Tipping Point

Tipping Points in Fiction

In Literary Essay by Sandro F. Piedrahita

Tipping Points in Fiction
Photo by Adobe Stock
1. Introduction

Ever since the publication in 2000 of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point – about tipping points in the world of business – the term has been used increasingly in a variety of settings. Sociologists speak of tipping points when a community has so many minority members that white flight begins. Climate experts speak of tipping points when climate change becomes irreversible. Physicians write of tipping points in determining when a disease becomes an epidemic. What I haven’t found yet is a full-length book on the issue of tipping points in fiction, a discussion which is sorely lacking, for tipping points are an essential element in any work of fiction.

Tipping points affect the narrative, the plot, and the characterization of a short story or novel. They affect the narrative and plot because tipping points are the plot points which move a story forward toward its inevitable ending. They are the parts of a story which we would look to when “reading for the plot.” Indeed, the tipping points – moments where the character makes an ineluctable decision – are essentially what we call the plot. A narrative which does not have tipping points, with certain outstanding exceptions, is like a house without a foundation. In the absence of tipping points, the short story inevitably collapses because nothing significant happens in the story to hold it up.

Tipping points are also what help the reader understand the protagonists in a story. In fact, the tipping points are what makes manifest the essence of the character. The tipping point tells us what moves them, what frightens them, what they love. How does a character react to the death of a loved one or a terminal disease or the collapse of a marriage? How does she respond when offered the possibility of accepting martyrdom for her faith? What does the character do when faced with a moment of grace, when he is invited to redeem his life after living in constant sin? The possibilities of tipping points are endless because human beings make constant choices, and sometimes even choices about apparently trivial matters may have outsized consequences. But what tipping points have in common is that they all define character. In Story, the brilliant Robert McKee1 says that dilemmas in a story reveal character. The same could be said about tipping points. In fact, there is much that a dilemma and a tipping point have in common. The difference is that a tipping point, by definition, results from an accretion of manifold external events. The tipping point only happens when the cup overflows. As referenced in Psalm 23:5, a cup runs over when it cannot hold all that is being poured into it. A tipping point occurs when the events in a person’s life reach such a flood that the person is forced to make an unavoidable escape as a response, one way or the other: a conversion, a suicide, a murder or a radical act of love.

2. In what part of the story should the tipping point be revealed?

Tipping points can happen at any point in a story, although for the most part, they happen at the end. In Madame Bovary, the tipping point occurs in the final chapters of the novel, when Emma Bovary, facing bankruptcy and the abandonment by her two lovers, decides to take her life by swallowing arsenic. In other works, the tipping point happens at the beginning, which some writers, including McKee, refer to as the inciting incident. In Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, for example, the tipping point – the moment when the protagonist lapses into madness – happens at the very beginning of the story.

I am not a literary critic, but a writer, so I apologize for referring to a lot of my own work in discussing this issue. In many of my short stories, the tipping point happens at the end, in some at the beginning, and in many throughout the piece. I have no quarrel with those who encourage adherence to the Hero’s Journey model or to those who follow McKee’s Story to the letter. It’s just that my focus is somewhat different. I am interested in how tipping points enhance a work of fiction and can be used by aspiring writers to map out their stories for maximum effect. Most of the stories I shall be referring to are available online, so you can look them up if you’re interested in learning more.

First of all, I should say that I’m no big fan of formulaic writing and disagree with those who say the tipping point should always come at the very end of a story. If you want to refer to the story’s main tipping point at the beginning of your story, I say have at it! But be aware that you might lose your readers if everything important happens at the beginning, and the rest of your work is merely backstory. In like manner, if your short story lacks a tipping point, the reader might get bored and throw her arms in the air, saying nothing has happened in this piece. The best tipping points propel a story forward irrespective of where you place them in the architecture of your story. They incite the reader’s curiosity, making the reader anxious to learn how your character will react to the tipping point since the character’s reaction will determine her entire fate. I should say I write my stories in such a way that the tipping point (or tipping points) will always result in an enigma since I feel that keeps the readers interested and wanting to know more.

a. Tipping point at the end of a story

In my story,“Comrade Juana,” published by Synchronized Chaos, the tipping point comes in the very last scene of the story, when the American Karen Jones decides to become a Shining Path guerrilla. That final choice is not something the reader is sure will happen until the very end, and hopefully that question keeps the readers engaged. Most of the story has to do with how Karen Jones (Comrade Juana) is pushed into being a guerrilla by her lover, a Peruvian revolutionary named Comrade Carlos. In my story, Karen Jones learns that her lover has engaged in a massacre of a hundred Amerindians in the highlands of Peru and must decide whether to abandon or join her lover. After much rumination and a climactic confrontation with her lover, Karen Jones decides to become a terrorist herself. Her decision – the central tipping point in the story – is revealed only at the end and ultimately leads to catastrophe, as she is incarcerated for her crimes.

In my story, “The Seduction of Javier Pardo,” published by The Write Launch, my protagonist follows a similar path. As in Comrade Juana, the tipping point comes at the very end, though that is not to say Javier Pardo doesn’t make other significant decisions throughout the piece. The story revolves around the relationship between Javier Pardo, a Yale undergraduate in France for his junior year abroad, and Irving Rivera, a fortyish Puerto Rican who is a member of a Puerto Rican liberation group which engages in “direct action” (terrorism) to oust the Americans from his island. After hiding his involvement with the revolutionary movement from Javier Pardo throughout most of the piece, in the last scene of the story Irving Rivera attempts to convince Javier Pardo to join his group. That choice is the final tipping point in the story and the most important. Once again, the reader does not know how Javier Pardo will respond to Irving Rivera’s proposition until the very end of the piece. All modesty aside, I think I successfully keep the reader curious to the very end. In conclusion, I think there is much to be said for revealing the tipping point only at the climax of the piece. As stated below, however, I don’t see this as a hard and fast rule.

b. Tipping point at the beginning of the story

In certain stories, I disclose the most important tipping point at the beginning of the tale. In “The Ecstasies of Adalenie Santaliz,” published by The Write Launch, the most important decision made by the main character – her conversion to the Catholic faith – is disclosed in the first paragraph of the piece. That decision (like all true tipping points) results in an irrevocable change, where, as I have said before, the past and the future are forever riven asunder. As in Don Quixote, everything that happens after Adalenie’s initial decision follows inexorably from that first choice. She engages in a mystic’s quest, seeking to emulate Saint Teresa of Avila, the writer whose work led Adalenie to the Catholic faith. Eventually, Adalenie believes that she has visions of the Christ, experiences levitation and the transpiercing of her heart. Her friend Javier doesn’t know if she is a mystic on the road to sainthood or a madwoman on the road to the insane asylum.  I don’t think that disclosing the most important tipping point at the beginning of the piece detracts from the story, as the reader is still left with a question. Are Adalenie’s actions and visions as a result of her conversion evidence of madness or mysticism? The reader is not able to answer that question until the last scene of the story.

I have also written another story, “Romulo and Julissa,” published by The Write Launch, where the tipping point occurs at the beginning of the story. As soon as the two protagonists meet, they fall in love. Everything that follows – most of which is not in their hands – is a direct consequence of that initial reaction. It should be pointed out in passing that the tipping point is not the external event per se but the character’s response to it. If Juliet had not killed herself after finding the apparently dead Romeo, his suicide would not have necessarily been a tipping point for Juliet. But the fact she stabs herself with a dagger afterward means she is making an irrevocable decision – such is the stuff of tipping points – and she can’t go back. In “Romulo and Julissa,” the two end up unwittingly killing each other, for one is a soldier and the other is a Shining Path guerrilla. The two engage in battle against each other without knowing it. So, there is not, strictly speaking, a tipping point at the end. A tipping point is a choice which leads a character to an irremediable change in behavior. That happened as soon as they first met. The killing of the two lovers in my story is not a choice but a result of twisted fate and thus is not a tipping point as I understand the term.

c. Tipping points throughout the story

It is also possible for a story to have multiple tipping points, decisions which one by one lead to the story’s final climax, and I think this happens more often than we might realize. Those who follow the Hero’s Journey paradigm speak of multiple plot points. What they are actually describing is multiple tipping points. In one of my pieces, “Crooked Lines,” published by Label Me Latina/o, the story has a multiplicity of tipping points, using our previous definition. The first tipping point occurs when the protagonist, Dolores, decides to become a Carmelite nun. The second tipping point occurs when she decides to throw in her lot with the Shining Path guerrillas after witnessing a massacre of peasants. The third tipping point occurs when she decides to quit the revolutionary movement in order to save the life of an archbishop targeted for assassination. Finally, the story’s last tipping point takes place when the nun returns to the cloister and dedicates the rest of her life to constant prayer. Although the path to the convent at the end of the story is full of twists and turns (hence the title “Crooked Lines”), it is clear that her return to the church follows a multitude of decisions – or tipping points – which finally bring her back to the convent at the end.

In another of my stories, “Comrade Carlos and the Sadness of His Quena,” published in print by Peaxdunque Journal Volume 9, there is one massive tipping point at the end – the character’s decision to order the annihilation of a hundred quechua peasants – but there are a number of minor tipping points leading to that irrevocable decision. First, the indigenous protagonist is raped by an American tourist at the time he is an adolescent. His reaction is to hate the white man. Second, he hears a speech by the leader of the Shining Path guerrilla movement describing the “centuries old rape of the Amerindian” at the hands of the white man at the same time he learns that an Indian girl has been raped by a powerful white man with impunity. His reaction is to join the Shining Path guerrillas. Third, as a guerrilla, he learns that an Indian peasant woman has betrayed the Shining Path rebels and provided information about them to the military. His reaction is to order the hanging of the informant. Finally, a group of peasants takes up arms against the Shining Path guerrillas in alliance with the military. His reaction is to destroy the town and kill all of its men. Each of the tipping points – each of Comrade Carlos’ choices – leads inescapably to the massacre at the end. By the end of the story, the protagonist has simply lost his conscience, but it does not happen all at once. It only happens after a series of choices – or tipping points – which gradually lead him in that direction.

3. What kinds of incidents are tipping points?

There is no limit to the number of incidents in a short story or novel which might qualify as tipping points. Basically, the tipping point is a decision that affects the character’s entire life. What all tipping points have in common is that they are the proverbial “forks in the road” when an irreversible choice is made. The following discussion sheds light on what types of incidents qualify as tipping points by looking at my own work. I should say in passing that the following list is not meant to be exhaustive. It is part of the human condition to be faced by constant choices and literature – which reflects the human condition – is perforce also about those choices.

a. A conversion

In many of my short stories, the piece revolves around a conversion, either a conversion to a religious faith or to a revolutionary movement. Conversions are good examples of tipping points because they alter a person’s entire life, and true metanoias constitute unalterable choices. Moreover,  the decision to convert also leads to a number of other significant decisions which profoundly affect the character’s condition.

In my story, “Winnie’s Gift to Comrade Carlos,” published by The Hive Avenue Journal’s 2023 issue, I return to the character of Comrade Carlos first depicted in my story “Comrade Juana.” After years as a Shining Path guerrilla, after having killed again and again, after having ordered the massacre of over a hundred Amerindian peasants, Comrade Carlos is invited by his son’s nanny Winnie to attend Easter Sunday Mass with her. On a whim, Comrade Carlos, previously a hardened atheist, decides to join her. When he hears the priest’s sermon inviting people to repent, he feels the message is directed at him directly, and burdened by guilt, he begins to sob uncontrollably and experiences his metanoia. That is a true tipping point, for repentance leads Comrade Carlos to change his entire life. No longer will he be a revolutionary, no longer will he engage in the annihilation of the opponents of the Shining Path. That selfsame evening, when Comrade Carlos goes on what he expects to be his last mission, he is confronted by a policeman who pleads for his life as Comrade Carlos points his pistol at him. Given his recent conversion, Comrade Carlos decides to spare the man, but the policeman does not respond in kind and shoots Comrade Carlos in the head. The conversion is a massive tipping point in Comrade Carlos’ life – altering his whole world view – and leads inexorably to his death. Had he not converted to the Catholic faith, Comrade Carlos would not have been killed.

In “That Person Whom You Know,” published by Foreshadow Magazine in 2023, the major tipping point is also a conversion. Giovanni Avitabile, an atheist professor of Italian literature and writer of two acclaimed novels, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the same time his Goddaughter and niece Nennolina is diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer which leads to the amputation of her leg. Throughout the story, the atheist professor is resistant to the idea he should seek solace in religion despite the prodding of his niece Nennolina, who tells him suffering is a means to get closer to Jesus and offers her “little leg” to Jesus as a gift. After Nennolina’s condition worsens and the cancer spreads to her entire body despite the amputation, Nennolina’s mother hands the professor a hundred letters written by the little girl to the infant Jesus, and the professor realizes she has been praying for his conversion for years. Reading those letters is a tipping point in the life of Professor Avitabile. Despite his Alzheimer’s disease, he manages to find the church where his deceased wife often went to Mass and collapses in a sudden metanoia. “I believe,” he cries out to the priest amid his tears. “I believe in Christ. It is my Nennolina who has taught me to believe.”

As stated above, my story, “The Ecstasies of Adalenie Santaliz,” also has a conversion as the central tipping point in the story. Adalenie, previously a hardened atheist, converts to the Catholic faith after spending a night reading The “Interior Castle” by Saint Teresa of Avila. That is something which actually happened to Saint Edith Stein, about whose conversion I write in another story, “A Jew and Her Cross,” published by Foreshadow Magazine in 2023. Adalenie’s conversion is a true tipping point in that it alters her entire life. She ceases the use of cocaine, the parties, the one-night stands and instead becomes increasingly religious, to such an extent that she experiences mystic trances. It is just another example of how a conversion can be used to scaffold an entire story.

Finally, I wrote a story about what is probably the biggest conversion in history: that of Saul of Tarsus, better known as Saint Paul. The title of my story is “The Blindness of Saul of Tarsus.” As with all tipping points, the past and the future were forever riven asunder when Saul was blinded for three days after he saw and heard the Christ. The biggest persecutor of Christians suddenly became Christ’s greatest apostle. What happened to Saint Paul is the very definition of a tipping point, as he was forever changed as a result of Jesus’ appearance to him. We should emphasize,  however, that the actual tipping point was not so much the apparition of Jesus but Saint Paul’s reaction to it. Miracles happen every day and often go unnoticed. But Saint Paul transformed his entire life as a result of his vision. Like all tipping points, the conversion of Saint Paul constituted a massive choice.

b. A suicide

I have also written short stories where the major tipping point is a character’s suicide. In “Chairman Mao and the Witches of Cachiche,” published in 2023 by Synchronized Chaos, I pay homage to Shakespeare’s Macbeth by telling the story of an ambitious man, Abimael Guzman, who is prodded by his wife Augusta la Torre to lead a bloody revolution against the Peruvian state. Augusta’s suicide – like every major tipping point in fiction – is the product of the cup overflowing. Just like Lady Macbeth, Augusta has engaged in so many horrors, so many crimes, that her conscience can no longer bear it, and she seeks escape by suicide. Her suicide is not a tipping point for her husband, however, in that he does not change his behavior as a result. This shows that a tipping point is not just an important event in a person’s life. A tipping point occurs only when a person reacts to the tipping point and radically changes his or her life.

In my short story, “The Feminine Brigades of Saint Joan of Arc,” a major character, Father Jose Burruchaga, also dies by suicide. Again, the tipping point occurs because the character has engaged in so many crimes that the accretion of events leads to the cup overflowing. Father Burruchaga, despite being a priest, is a womanizer and a drunk. Worse than that, as a general in the Cristero war in Mexico, he has participated in many crimes – the burning of sixty people in a train, the killing of many Mexican federal soldiers who had already put up the white flag, ultimately the execution of the protagonist Juana Espinosa after a sham trial for cross-dressing. As with all tipping points, the irrevocable decision is not made out of the blue but is preceded by multiple prior decisions. “The cup runneth over,” as said in Psalm 23. Father Burruchaga had gone against the dictates of his conscience so many times before that he willingly took his own life when he was tempted to despair.

c. A radical act of love

A tipping point can also be a radical act of love. As with suicides, radical acts of love do not come out of the blue but are the logical result of many prior choices. In “The Story of Prisoner 16670,” still unpublished, I tell the tale of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, who volunteered to take the place of another concentration camp prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau who was slated for execution. That decision was a true tipping point in Saint Maximilian’s life, as it resulted in his death, but it would not come as a surprise to the reader after learning of the manifold good deeds performed by the man before his irrevocable choice. In a nutshell, the reader is not astonished by Saint Maximilian’s outlandish decision because it follows inexorably from the priest’s prior conduct. It is a true tipping point, as the priest’s grand act of self-sacrifice is preceded by many smaller ones.

In like manner, my story “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter,” published by Foreshadow Magazine in 2022, also involves a man voluntarily accepting death as a radical act of love. After Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome, all Christians were rounded up and killed, often in the Coliseum where they were forced to fight with lions, panthers and python snakes. Saint Peter, realizing his life was in danger, decided to escape, but when he arrived at the Appian Gate, he was faced with an existential choice. The Lord Jesus appeared to him and asked him to return to Rome and tend to his Christian flock, which was in such great peril. And then Saint Peter made a radical choice reflecting his faith in Christ and his love for the sheep he was leading. That decision – to return to Rome knowing he would be crucified – is a perfect example of a tipping point. There was no possible retraction of his decision once he decided to return to the Eternal City. His faith was sealed: he would be crucified upside down. As stated by the narrator of the story, “Every man’s life must have a tipping point, the irrevocable instant when an existential decision is made, the fork in the road which cannot be reversed. Once Peter opted to return, the die had already in some way been cast. He had decided not to abandon his sheep in Rome or to forfeit his episcopate for his own safety.” The story of Saint Peter also exemplifies that a tipping point often appears as a challenge to a character’s conscience, which is formed over the years, long before the tipping point. Thus, the story tells us that “a man’s conscience can wither away like a muscle if ignored and fortified if followed in the most challenging of moments.” Since Saint Peter had been sacrificing himself for years in his efforts to spread the Christian faith, he was ready when he faced his most challenging moment, the day of his own martyrdom and crucifixion.

My story “Jesus In Disguise” also involves a radical act of love, indeed multiple acts of love. The piece tells the story of Saint Teresa of Calcutta, who spent her life finding Jesus in disguise when she was faced with the leper, the poor, the AIDS patient, the mentally ill. There are multiple tipping points in the story, as it narrates her entire life, but the focal tipping point occurs early on when she hears a locution from the Christ imploring her to leave the comforts of the convent and go live among the poor of Calcutta, not only to help the poor, but to be the poor. Like Saint Paul when he was challenged by Jesus on the way to Damascus, Saint Teresa goes beyond the call of duty in her response to Christ’s message. She creates a home for the dying, an orphanage, an AIDS hospice, multiple hospitals and leprosariums. Eventually, her Order is working to help the poor in every continent on the planet. As in many of my stories about the saints – and I must have written nearly a dozen of them – the miraculous appearance of the Christ is both a challenge and a call to love. In a word, it is the ultimate tipping point in the lives of the characters.

d. A murder

A tipping point can also happen in the context of a murder. Like all tipping points, murders do not happen out of the blue. O.J. Simpson’s killing of his wife was not an act which developed overnight but was a natural consequence of the fact he had been beating her for years. In like manner, when writing a work of fiction, it is important to point out what preceded the murder so that the reader can make sense of the story.

In my story “Marimacha,” the main character Katia Saldivar is a closeted lesbian who joins the Shining Path guerrillas, a Peruvian terrorist group, which pretended to help the oppressed but was known for its persecution of homosexuals. Her tipping point happens near the end of the story when she is ordered to shoot seven young transvestites in the head. Despite her own sexual inclinations and her natural scruples as a human being, Katia Saldivar, known as Comrade Barbara, follows the order without complaint. As in all tipping points ending in murder or suicide, Katia’s tipping point comes after she has spent years ignoring her conscience by participating in increasingly brutal acts in support of the guerrilla movement to which she belongs. When the fork in the road appears, she takes the wrong path, committing a heinous murder which will eventually lead to her insanity.

In my story “The Assassin,” the protagonist’s tipping point – his assassination of the Soviet leader Leon Trotsky – happens only after he has been groomed for the act for years. At the risk of repetition, his decision to murder Trotsky with an ice pick does not come out of the blue. Ever since Ramon Mercader was a child, his mother, a staunch Stalinist politician from Spain, has inculcated a great faith in Joseph Stalin in her son and taught him that every act, every purge, and every murder done at the direction of Joseph Stalin is inherently justified. After the Communists are routed in the Spanish Civil War, Ramon’s mother blames it on Leon Trotsky and volunteers her son to be his assassin after Stalin finds Trotsky guilty of treason in absentia in a well-publicized show trial.  Ramon’s decision when he faces his tipping point is inevitable, almost preordained. His conscience has been suffocated by his mother’s influence for so long that he fears displeasing her unless he commits the murder. Despite his nagging conscience, he seduces a young American Trotskyite with access to Trotsky’s home in Coyoacan, Mexico, and befriends the old man, waiting for the opportunity to kill him. For the rest of his life, Ramon is haunted by the Heaven-rending cry of Trotsky as he was attacked by Ramon’s ice pick. But the act cannot be undone, no one can return to the past, Ramon’s guilt is sealed forever. Such is the stuff of tipping points.

4. Conclusion

I hope you can benefit from the foregoing discussion when crafting your own short stories or novels. I’m not suggesting you should imitate my examples but that you will be mindful of the importance of tipping points in writing fictional work. My experience has been that most creative writing classes do not refer to tipping points, an omission I find barely comprehensible since the vast majority of short stories and novels are organized around their tipping points.

1 Robert Mc Kee’s Story is a wonderful work on the craft of writing, which I heartily recommend. You can gain access to it at MCKEESTORY.
About the Author

Sandro F. Piedrahita

Sandro Francisco Piedrahita is an American Catholic author of Peruvian and Ecuadorian descent, with a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale College. Most of his stories revolve around Latin American mythical or historic themes, told with a modern twist. Mr. Piedrahita's short stories have been accepted for publication in The Write Launch, The Acentos Review, Hive Avenue Literary Journal, Carmina Magazine, Synchronized Chaos, The Ganga Review, Limit Experience Journal and Foreshadow Magazine.

Read more work by Sandro F. Piedrahita .

Share this Post