Friday, August 08, 2014

How to Find Your Character’s Breaking Point

By K.M. Weiland, @KMWeiland  

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: There are few things in writing more enjoyable than the moment you strip everything away from your protagonist and leave them open and vulnerable to the world (okay, maybe that's just me, but trust me, it's great fun). K.M. Weiland joins us in the lecture hall today to share some tips on how to get our characters to--and past--their breaking point. And why this is so important to our stories.

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Take it away K.M...

K.M. Weiland
What one moment in your story is the single most important? The moment where the hero gets the girl? The moment when he slays the bad guy? The moment when he reaches his long sought after plot goal?

Nope, nope, and nope.

The single most important moment in your story is your character’s breaking point. Every protagonist has one, no matter whether he’s following a change arc (positive or negative) or a flat arc. And every protagonist will define both himself and his story by how he reacts to it.

Make my character suffer, you’re thinking. Yep, got it. And you probably do (most authors are pretty adept at torturing their characters). But there are actually a few important tricks to timing your character’s breaking point and making sure it accomplishes everything it needs to within your story.

Let’s take a look at the checklist:

1. Does Your Character’s Story Goal Cause His Breaking Point?

Stories are all about wreaking conflict—which usually means bad things happening to your characters. But your character’s breaking point is never going to be just any ol’ disaster that ruins his day. The breaking point is a specific structural element within your story and, as such, must be directly related to the main plot.

Ask yourself: What is the worst thing that can happen to my protagonist? Death is always the obvious answer. But how can you make it more personal? What is the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist in his pursuit of his plot goal?

Charlotte Brontë’s masterful Jane Eyre (which I analyze in-depth in my book Jane Eyre: The Writer’s Digest Annotated Classic) offers an excellent example. Jane’s goal is to marry her mysterious employer Mr. Rochester and live happily ever after. Right away, we can see that the obvious “worst thing” that could happen to her is losing Mr. Rochester.

2. Does Your Character’s Breaking Point Prove His Character Arc?

The breaking point is important not so much because it breaks your character, but rather because it forces him to a point in his personal development where he has no choice but to rise or fall. Up to this point, your character will have been wrestling with—and sometimes resisting—the changes he’s been forced to grow into. The conflict has already evolved him into a different person from who he was originally. But he hasn’t yet completed his change.

The breaking point is where he must finally choose between his old, destructive way of doing things and the new, improved way. But, as change so often does, it’s going to hurt. By this point in the story, it’s not enough that the character simply changes. He has to prove that his convictions have grown so deeply within him that he will sacrifice the thing he cares about most in order to complete that change.

Jane Eyre’s personal evolution is all about overcoming the lie that in order to be worthy of love, she must enslave herself physically or spiritually as a servant. Even her great love for Rochester has her surrendering her very self in order to be with her “master.” If she were to marry him at this point in the story, she might get the thing she wants most. But she would be sacrificing a greater personal victory. When she chooses to remain true to herself and abandon his love rather than become his mistress, she proves how her devotion to spiritual freedom has grown since the beginning of the story.

3. Is Your Character’s Breaking Point Caused by the Third Plot Point?

Now that you’ve already seen two of the very specific requirements of the breaking point, you’ve probably pieced together that the timing of this moment in the story is also very specific. Although your character will inevitably encounter many low moments in the story, the breaking point will always be linked to the Third Plot Point, which will open your Third Act around the 75% mark in your story.

The changes the breaking point causes, in both your character and the plot, will be the direct result of your character’s actions against the antagonistic force in the second half of the Second Act. And, by extension, they will be what then allows your protagonist to enter the climactic Third Act equipped to face down the final conflict.

In Jane Eyre, the Third Plot Point is the dramatic revelation, in the midst of Jane’s wedding, that Rochester is already married—to a violent madwoman locked away in his attic. Just as a good Third Plot Point will always do, this event rocks Jane’s world to its core and forces her to confront the dark truths she’s been avoiding throughout the story.

4. Does Your Character’s Reaction to the Breaking Point Move the Plot?

Story is created by the push and pull of action and reaction. For every major event in your story, your characters must demonstrate an equally major reaction. This is especially true of the major plot points, but perhaps none more so than the Third Plot Point and its breaking point. As the final important turning point in your story, the Third Plot Point will set up the character’s mindset for the rest of the story.

How your character reacts will depend on what type of story you’re writing. In positive change and flat arcs, the character will pick himself up and realizes what he lost was worth it—and/or will be worth it once he defeats the antagonistic force. He will then “resurrect” as a stronger, more determined person. In a negative change arc, the character will fail to find new inner strength or, if he does find it, will direct his energy in defeating the antagonistic force in an inappropriate way.

Just as we would expect from a character who follows a strong positive change arc, Jane Eyre rises from her breaking point determined to follow the new personal truths she has discovered. She is still soul-wounded from her great loss, but, deep down, she has become a new and stronger person. From this point on, she is determined never again to “earn” someone’s love through servitude. She will still face even greater temptations and trials, but the breaking point has equipped her to eventually overcome them.

From the very first line you write, start thinking about where your story and your character are headed and what kind of breaking point will be uniquely suited to advance your plot. A strong breaking point can make the difference between a mediocre story and one that knocks readers for an emotional loop.

About Jane Eyre: Writer's Digest Annotated Classics

"I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will..."

One of the most sweeping and enduring novels in English literature, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre has become a beloved classic and a must-read for fans of period romance. Filled with memorable characters, witty dialogue, emotional scenes, social commentary, and intriguing twists, Bronte's novel, written in 1847, still has much to teach writers about crafting exceptional stories.

As part of the Writer's Digest Annotated Classics series, this edition of Jane Eyre features hundreds of insightful annotations from writing instructor and author K.M. Weiland. Explore the craft and technique of Jane Eyre through the lens of a writer, and learn why and how Bronte made the choices she did while writing her iconic novel. The techniques learned from the annotations and accompanying study guide will aid in the crafting of your own celebrated works of fiction.

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  1. I love this explanation from KM. I've got a fairly good grasp on story structure now, and the significance of the 3rd plot point, but never thought of it as a breaking point. It makes sense. This is where the character is about to enter "the dark night of the soul," so it should be something that shakes her to the core. Thanks for the post!

  2. Thanks so much for having me today, Janice!

    @Ron: "Dark night of the soul" is just about right. But we don't want them to go gently into that dark night!

  3. I love Katie's writing advice. Her Writer's Digest book was amazing!

    1. Thanks, Julie! I totally appreciate that. So glad you enjoyed the book!

  4. Great post, writing the breaking point for my characters has always been one of the reasons I love writing, Good choice using Jane Eyre for demonstration. Also your book sounds awesome.

    1. Jane Eyre is actually one of my all-time favorite examples of a breaking point. It is so perfectly planned to dramatically and unforgettably hit the character exactly where it will hurt the most - and then propel the plot forward.

  5. This is so great K.M. I'm studying your notes thoroughly. Thank you!

  6. Brilliant, thank you. I'm quoting you in my final essay for my MA.

    1. Thanks for reading! Glad you found the post useful.

  7. Thank you for this advice. Sometimes I have really big problems thoinking of a good breaking point for my characters, so this really helped me. So, thank you again!

  8. I have three characters in this story my friend and I are writing... In total we have 6 (5 for main parts but 6 at the way end) Writing their breaking points so it moves the plot along will be tough...

  9. Breaking points for me aren't always easy to write.
    As I'm writing a series I made my male lead's breaking point happen at the end of the book after all the stuff he'd been through over two years this was the point when it was too much.

    It leads perfectly into book three and the thing that breaks him is ultimately the death of his brother and the fact that by accident he broke his vow not to kill, I hope this will really affect my readers as they've really come to care about him and his brother. Thanks for the great tips.

  10. Fantastic article. I was wondering, are a character's breaking point and the dark night of the soul moment the same thing? And how's this moment relate to the Midpoint--if there's a 'false victory' at the midpoint, it seems that could be the character's lowest point/breaking point. Thanks.

    1. Usually, yes. The darkest moment in the story is when they reach that point, and have to push past it.

      The midpoint is connected in that something typically happens then that affects the plot, and the breaking point is the result of where the story goes after the midpoint. So if it was a false victory, the breaking point might be affected by the realization that the character was wrong before, or that things weren't going the way they thought, or the midpoint sent them higher so the fall was harder and longer. It's not necessarily a direct cause, but they're both major plot points so they will be connected somehow.

      The lowest point is just before the final act, because it's the decision to go on in spite of that loss/break/event that launches the climax, or the drive to the climax. If it happens in the middle, it throws off the structure.

      You can certainly have a low point in the middle (I do in my book, The Shifter), but it'll get even worse the closer you get to the end.

      The midpoint might be a low point that makes the protagonist fully understand the stakes and how bad they are, but the breaking point is after those stakes have occurred, or on the brink of occurring with no way to stop it.

    2. Thanks so much. That helps a ton!!