The Power of Turning Points and Surprise

Everything is going to turn out just fine in the story of America, right?


If Christianity is the story we are in, and your God is the Great Storyteller, what if your God is unfolding some surprises in your drama?

What if, in his masterful storytelling he wants you to get ready for some surprises in America’s story, because as a story progresses, it needs turning points…


To turn a scene means to change its value charge; the phrase turning point names the precise moment when an unforeseen force of antagonism violates expectations and pivots the value at stake from positive to negative or negative to positive. Turning points trigger change in only one of two ways-either by a direct action followed by the reaction it sparks, or by a revelation of a secret or previously unknown fact and the response it unleashes. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

Ideally, every scene, in one direction or the other, veers around a turning point. Those that do not are nonevents — activity without change. Too many nonevents in a row and a story collapses into tedium. On the other hand, persistent, progressive change holds us like a tool maker’s vise. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

As we continued our exploration, Paula began to show us some material from Coyne and McKee on what turning points are…

The turning point in a beat, scene, sequence, act, subplot or Story is the moment when new information comes to the fore and a character can’t help but react. This is where the rubber meets the road in a Story. Without clearly defined and surprising turning points, the reader/audience will lose interest. Quickly. 

I’m writing an entire chapter on turning point and putting it just after Progressive Complications for a reason. Turning points are sort of the little buddies of complication. They are the little choices that a writer makes that drive progressive complications, the nails that put the progressively larger complication building blocks in place in a Story. 

There are only two ways you can create a turning point in an event. The event can turn with:

1. Character Action 

2. Revelation 

One of the best ways to tell if your scenes are working is to pinpoint the exact place (the exact beat(s) and the precise place in those beats) when the Story turns. It will be the place when something unexpected happens. 

Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid

Look what Robert McKee says about the impact of turning points…

The effect of Turning Points are fourfold: surprise, increased curiosity, insight, and new directions.

Robert McKee, Story

Turning points simultaneously merge the rational and emotional sides of life.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

A violation of expectation is, in essence, an effect with an unknown cause. As a resuit, turning points pop questions into the mind such as “Why have things taken this unforeseen turn? Why didn’t the character see this coming? Why didn’t I? What caused this startling twist?” 

A turning point punches a hole in reality. Curiosity compels the audience members to fill the hole with knowledge, so their thoughts rush back through previous scenes and images, looking for an unseen cause, trying to solve the mystery of “Why?” The answer has been planted beneath the story’s setups. The moment the audience glimpses this hidden truth, it erupts with an “Oh, yeah, now I get it!” insight that both delights and enlightens.

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

And look how McKee connects turning points to change…

Ideally, every scene contains a turning point. A turning point pivots the instant the value at stake in the scene dynamically changes from positive to negative or negative to positive.

This change moves the character either farther from (negative) or closer to (positive) his object of desire than the previous scene’s turning point.

Robert McKee, Dialogue

And turning points have a connection with the Gap …

True surprise springs from the sudden revelation of the Gap between expectation and result. This surprise is “true” because it’s followed by a rush of insight, the revelation of a truth hidden beneath the surface of the fictional world.

Robert McKee, Story

Turn and surprise in story are deeply compelling for the audience. So look at this in relation to the length of the story in the Bible…

In the Poetics, Aristotle deduces that there is a relationship between the size of the story – how long it takes to read or perform – and the number of major Turning Points necessary to tell it: the longer the work, the more major reversals. In other words, in his polite way, Aristotle is pleading, “Please don’t bore us. Don’t make us sit for hours on those hard marble seats listening to choral chants and laments while nothing actually happens.”

Robert McKee, Story

Aristotle is right – the larger the story, the more you need major reversals. And doesn’t that fit with how your story in America may play out?

And major reversals are just what our team experienced as we read the story in the Bible.

Which means… well, if Christianity is the story we are in, what if the following passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah is a clue, a pointer, to God as the Great Storyteller? …

“The former things I declared of old;
they went out from my mouth, and I announced them;
then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass.


“You have heard; now see all this; and will you not declare it?
From this time forth I announce to you new things,
hidden things that you have not known.
They are created now, not long ago;
before today you have never heard of them,
lest you should say, ‘Behold, I knew them.’
You have never heard, you have never known,
from of old your ear has not been opened.

Isaiah 48:3, 6-8

That caught our attention.

And one day, Paula showed me this…

As Aristotle tells us: “For the purposes of [story] a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincing possibility.”

Robert McKee, Story

And Christians are game with considering the impossible, right?

After all, look what we found …

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

Mark 10:27

God often shows up and surprises us with something that seems impossible.

Brian Houston, Live Love Lead

And the famous British writer, G.K. Chesterton, in his Introduction to the Book of Job, helped open our eyes to something we had not imagined about your God…

The mechanical optimist endeavors to justify the universe avowedly upon the ground that it is a rational and consecutive pattern. He points out that the fine thing about the world is that it can all be explained. That is the one point, if I may put it so, on which God, in return, is explicit to the point of violence. God says, in effect, that if there is one fine thing about the world, as far as men are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained. He insists on the inexplicableness of everything. “Hath the rain a father?. . .Out of whose womb came the ice?” (38:28f). He goes farther, and insists on the positive and palpable unreason of things; “Hast thou sent the rain upon the desert where no man is, and upon the wilderness wherein there is no man?” (38:26). God will make man see things, if it is only against the black background of nonentity. God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man, God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things he has Himself made.

This we may call the third point. Job puts forward a note of interrogation; God answers with a note of exclamation. Instead of proving to Job that it is an explicable world,He insists that it is a much stranger world than Job ever thought it was.

G.K. Chesterton, Introduction to the Book of Job

And that helped us to realize we needed to think more broadly. Because, if Christianity is the story we are in, this guy is right…

As we should certainly have learned from the biblical story, there will be both shocks and surprises. God’s action is disruptive at least as often as it is continuous with what might have been expected. In many ways, therefore, mission is not the imposing of predetermined patterns on to history, but openness to the incalculable ways of God in history.

Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission

And look at these…

One could look at the history of missions from the apostolic times to the present and be amazed at both the unity and the diversity of methods and contexts. To quote J. H. Bavinck, who spent so many years in Indonesia bringing the gospel to a people Westminster loves well: “The history of missions does not move smoothly and with a uniform rate of speed. It is subject to quick starts and stops, to shocks and obstacles. Its progress is at times arrested completely or seriously checked, and then again it proceeds with a sudden advance. God has set his mark upon its entire history.”

A Braver Palace Than Before, By William Edgar, Westminster Theological Journal, Fall 2014

The Lord’s work is revealed through events that overthrow human expectations. Humans calculate the future on the basis of their normal experience. These calculations leave them unprepared for the appearance of the Overruler, who negates human plans and works the unexpected. This is a problem not only for the rejectors of Jesus but also for the church, which, as our narrative indicates, is led by the Lord into situations beyond its fathoming. The narrator’s sharp sense of God (and the exalted Messiah) as one who surprises appears again in this episode, and the reaction of Ananias (and in 9:26 the Jerusalem disciples) shows that the church, too, has difficulty keeping up with such a God.

Robert Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts

And Paula Wong showed us something which caught our attention. A guy named Oswald Chambers, the author of one of your most famous books – My Utmost For His Highest – recognized that even though you tend to push it away, your God is into turns and surprise…

Naturally, we are inclined to be so mathematical and calculating that we look upon uncertainty as a bad thing. We imagine that we have to reach some end, but that is not the nature of spiritual life.


We are not uncertain of God, but uncertain of what He will do next. If we are only certain in our beliefs we get dignified and severe and have the ban of finality about our views but when we are rightly related to God, life is full of spontaneous, joyful uncertainty and expectancy.”

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest

Being born again of the Spirit is an unmistakable work of God, as mysterious as the wind, as surprising as God Himself. We do not know where it begins, it is hidden away in the depths of our personal life. Being born again from above is a perennial, perpetual and eternal beginning; a freshness all the time in thinking and in talking and in living, the continual surprise of the life of God.

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest

As workers for God we have to learn to make room for God – to give God “elbow room.” We calculate and estimate, and say that this and that will happen, and we forget to make room for God to come in as He chooses. Would we be surprised if God came into our meeting or into our preaching in a way we had never looked for Him to come? Do not look for God to come in any particular way, but look for Him. That is the way to make room for Him. Expect Him to come, but do not expect Him only in a certain way. However much we may know God, the great lesson to learn is that at any minute He may break in. We are apt to overlook this element of surprise, yet God never works in any other way. All of a sudden God meets the life – “When it was the good pleasure of God. . .” Keep your life so constant in its contact with God that His surprising power may break out on the right hand and on the left. Always be in a state of expectancy, and see that you leave room for God to come in as He likes.

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest

He packs our life with surprises all the time.

Oswald Chambers, My Utmost For His Highest

Over time we are also going to begin to show you that, if Christianity is the story we are in, then God the Great Storyteller sends Black Swans flying throughout the story. He is into massive turn and surprise.

And, this may give you a sense of something unfolding in the drama…

Because it looks very much as though we are at one of those pivotal moments—possibly at one of the major turning points in history, and probably one of the most dangerous. We tend to think that historical turning points generally involve a breakthrough to a higher plane—a turn for the better rather than a turn for the worse. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes, the pendulum of history swings backward and slices off centuries of progress. The turning point at which we now stand threatens to cast us back more than a thousand years to some of history’s darkest days. We may soon be fighting for things we thought had been secured for all time—basics such as freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and even freedom from enslavement.

A Turning Point in History, By WILLIAM KILPATRICK, Crisis Magazine, MAY 24, 2018