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Dominos-by-Phillip-Taylor-860.jpg?resizeDo you ever get the feeling that things are about to change? I mean, really change? Like, if you were to describe it in terms of the weather, it wouldn’t be just—“oh hey, it looks like rain,” but much more like, “Winter… Is… Coming!” As in, cue the Cate Blanchett-as-Galadriel voiceover:

“I feel it in the water.

I feel it in the earth.

I smell it in the air…”

I have this feeling now. Indeed, I’m aware of a major milestone—one that’s been long upcoming. I’m inside of a month till the publication of my debut. But it’s starting to feel like something more than just a day of rain or shine. Of course I’ve presumed for many years that this fast approaching day would eventually come. But I’ve already met so many great people, and experienced so much kindness and wonder because of it. I’m starting to sense that my life is going to continue to change in ways I could never have anticipated, and really still can’t.

Anyway, the phenomenon has me thinking about turning points, and how important they are to our lives—how unplannable and unavoidable they are. About how many steps are required on the way to them. All of which got me thinking about how these things apply to our characters’ lives. I thought delving into the phenomenon would be beneficial to me, and hopefully to you, too.

Milestones Versus Turning Points

As I say, the publication of a debut is something we know is coming. At some point it becomes an actual day on the calendar. I think the important dates and milestones of our lives—births, deaths, weddings, debuts, etcetera—are more like mere steps than the sort of turning point I’m trying to describe. Looking back on my own major turning points, I can see that it’s always taken a series of events to bring them about. Some are obvious, but others are more subtle-not so obvious as they happen, but hindsight reveals their crucial impact.

For example, I consider my relationship with my wife to be the most important aspect of my life. From the moment we began sharing our lives, mine has been utterly transformed. I am who I am because of it. I can look back at dozens of milestones and vital dates that relate to our relationship, and it took all of them–steps falling one after another–to make this major turning point in my life complete. I perfectly recall the day we met. Indeed, I perfectly remember the moment I saw her, through a window at a house party as she emerged from a friend’s car (it’s been noted that I dreamily but emphatically asked, “Who is that?”). For my part, it was instant attraction. I also clearly recall our first “real” date (took her to see Prince’s movie, Purple Rain). And of course, with our 32nd anniversary just around the corner, I have to acknowledge that these events culminated in our wedding day, which came on the perfect autumn evening, cementing and commemorating the completion of the turn.

But when I think back on it all, another auspicious day springs to mind—one between that first meeting and first date, and quite some time before the autumn day in the chapel. Hindsight reveals that this day was a key-spring—an event without which the turning may not have occurred as it did. I’m not sure exactly how many months had passed since our meeting; my wife and I weren’t exactly an instant item (and yes, she resisted and I persisted, how did you guess?). Anyway, we were retail coworkers during college, and on one particularly fine summer Saturday, as I was about to punch out at noon, I mused that it would be a perfect beach day. The store was slow, and I noted my very bored coworker’s interest in the idea, so I jokingly suggested that I would actually go if she joined me. To our mutual surprise, our manager, who’d been eavesdropping, suggested my coworker take the day off and do just that. To my even greater surprise, she did.

To those who don’t know the Mighty Mitten, the Lake Michigan beaches on the western shore near the city where I grew up are world class expanses of soft sand and Bahama blue water. Often, those who grow up on the east side of the state—like my wife did—have never experienced them. That day I felt like a tour guide, revealing a legacy treasure that she’d just inherited. It was during this serendipitous beach day—getting better acquainted during the hour-long drive there; spending the afternoon relaxing, swimming, playing Frisbee; and then listening to music, laughing and chatting away the drive back—that our enduring friendship took root.

I remember this impending sense I had that day of the turning of things. I began to feel it in the water, in the earth, in the air. I think we both sensed it that evening, as we sought to cool our sunburns over beers. The experience had shifted things for both of us.

Yes, milestone experiences can have instant impact. But often it’s the subtle shifts that turn out to be key-springs to such turnings. Either way, such events are usually mere dominos, falling to push down the next, which falls to… You get the idea.

Inexorable

I’m getting far enough along in my life to see that it’s defined by a handful of major turning points, and that all such changes—over a series of incremental steps; incidents and events—come to feel inexorable as they arrive.

Take a life-change of mine that is perhaps second in magnitude only to my marriage: our decision to leave the business world in Illinois and move back to Michigan. This turning point plays into everything that followed—particularly my writing life. The first domino to fall came in the form of a major blow—one that we knew was coming but had no grasp of its scale and lasting impact. It began with the passage of a dog. We said goodbye to our beloved black lab Maggie on the twilit morning of a September Friday. Mag had been with us through most of our years in business—a grounding presence through a whirlwind of toil. The day she left us we did something unprecedented: We left.

We left our business without checking messages, without consulting our department heads, without leaving written instructions, and without offering to take calls. There had been no question where we would go. We went where Mag would have had us go. Oh, how our girl loved coming to Michigan. The joy was palpable, and contagious.

Driving straight to what was then our getaway cottage on the day of Maggie’s passing taught us that the little house we built in the woods near the shore was our hearts’ home. That was twenty years ago this month, and we’re still here.

It took over a year from Maggie’s passing, and an uncountable number of dominos, to complete this turning point. During that time, we started to joke about making a change. Looking back, we sensed the inexorable turning. We’d say things like, “We’ll do that after we sell the business,” or “We’ll be able to do this once we move to Michigan.” I remember one particular morning here. I’d stopped overnight at the cottage on the way to a business meeting further up the coast. Before setting out, as I sat on the porch drinking coffee, enjoying the stillness and birdsong, the thought of living here, of working at something creative here, buzzed around my head like a happy hummingbird, teasing and beckoning me to strive toward something that I couldn’t yet see. That domino was a subtle one, of the sort I only see in hindsight.

There was a final domino. My wife and I began to see the signs of an oncoming economic downturn. For several years prior to this, we’d experienced what might be called growth-on-cruise. In response, we called a meeting with our partner, our top sales and marketing staff, and our accounting team. We laid out a fairly austere plan to proactively face the projected downturn. It did not go over well. Our team had grown metaphorically fat and happy. And, honestly, we had lost much of the zeal required to fight through such resistance.

I’ll never forget leaving the meeting. Once we were in the car, and before I even started it, I said, “That’s it, isn’t it?” My wife gave a single nod. “Yep. We’re done.” We drove home in relative silence, feeling the resound of that final domino’s fall, knowing it had been the last of the turning. What we had long sensed possible—what had been both hopeful and terrifying—had become inexorable.

Alignment

Turning points such as these are intrinsic to storytelling. Indeed, change is the very essence of story. Often an entire story is built around one such turning point, and the dominos required to get our characters to it. Often it’s monumental. Thinking about this sort of change–bit by bit, one domino striking the next, until a character is utterly transformed–brings to mind characters like Ove, from A Man Called Ove, or Lieutenant John Dunbar, from Dances With Wolves. Heck, think about Frodo (sorry, had to go there), from the moment he tucks the one ring into his vest pocket and askes Gandalf, “What must I do?” to swatting at waking nightmares as he trudges across the Plateau of Gorgoroth.

Only through witnessing the fall of each domino that led them there can we believe such monumental changes could have occurred. Having seen them tumble, one by one, we are all the more invested, and moved, by the result.

As I sit here, feeling on the verge of yet another major turning, it’s not mine to know if the long string of events that have conveyed me this far have been aligned by unseen forces, guiding me to the life I am meant to live. But I must admit, it often feels that way. In our fiction, we are those unseen forces. And though some of the dominos we set are more auspicious and impactful, it’s our job to make each one feel like a necessary step. It’s on us to make our readers feel that each one is both surprising and essential. We must make change become a force like gravity, unrealized but accepted as a law of the nature of our stories.

The dominos of storytelling—the inciting incidents, opportunities knocking, pinch points, the flips from reactivity to proactivity, the black moments and heroic sacrifices—all of them must feel both unexpected and unavoidable. The best story changes often feel both hopeful and terrifying. We must strive to have our readers feel them in the water, feel them in the earth, and smell them in the air.

If we hope to tell stories that are both fresh and satisfying, we must strive to bring about the change in our characters that no one would believe at the onset, and then make it feel inevitable, even rightful.

We do so by utilizing events and milestones that are inexorable steps to turning points that transform lives.

What about you, WU? Is Cate Blanchett still the best Galadriel? Can you look back to the dominos that led to your own life’s turning points? Do you delight in being the unseen force that aligns them for your characters?

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About Vaughn Roycroft

Vaughn Roycroft's (he/him) teacher gave him a copy of The Hobbit in the 6th grade, sparking a lifelong passion for reading and history. After college, life intervened, and Vaughn spent twenty years building a successful business. During those years, he and his wife built a getaway cottage near their favorite shoreline, in a fashion that would make the elves of Rivendell proud. After many milestone achievements, and with the mantra ‘life’s too short,’ they left their hectic lives in the business world, moved to their little cottage, and Vaughn finally returned to writing. Now he spends his days striving to finish his epic fantasy series.

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