The Heroic Journey, Part 17: The First Reversal
Turning Point #2: At 20 Percent, the First Reversal.
At about the 20 percent point of the story, corresponding to the end of Act I in the three-act drama structure, there’s the First Reversal. Something happens to transform the Hero’s new situation into a new desire and a change of plans. This will set the Hero’s external motivation for the rest of the novel, and the action is underway.
Writers should spend the first twenty percent of the novel getting the reader to the point where he cares about the Hero enough to be emotionally invested in the answer to the question, Will he make it or not? The reader must care a great deal that he does.
Sometimes, as Robert McKee says, you don’t need a whole twenty percent to get the reader to empathize with your protagonist. When the shark kills someone in the opening pages of Jaws, we immediately understand the pickle Sheriff Brody is in. “As soon as possible, but not until the moment is ripe,” is McKee’s rule of thumb for placing the First Reversal.
In The Firm it’s the point where, after suspicions have been building for a while, Mitch discovers that his law firm is actually a front for the Mob, and he has to get out. The Firm is the story of a lawyer who has to devise a plan to escape this corrupt organization without getting himself or his wife killed, and that story is established at this point, the First Reversal.
The first quarter of Thelma & Louise is all to get to the point where Louise shoots Harlan and says “You can do what you want, Thelma, but I’m going to Mexico.” That’s their outer motivation — the goal – crossing the border to Mexico. That’s what the movie is about, established at the 25 percent point. Until that point, the viewer might wonder about the point of the story.
In Die Hard, John McClain pulls the fire alarm at the 25 percent point (it’s a movie, so the turning point comes later. In novels it’s good to have the main story underway a bit earlier — around 20 percent). The terrorists now know there’s someone in the building, and they’re locked in opposition with McClain, who has crossed the threshold into confrontation with the terrorists, and they each have their goals. There’s no going back to the way things were before.
In Shrek, at 25 percent Lord Farquaad says, “You want your land back? Get the princess for me.”
The choice the Hero must make, here and at other crucial junctures, is a genuine dilemma – a choice between irreconcilable goods, or a choice between a lesser of two evils. It must be a highly significant choice, and there must be a genuine choice – one option must die when the Hero chooses the other.
Think of it as a triangle: If the Hero is at corner A he can choose what’s at B or C, but he can’t get both. The reader must know that a true choice has been made between two unique but irreconcilable desires – not between obvious right and obvious wrong, but a meaningful choice, a difficult one.
To sum up: the Hero’s been bopping along in the new world, things have gone pretty well for him, but now something happened to set him on a course for the rest of the book, following a clear outer motivation in pursuit of a tangible goal.
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