Welcome to the Character Evolution Files! This monthly column focuses on character arcs, from the elements that create or enhance a character’s inner journey, to techniques that writers can employ to strengthen character arcs in their own work. Today we continue our Journey Through the Character Arc with File No. 5, which focuses on the Point of No Return (or the end of Act I).
So far in our journey through the positive character arc, we’ve covered the Trigger / Inciting Incident (Stage 1), which sparks the protagonist’s arc; and the Comfort Zone / Act I (Stage 2), where the protagonist struggles with how the Trigger affects the life he knows. However, we haven’t touched on the end of Act I yet. This scene is a major plot point on its own – it signals the moment when the protagonist leaves his Comfort Zone for good and becomes fully engaged in the main conflict, while knowing that things will never be the same. It is, in essence, the Point of No Return; and it’s significant enough to have its own stage in character evolution.
During Character Evolution File No. 5, we’ll discover why the end of Act I is so pivotal for the protagonist by discussing the stage’s key elements and its impact on false beliefs. We’ll also encounter the Points of No Return for the two characters we’ve been following on their journeys through their respective arcs. Hang on, because the road to change is about to get bumpy.
Don’t forget to follow along with our journey by using the Story Structure & Character Arc Alignment Chart. Click here to visit Worksheets for Writers and download the chart.
The Basics of the Point of No Return
In File No. 4, we established that Act I is roughly the first 25% of a story. Therefore, the Point of No Return occurs at that 25% mark, or the close of Act I. This gives readers enough page-time to get to know the protagonist and develop an understanding of what the main conflict could be about and how it could impact the protagonist. The information revealed during the Trigger and the Comfort Zone should allow for educated (and perhaps accurate) guesses, but neither stage usually confirms the story goal outright. However, the third stage does.
The Point of No Return is the scene that clearly defines the protagonist’s story goal. It comes as a result of the Trigger, which provided the first hint for that goal while bringing the protagonist face to face with his false belief. It also comes with a BANG!! In other words, this scene isn’t part of the protagonist’s day-to-day routine, but an extraordinary event like the Trigger that shakes the character to his core. Perhaps he’ll see it coming, but in most cases it will take him completely by surprise.
While the Trigger reminds the protagonist of his false belief and draws him into the conflict, the Point of No Return forces him to make a choice: He must either commit to taking action and getting involved, or do nothing. Either option has consequences. If the protagonist commits, he risks leaving his Comfort Zone and eventually shedding his false belief. In other words, committing to action could change him forever; and right now, he’s not sure he wants to change. On the other hand, if the protagonist does nothing, he most likely won’t change – and clinging to his false belief sounds like a safe, cozy idea until until he realizes what the repercussions might be. This puts a new “character evolution-ary” spin on the choice:
The protagonist must either learn to let go of his false belief and prepare for change, or do nothing and suffer the consequences.
From a writer’s perspective, the decision should be a no-brainer. Will a story about someone who fails to take action be engaging, entertaining, and memorable for readers? Probably not. So, if you’ve already planned your character’s Trigger and Comfort Zone, you already know what he’ll choose when he reaches this plot point.
As for the story goal, it’s established as a result of the choice. In that way, the protagonist discovers his story goal by accepting that he’ll need to let go of his false belief at some point. The story goal, however, isn’t the same as letting go of the false belief. It’s specific to the plot, and more physical and conscious in action – an external thread that runs parallel to the internal, more subconscious process of shedding one’s false belief.
Let’s revisit Bilbo Baggins, our example for character evolution in File No. 1. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Bilbo’s story goal is to help Thorin Oakenshield and the other Dwarves reclaim their homeland by driving out the dragon Smaug. He commits despite believing he’s not particularly brave (false belief). However, by embarking on a physical journey across Middle-Earth and overcoming one obstacle after another, Bilbo becomes more courageous. Therefore, the physical steps the protagonist takes to achieve his story goal will also help him shed his false belief.
To firmly establish the protagonist’s story goal, consider the 6 W’s: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Some of the information you’ll gather this way won’t be explicitly stated during the Point of No Return. However, answering these questions now will give you a better idea of what should happen in later stages of the protagonist’s arc:
- What Is the Story Goal? What does the protagonist hope or need to accomplish?
- Who Else Is Involved? Will other characters assist the protagonist in achieving his story goal? What antagonistic force(s) stands in his way? (Check out File No. 4 and this awesome post from She’s Novel for more on antagonistic forces.)
- When and Where Does the Protagonist Need to Reach the Story Goal? Does he have a timetable or deadline for completing his actions? Will he need to physically travel as part of the process?
- How Will the Protagonist Reach the Story Goal? What steps will he need to take? What challenges, delays, and setbacks could hinder his ability to achieve the goal? What is the cause for those obstacles (e.g., antagonistic force(s), protagonist error, circumstances outside any character’s control)?
- Why Is the Story Goal Important? What’s at stake if the protagonist doesn’t achieve his goal or fails to take action? How will he, his world, and/or the people he cares about be affected by the outcome? (If you need more information about story stakes, read this fantastic article by author Chuck Wendig.)
Remember that the story goal must be personal for the protagonist. He needs to care about the outcome if he’s going to act and become more receptive to evolving as a person. If he doesn’t, your story will lose its urgency and emotional impact – and your readers will stop caring as a result.
Finally, the Point of No Return should show the protagonist’s reaction to his choice. How does he feel at this moment? What does he do immediately afterwards? Is he determined or enthusiastic, and charges full-steam ahead? Or, is he sad or angry because he’s being dragged kicking and screaming into the main conflict? Most importantly, why does the protagonist feel the way he does? Show this reaction as the Point of No Return comes to a close using dialogue, thoughts, or physical cues and actions. This is especially important, because whatever feelings the protagonist is carrying could impact the next stage of his character arc.
Need more information to help you develop the Point of No Return / End of Act I? Check out Janice Hardy’s blog Fiction University for posts about story goals, character motivations, and the significance of stakes.
How the Point of No Return Reflects the Protagonist’s False Belief
Remember our fugitive criminal from File No. 4? This is the same character whose carries the false belief of “I can’t trust anyone.” This untruth confronted her during the Trigger, where she flees after being spotted by the police; and revisited her during the Comfort Zone, with scenes that presented different angles of her distrust. Her story goal (avoiding capture / arrest / jail time) was clear from the beginning; and with the Point of No Return, it’s time for her to fully commit to that goal.
The most logical “shock to her system” that will end Act I of her arc is a near-miss. The authorities are closing in, and the fugitive is running out of options. This forces her to make a choice: Turn herself over to the police, or ask for help. If she turns herself in – game over. The story ends with her sidestepping her false belief and giving up. Not an interesting story, right?
However, if the fugitive were to ask for help, she would once again come face to face with the lie she believes and eventually be forced to let it go. The plot would also continue, since the police would still be looking for her. Combine that with the possible arc, and we have the potential for a thrilling, compelling story.
Assuming the fugitive will ask for help, let’s use the 6 W’s to confirm and establish her story goal:
- What Is the Story Goal? She wants to evade the police so she can avoid arrest and possible jail time.
- Who Else Is Involved? Any character(s) who choose to hide her will help her achieve her story goal. Perhaps she already knows them, or they’re entering her life for the first time. The police would be the main antagonist. However, other characters might oppose the fugitive’s choice to hide or come after her if there’s a reward for her capture.
- When and Where Does the Protagonist Need to Reach the Story Goal? As long as law enforcement continues to pursue the fugitive, she’ll need to remain in hiding. Therefore, her goal is ongoing, and one that requires constant vigilance in order to be maintained. She and her new friend(s) may also need to leave the area to increase her chances of escape.
- How Will the Protagonist Reach the Story Goal? First, the fugitive will need to find someone who’s willing to help. Second, the act of hiding her will be complicated in itself. How can she be constantly and consistently kept out of sight, and out of harm’s way?
- Why Is the Story Goal Important? If the fugitive is caught, she’ll lose her freedom and perhaps what’s left of the life she knows, including any family and friends with whom she hasn’t lost touch. It’s an incredibly personal goal; and if readers care about her by now, they’ll care about her pursuit of this goal (reasons to care).
Finally, what is the fugitive’s immediate reaction to her decision? Perhaps she’s afraid of what will happen next. Her issues with trust might also make her skeptical of other people’s intentions. Her strongest emotion, however, may be her terror of being caught. It’s more potent than her desire for emotional distance – and that alone could convince her to ask for help. It will also influence her first actions after making this decision. Will she be more apt to sneak into a stranger’s home and hope for the best, or pound on the front door of the home of someone she already knows?
How Does the Point of No Return Align with the End of Act I?
As with our previous posts on arc stages, let’s see how the Point of No Return and the End of Act I parallel one another:
- Both stages occur at or around the story’s 25% mark.
- Both end the setup provided by the Comfort Zone / Act I and confirm the protagonist’s story goal.
- Both throw the protagonist off-kilter and force him to make a choice that draws him into the main conflict (and out of his Comfort Zone) for good.
- The character’s emotions and overall reaction to his decision will impact the beginning of the following stage.
- Both force the protagonist to accept that he’ll need to learn to let go of his false belief.
- Both raise the stakes and demonstrate why the story goal matters to the protagonist.
An Example of a Character’s Point of No Return Using Aragorn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings
As we follow Aragorn’s journey through the positive arc, we’ll refer to the Point of No Return basics we discussed earlier to illuminate how they play out in a story. Also, please note that these Aragorn sections will reference both the books and Peter Jackson’s film trilogy. The focus will be on film-Aragorn, who endures a more noticeable internal struggle than book-Aragorn, but the discussion will include appropriate references to the books as needed.
When we last left Aragorn, we had discovered his false belief (“I can’t be a good leader”), and he had committed to joining Frodo Baggins’ quest to destroy The One Ring. However, in true “Comfort Zone” fashion, Aragorn seems content with clinging to the lie he believes. He shows this by assuming a secondary role in the Fellowship, opting to protect his companions instead of taking the lead, a role he lets the wizard Gandalf take. In fact, notice where Aragorn appears in this iconic shot of the Fellowship (0:32 through 0:51). It’s an accurate reflection of his respect of and deference to Gandalf, and the subconscious distance he’s maintaining from the idea of leadership.
Everything changes when the Fellowship enters the abandoned Dwarvish mines of Moria. After surviving an ambush by Orcs and a cave troll, the nine companions flee to the Bridge of Khazad-dûm as they’re pursued by a Balrog. What happens next is one of the most heart-breaking scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring – and Aragorn’s Point of No Return.
Did you see how Aragorn reacted to this scene, and what he does immediately after leaving the mines? Let’s break it down using the Point of No Return keys we discussed earlier:
- Timing: Aragorn’s Point of No Return occurs on Page 371 of The Fellowship of the Ring* (31% of the book trilogy) and at the 2 hour 9 minute mark of the Fellowship movie (23% of the film trilogy).
- “Shock to the System”: Losing Gandalf is probably the last thing Aragorn (or anyone in the Fellowship) thought would happen during this quest.
- The Choice: Aragorn’s choice is to either lead the Fellowship, or let someone else do it. He chooses to take the lead, putting himself in direct conflict with his false belief.
- Confirmed Story Goal: Aragorn’s story goal (accompanying Frodo on his quest to destroy The One Ring) was already established during the Council of Elrond (see File No. 4). Now, his goal has evolved from helping Frodo to a more proactive role of ensuring their success.
- Who Else Is Involved: The surviving Fellowship members will aid Aragorn in his efforts to achieve his story goal. The antagonists include any characters (the wizard Saruman, Orcs, the Nazgûl) who pursue the Fellowship in hopes of reclaiming The One Ring for their master, Sauron.
- When & Where: Aragorn must lead Frodo and the rest of the Fellowship to Mount Doom in Mordor, the only place where The One Ring can be destroyed.
- How He’ll Achieve It: See Question #6.
- The Stakes: If the Fellowship fails to destroy The One Ring, the ring will most likely end up in Sauron’s possession, and Middle-Earth will fall realm by realm to his dominion. No one (Aragorn included) from Middle-Earth’s free races wants this to happen; and as Frodo’s friend, Aragorn wants him to succeed in his quest.
- Immediate Reaction: At first, Aragorn is stunned by Gandalf’s fall, and it takes him several moments to recover and flee for Moria’s exit. Once the surviving Fellorship members are out, Aragorn gives his first commands. No doubt he’s still reeling emotionally. Yet he knows what he needs to do for this mission to succeed, and he puts on a calm exterior for the Fellowship’s sake (and perhaps for his own, too).
- Reasons to Care: I cry every time I watch this scene, not only because of Gandalf’s (presumed) death, but also out of sympathy for the Fellowship’s loss. Yet I’m also relieved to see Aragorn assume responsibility for the Fellowship. His actions so far prove that he has the potential to be a good leader (even if he doesn’t believe it himself yet), and I’d much rather see him in charge than, say, Boromir. What do you think?
A Second Example of a Character’s Point of No Return Using Tris Prior from Veronica Roth’s Divergent
Chapter 5 of Divergent brings Tris to the Choosing Ceremony, where all of the 16-year-olds who took their faction tests must make a decision: stay in their birth faction, or choose a new one. This scene isn’t a “shock to the system,” since Tris has been anticipating it – or, rather, dreading it – since receiving her test results. However, discovering she’s Divergent (unable to fit into a single faction) has already shattered her world; and her inability to pick between Dauntless and her birth faction Abnegation scares her just as much.
Finally, Tris’s name is called on Page 47 (timing = 9.6% through the book**). As per ceremonial guidelines, Tris must cut her the palm of her hand and let her blood drip into the bowl representing her chosen faction. She wavers between Abnegation’s smoothed stones and Dauntless’s hot coals… and then lets her blood fall into the Dauntless bowl (choice).
Tris’s immediate reaction is revealed at the start of Chapter 6. She purposely looks away from Abnegation members, but chances one last look at her parents and at her brother Caleb, who had chosen to leave Abnegation for Erudite. She also notes that the boy beside her “looks as pale and nervous as I should feel.” (Page 49**) From all this, we can deduce that Tris is experiencing a whirlwind of emotions – shame, regret, doubt, and perhaps excitement. She doesn’t know what awaits her in Dauntless, but it’s too late for her to return to Abnegation now.
Choosing Dauntless – the faction of the brave – conflicts with one of Tris’s false beliefs (“I am weak”), yet it firmly sets her on the path of achieving her story goal (finding her place in society). We can also establish the remaining Point of No Return keys:
- Who Else Is Involved? We can assume that various Dauntless characters (both fellow Initiates and veteran members) will either help or hinder Tris’s ability to achieve her story goal. Tris also has the potential to be her own worst enemy and let her fear undermine her progress through Dauntless’s initiation process.
- When and Where Does Tris Need to Reach Her Story Goal? Tris will need to pass Dauntless’s initiation process in order to be accepted as a member of that faction and achieve her goal.
- How Will Tris Reach Her Story Goal? The answer to “When and Where” partially answers this question. However, we don’t yet know what Dauntless’s initiation process entails – but it probably isn’t a walk in a park.
- Why Does Tris’s Story Goal Matter to Her? At its heart, Tris’s goal is a universal ideal: Everyone wants to find where their place in the world and be accepted by others. However, if Tris fails Dauntless’s initiation process, she’ll be kicked out of Dauntless and forced to join the factionless, her world’s equivalent of the homeless. In other words, Tris’s place in the world depends on her achieving her story goal. That’s a darn good reason to care about her, right?
Questions to Ask for Developing Your Protagonist’s Point of No Return
Using the points discussed above, here are questions you can complete to develop your protagonist’s Point of No Return. Feel free to refer to your answers from the Trigger and Comfort Zone questionnaires, as well as the additional questions in this post, to ensure this third stage of character evolution flows naturally from the previous stages.
- Where does the Point of No Return occur in terms of the story’s overall page count / word count?
- What event brings the protagonist to the choice he’ll need to make?
- What choice is the protagonist forced to make? What are his options, and the consequences of each?
- What is the protagonist’s story goal as a result of this choice? How does it conflict with his false belief?
- Who will help the protagonist as he works to achieve his story goal? What antagonistic force(s) stands in his way?
- When and where does the protagonist need to reach his story goal?
- How will the protagonist reach his story goal? What steps will he need to take? What challenges will he face along the way?
- Why does the story goal matter to the protagonist? What’s at stake if he fails to achieve it or take action?
- What is the protagonist’s immediate reaction (physical and emotional) to his decision?
- What reason(s) have you given readers to continue caring about the protagonist?
What are some memorable Points of No Return / Act I endings from books you’ve read? If you’re working on a story, how would you describe your character’s Point of No Return? What choice is he/she forced to make at this point of the story, and how does he/she feel about it afterwards?
Also, please join me again in January / February for File No. 6, where we’ll cover the Struggle, or the first half of Act II.
*Reference: J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, 2001 paperback printing by Del Rey / Ballantine Books
**Reference: Veronica Roth’s Divergent, 2011 paperback printing by Katherine Tegen Books