Plot Essentials: The Point of No Return

Photo credit: ~Prescott on Flickr
It's time for another plot essentials post! Now that we've talked about the inciting incident, it's time to move on to the next major plot point: The Point of No Return.

Whereas the inciting incident kicks the story off that dominos scene after scene into a novel, the point of no return is the moment in the book in which the protagonist must embrace the journey he or she's about to take and move forward, knowing full well that they will never be able to return to their normal life.

Keeping with our examples from the last plot essentials post, here are the points of no return from a couple popular novels:

  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (J.K. Rowling): There seems to be some debate online on the PoNR, but I tend to agree with the most popular answer—when Harry boards the Hogwarts Express for the first time. Up until the point, he could have hypothetically returned to Privet Drive and continued to live as he did—but after boarding the Hogwarts Express, there's no turning back. He's on his way to wizarding school, where he'll start on a new phase of his life. 

  • City of Bones (Cassandra Clare): When Clary's mother is abducted and Clary herself is attacked by a demon, her life irrevocably changes. She can't go on as a normal teenager—her mother is missing, her life is in danger and she can no longer deny that the things she's been seeing (the demons and Shadowhunters) are indeed real. 

  • Divergent (Veronica Roth): When Tris chooses to become Dauntless, she can't go back. She's made a decision that has altered the course of her life—she can't change her mind and go back to Abnegation, and even if she fails Dauntless initiation, there's no returning home. 

Similarly to the inciting incident, the PoNR isn't a plot point you should skip, either. Of course, I wouldn't list it as a plot essential if including it wasn't important. :)

Can you identify the point of no return in your WIP or favorite book? 

Twitter-sized bites: 
Working on a plot for your WIP? Writer @Ava_Jae discusses the importance of the point of no return. (Click to tweet)  
Do you know your WIP's point of no return? Writer @Ava_Jae talks identifying this plot point, with examples. (Click to tweet)


Patchi said...

And he can always choose not to board the train the next year...

Ava Jae said...

That's true, but if he hadn't boarded the train that first year, he wouldn't have been able to board it the next year. The window of opportunity would have passed.

Patchi said...

Then maybe the PoNR is when Hagrid tells Harry he's a wizard. His "normal" world shatters and there was no choice about it.

Ava Jae said...

That was one of the other debated points I'd seen online. I think that's fair, too, though I picked the train because technically, Harry could have gone home even after Hagrid told him he was a wizard and got him his things for Hogwarts.

RoweMatthew said...

This is an interesting fact to consider right now. I'm not sure about my point of no return right now. If it is what I think it is then it's quite late in the novel. I wonder if that is a problem.

Ava Jae said...

Well. This is going to be a long answer because I have a lot of thoughts here. I'll respond to each paragraph in order, since that seems the easiest way to do it.

First: YES. I can't stress enough how valuable and important critique partners are—not only do they help you improve your manuscripts, but they help you to improve your skill as a writer as well. I talk more about why they're so important in this post and share some tips on how to choose good CPs here. Absolutely 100% make sure you take the time to find several good critique partners. If you're unsure of where to start, you can take a look at this post.

Second paragraph: I can pretty much guarantee that every writer ever shares the same fears—and that includes those who have agents and/or are published. If being a writer is your dream, don't let this fear hold you back. We all worry about not being good enough or not being as successful as our peers, but the best we can do is keep our heads down, refuse to compare ourselves to others and write. Don't worry about the future, or whether or not your writing is good enough—finish your manuscript and revise and edit and revise and edit and trade with critique partners and do everything you can to make it the very best it can be. Don't worry about anyone else. Their journeys are not yours.

Third paragraph: critique partners could definitely help you with this. You can also send me questions via Twitter or my contact page any time, and I'll do what I can to help. :) As for starting a catfight—I recommend you avoid this always. Being negative or starting a fight online will never help you, regardless of what stage you're at in your career. I, for one, aim for positivity and politeness. If someone is nasty to you (which unfortunately happens), the best thing you can do is either a) ignore it or b) answer very super politely, without any nastiness. Ignoring tends to be easier.

Fourth paragraph: Please read this post.

The short version is this: If you write and you love writing, you're a writer. You don't need to write everyday or write consistently to be a writer. Sure, those things helps, but not all writers work the same way—I know of at least one traditionally published author who has publicly stated that she doesn't write every day, she writes in spurts and that's what works for her. Everyone is different. If you write and you love to write, you're a writer. Period.

Finally, you're very welcome. I try my best to answer every (appropriate) comment left here, and I hope some of what I've said helps. Like I said above, if you have any further questions, don't hesitate to ask. You can continue the thread here, contact me on Twitter (I'm @Ava_Jae) or use my contact page to e-mail me.

I wish you all the best! :)

Ava Jae said...

Hmm, well the Point of No Return should be within the first 25% of your book, because it's part of what sets the character off on the journey that becomes the rest of the book or series. Maybe you just haven't identified the right event?

Robin Red said...

Does the Point of No Return have to be the protagonist's decision?

Medvekoma said...

Not at all. I mostly read classic literature, and the point of no return is often forced onto the protagonist. In "Mademoiselle de Scudéri" by E.T.A. Hofman, the protagonist is pushed right at the begginning at dagger-point into the story, in Schiller's "Intrique and Love" one of the protagonists is forced to write a letter, which will later set off an avalanche. She does no have a choice, because she's got a nobleman with a blade behind her.

RoweMatthew said...

Well my story is basically the main character's choice to change her world, the inciting incident being meeting someone who can guide her, and theoretically she could back out at any point and just quit, but once she angers the wrong people there's no way she can be free and he life becomes something she didn't expect. I think it would just squeeze in the first quarter

Lucy said...

Alright so I get your point but what if you have the ideas in your head? Like you have the whole story planned out yet you can't seem to write it down on paper. Ever since I can remember from middle school I've loved writing and I still do but every time I try to continue my story it just seems like I can only make a few sentences and it's really starting to bug me. I mean it's not that I don't believe in myself. I do, it's just that I can't seem to get my words onto paper and it's been like that for a year now. I'm really starting to worry!

Ava Jae said...

So...this may be a little tough to hear, but it sounds to me like this is something you could potentially push through by just writing.

The thing is, a lot of times we get caught up in thinking that the writing isn't good enough, or it won't live up to the idea, or some other fear related to failure or bad writing, and it can paralyze us. But the key is to write despite the fear and despite the fact that you don't think it's very good.

First drafts don't need to be written well, in fact, most times they aren't. But the point of writing a first draft isn't to write a good book, it's just to get the story down from start to finish. You can make it good later while revising.

Don't worry about writing something decent. Just do everything you can to finish the story.

Lucy said...

Hm...Yeah. Guess you have a point there =) Thank you for answering :)

Ava Jae said...

You're very welcome! Good luck!

LiNCOLN PARK said...

EVERY SINGLE TIME I write another novel, I am scared shitless. There is so much effluvia out there highlighting what kind of novels are selling/ what readers want/ what is IN, etc.; until I often question my ability to connect with readers on any scale, whatsoever. For example -- I am NEVER going to write about fanged, teenaged angst; fairies, faeries, non-bathing elfinkind or Fabio-foppish thrusting on lonely housewives in period garb -- so I begin to feel that I should just stop paying storage on my cloud drive and let my unfinished work slip into digiblivion. That being said -- here the heck I am -- pecking my nail polish away on another attack of word-processed rumination (and perhaps, ruination LOL).

Ava Jae said...

Personally, I think the important thing is to write what you love and what you want to write. The market is always changing and it's impossible really to write to market, because by the time you have something ready, the market has changed again. So it's good to be aware of what's going on, but in the end? Write what you love. :)

Dawson said...

I have been fearing the fact that I am losing my writing abilities, among other areas of academia. It all began one night as I wrote, as I had been for the last month. Suddenly, I lost all of my talent for writing. Assuming it was just a fluke, I continued to write.

There was a clear distinction in the periods of my writing. Prior to that night, my writing was fluid, had a good flow and complex character development. Post-Night, there was a steady declination of my writing skills. Shortly following those, I began to lose my common knowledge of academics. I went from a B and A student to a D and F average.

Since then, I've attempted to write more, with limited success. I feel like perhaps it was triggered by stress?

(My dad died, my mom had a brain hemorrhage, my brother almost went to jail, my dogs died, I was stuck in another city in a treatment facility and I was under a ton of stress from other residents every day.)

Ava Jae said...

Well, first and foremost, you've been through quite a lot so yes, stress can absolutely affect many areas of your life, academia and writing included.

That being said, what you're experiencing with your writing not being as "good" as it was before is totally normal (even without the stressors).

Here's the thing, when you're first drafting anything, it's not meant to be the essence of perfection. Sometimes when you write, you'll have a great writing day and the writing will seem cleaner than usual, and that's great, but there are also many times when the opposite will be true, and that's okay too. (I've written entire manuscripts comprised mostly of "off" days).

So don't worry about your writing not coming out as good as it did. You can always go back and fix it when you're revising, which is what revising is for. :)

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