision that will carry the plot to its eventual conclusion. The stakes have to be enormous.

How do we raise the stakes beyond where they already are?

I have discovered that the best way to raise the stakes super high is to use material you already have. Go back over what you have already created and find a point or a character that can be utilized. This not only provides an opportunity to deepening your supporting characters but it also helps the continuity of your entire novel. If you can utilize a (supposedly) minor character or a (supposedly) minor point you created at the beginning of the novel, your whole story will feel more whole. We already indicated that there is a romantic possibility between Confused Robin Hood and Unlikely Maid Marian, but so far we really haven’t explored it at all. This is a good opportunity to do that. How can we use Unlikely Maid Marian to raise the stakes?

So let’s say that when Confused Robin Hood admits that he broke into the Professor’s house and stole the Golden Arrow, that’s all he is able to say because everyone turns against him. Even Unlikely Maid Marian. He is disinherited, dishonored, and thrown in prison and abandoned. The only person he has left is Sheriff. Sheriff mocks him because he is finally normal, like everyone else.

Then, Sheriff grills him on what he wanted with the Golden Arrow and how he made it work. Confused Robin Hood, of course, has no idea what he’s talking about because he barely even looked at the thing. He just stole it and then took it back. But Sheriff doesn’t believe him and has him beaten in hope that it will loosen his tongue. But as he keeps questioning and keeps interrogating, Sheriff realizes that Confused Robin Hood isn’t going to tell him the truth. So Sheriff decides that he has to take drastic measures.

And what is a good villain going to do? He’s going to poke holes in the hero’s weaknesses.

So let’s have Sheriff order Unlikely Maid Marian brought in and tortured in front of Confused Robin Hood, trying to find out how to use the Golden Arrow. But Confused Robin Hood can’t tell him because he doesn’t know.

Just a quick note about characterization. Once you have a main character, ask what is the most important thing or person in his or her life. What is the one thing that character can’t live without? Once you identify that most important thing or person, take it away. Deprive your character of the thing or person they cherish most and see what they do. As in real life, you can tell who a person really is when they are battling the greatest sorrows. If a person is a genuinely selfless individual, even when they are suffering, they will care about the suffering of others more than themselves. If a person is a genuinely cruel individual, he or she will be cruel when they are suffering. That’s just the way people are, so that’s just the way your characters should be.

In this case, because Confused Robin Hood needs to understand what it’s like for someone to steal from him (something that can not be returned), let’s have Sheriff kill Unlikely Maid Marian. So if Confused Robin Hood witnesses the brutal murder of Unlikely Maid Marian, what is he going to do?

A note on character death? Generally, I try to avoid it. But if the death of your character(s) serves a purpose, don’t be afraid to do it. But  ask yourself if it’s worth it. Is it worth it to eliminate one character to deepen the reality and relatability of another character? Sometimes it is. Sometimes it isn’t. That choice is up to you.

So, deep in sorrow, Confused Robin Hood mourns Unlikely Maid Marian’s death, but he doesn’t have much time because he is being marched out to be electrocuted for killing the Professor. As they are strapping him into the electric chair, he sees the Golden Arrow in Sheriff’s bag and realizes exactly what happened from the clues he uncovered on his own.

He fights his way free of the execution, steals the Golden Arrow back, and flees into the woods.

Now he has another choice: he can keep running . . . or he can go back and try to set things right. He figures that there has to be something special about the arrow if Sheriff was willing to kill Unlikely Maid Marian over it, so he goes back to the Professor’s house to snoop around, even though he knows that getting caught would mean death. He uncovers a bunch of information about it that explains what the Golden Arrow actually does.

Okay. Time out.

Now is the time to answer the question, what does the Golden Arrow do?

It’s obviously an important part of this story. So we need to figure out what it is capable of doing. We already know what the Sheriff thinks it can do. But what does it actually do?

Okay, well now we can go back to our genre and setting. This is Steampunk. Steampunk is usually somewhat post-apocalyptic in a historical way.

This is our world. We can do whatever we want with it. So let’s take what we know: Common people steal from each other. Why? Because they’re bad people? No. Most likely because they don’t have enough for themselves. What is the most common thing people will steal from each other?

Food. So, why don’t they have enough food?

Well, let’s say that part of the historical steampunkish alternate universe that we’ve created is that the ground was poisoned and won’t produce crops anymore. So people are starving because they can’t grow enough food to feed themselves.

So let’s say that Professor Nottingham invented the Golden Arrow to repair the damage done to the cropland. That’s what it does. So that everyone can grow enough food to feed themselves instead of stealing from each other.

And there’s an additional thematic irony: Confused Robin Hood now holds the key to making everyone equal, just like he always did. He could have distributed his wealth among them so that he didn’t have to feel like the rich outcast. But he never thought of that. Now he is able to help them all become “equal” but he just has to figure out how to work it.

Oh, and let’s not forget about Beloved Uncle. Where is he in all this?

Well, let’s have Confused Robin Hood go to his Beloved Uncle for help, but his Beloved Uncle won’t have anything to do with him. And the people are coming to arrest him. His Beloved Uncle turns him in, and he learns that Sheriff has blamed Unlikely Maid Marian’s death on him as well.

Confused Robin Hood accepts the blame. Even though he didn’t kill Unlikely Maid Marian or Professor Nottingham, he accepts the blame and is willing to accept the punishment. He realizes that he always wanted to be just like the common people, and this is how the common people are punished. He always deserved to be punished, and so he is getting what he deserves. The people drag him out to one of the fields for a lynching, and Sheriff joins them.

This would be what I would call the Point of No Return. This is the part of the plot where your character can’t escape it anymore. He has to face up to what he’s done. Or he has to face his situation. It’s the part where everything blows up and whoever is left standing is the one who wins. At this point in the story, your protagonist can live or die.

In Part 8, we’ll talk about the conclusion.

A.C. Williams

Amy Williams left a lucrative career in marketing to write novels about space cowboys, clumsy church secretaries, American samurai, and alternate dimensions. Along the way, she also discovered a passion for teaching other creative professionals how to use technology to make life easier. Through video instruction or one-on-one coaching, she teaches software, blogging, basic graphic design, and many other useful skills that help creative entrepreneurs get stuff done minus the frustration.

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