Sunday, March 29, 2009

Turning Points

I was reading Jerry Spinelli’s new novel, Smiles to Go, and found myself caught by surprise in the second half of the book.

It felt like the boat had swerved suddenly, taking a sharp turn to the right, and I wasn't prepared for the unexpected shift in direction.

Out of the blue, it seemed, the main character’s sister suffered an injury in a skateboard accident, and the incident forced him to look at their relationship in a new light.

Before the accident, Will viewed her as simply a pest, a younger sister who took pleasure in annoying him.

After the accident, though, Will learned that she was a pest only because she loved him and craved his attention.

But the accident came as a surprise, a turning point in the plot, spinning the story off into a completely new direction (and compelling the reader to hold tighter to the boat).

There was another turning point earlier in the plot, when Will witnessed a kiss under the stars between his best friends, BT and Mi Su–which caused him to examine his own (new) feelings for Mi Su and then to formulate his own plan for kissing her.

Both of these turning points–spotting BT and Mi Su kissing and his sister Tabby’s accident–turned the narrative in new, surprising directions, and challenged Will to reexamine and reevaluate his understanding of himself and his relationship to people who he loves or doesn’t yet know he loves.

Each turning point forced Will out of his comfort zone, and sent him (and the reader) spinning off into completely new and unexpected territory.

For more on turning points, visit:

For more on Spinelli’s work, visit his website:


Jack said...

Interesting, in that it seems one of the elements we often try to establish quickly in writing a story, what's the problem(s) the protagonist will be dealing with, has been--skillfully--delayed by Spinelli.

laurasalas said...

I haven't read this one, Bruce--but a major plot turn in the second half of a novel is pretty unusual, right? Of course, things--interesting, gripping things--have to happen all the way through! But something that changes the whole tone of the book...It takes a great writer to pull that off. Otherwise it ends up sounding (to me) like the incident should have happened much closer to the start of the book.

It's like when I go to movie expecting a mystery, and that's what it is for the first half, but then it turns dark and philosophical all of a sudden, like they stitched two movies together.

Actually, after writing that out, I remember Hancock was like that for me. Like it didn't know what it wanted to be, so it sprawled all over. Three different kinds of films in one--none of them particularly good, imo.

I'm trying to think of novels like that, too, but no titles are coming to mind at the moment. (My memory stinks.)

So...does it work in this novel? Does Spinelli pull it off?

Bruce Black said...

Skillfully delayed... that's the key to the success of a major turning point that appears late in the story, as Jack points out.

But Laura raises an important question, too.

Is the turning point integral to the story (and has the writer prepared the reader for it, albeit without the reader's knowledge)?

Or is the turning point--especially one that appears without warning late in the story--merely the result of a writer not quite knowing what the story wants to be?

In the case of Spinelli's Smiles To Go, I'd say Spinelli is such a deft craftsman that he prepares the reader for the turning point, and I must have missed the sign posts leading up to the shift in direction. (But I'll have to re-read the book to make sure.)

What about others who have read the book? What do you think?