Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The Point of No Return

Sometimes, there comes a point when there's no going back.

The "point of no return" may be a hackneyed phrase in day to day conversation, but in terms of narrative its tradition is much older - and far, far darker. Forming an essential element of the tragedian archetype, such a moment in the narrative marks the point where the character's fate is sealed by some irredeemable action.

This action could be anything, but for the most part it is usually a very dramatic, and almost always irrevocable, deed performed by the character themself. This distinction is important: characters solely shaped by the actions and deeds of others tend to become passive bystanders to their own fate, and unless you're aiming to revive the helpless, clueless, and utterly feckless maidens of the early Gothic genre, this probably isn't the effect you want. Having the character do the deed themselves maximises the impact - both on character and reader.

Now stand back everyone; I'm about to demonstrate. With Shakespeare.

Macbeth, to be precise.

The moment the eponymous hero takes his first steps onto the stage, we know he's in for it. Accompanied by fellow commander, nobleman and best-friend Banquo, Macbeth hardly has time to deliver a line of ominous foreshadowing before he is set upon by three witches who promptly fill his ambitious brain with lies that will lead to a slow descent into regicide, insomnia, baby-killing, suicide, and decapitation - sometimes in combination.

However, even if your English teacher isn't pointing out every ominous word and telling you to keep an eye on it in preparation for Impending Doom, the audience is, at least, slightly prepared for several of the aforementioned evils.  The sense of inevitability created by the witches' predictions will probably tell any clued-in audience member - even if they're not familiar enough with Shakespeare to know that anyone with a moral bone in their body equates instantaneously to cannon fodder - that old king Duncan is toast. Unless Duncan dies, and Macbeth inherits the throne of Scotland (accompanied by a healthy side of insanity) via his murder, the play cannot progress. Add in the prevarocation of Lady Macbeth, more heavy foreshadowing, and Scottish nobility with the IQ of particularly dim-witted tree stumps, and all in all, the murder's much like it's victim - an overglorified plot point with an unfortunate amount of blood involved.

Not so with the next death - Macbeth's real "point of no return". Sleepless, paranoid, and spiritually bereft, the seeds of evil planted by Duncan's murder have begun to take effect. Or have they? We can't see inside his head, for all he soliloquises. Maybe he just needs time. Maybe he'll get over it.

Enter three murderers; long knives, short morals, and one prerogative.

Exit three murderers, with Banquo's body.

The scene of the murder is scarcely a page long, and the prelude is barely even twice that. Macbeth's explanatory monologue takes up near half of that, but he's one of those incredibly gifted characters who can talk a lot and say nothing at all. Take that next to the run-up to Duncan's murder - a full Act, with five scenes' buildup and another to deal with the aftershocks.

Macbeth kills Duncan for a reason.

Macbeth kills Banquo for none at all.

Banquo's death marks the final turning point in Macbeth because it shows us that Macbeth is doomed. Until now, his actions have had other motivations - be they from prophecy, provocation, or personal. This murder, though, is the product of only one thing: Macbeth. His paranoia over Banquo's part in the prophecy. His fear that his friend will betray him. His growing apathy to killing, and revelling in his power, which just makes it so much easier.

All his, though. His, and his alone.

He just killed his best friend in cold blood. And now there is no going back.

Macbeth isn't the only such character in Shakespeare - Richard III, king at last, and with his enemies' heads rolling off the block faster than bingo balls on the Saturday night lottery, turns on his cousinly co-conspirator Buckingham when he fails to make the jump between stitching up Council members to smothering children in their beds. Othello, driven to distraction by Iago's insinuations, orchestrates the murder of the wrongfully-accused Cassio, who's done nothing worse than try and apologise over a drunken mishap.

Why did Shakespeare make such heavy use of the point, and why have many modern writers followed suit? Yes, it's changed to some extent - the means, the motives, and the events themselves redacted through the years to fit the author's inent. But why is it still here?

Because it's heartbreaking. Any character can be confronted with the problem - protagonist to  antagonist, anti-hero to unlucky bystander - and its effect can always be made devastating. The author can exploit their most primal fears, can take them right to the brink and dangle them by the merest threads of hope that, maybe, they can turn away, can turn back. Can change.

And then the author cuts the threads, and laughs. Now, it is too late. The author knows it, the character knows it, and the reader knows it. No matter what happens next, the deed is done and cannot be undone.

They have found the point, and they have passed it. What happens next, be it fair, foul, or flabbergasting, all comes down to them, and what they did.

There is no going back.

~ Charley R


  1. Past the point of no return, no backward glances
    The games we played 'til now are at an end
    Past all thought of 'If' or 'When', no use resisting
    Abandon thought and let the dream descend.

    Phantom of the Opera.

    People call the midpoint the point of no return, at least in screenwriting formulas. I'm not sure if that's true with Macbeth (which I need to read) or any other Shakespearean thingies. However, in screenplay, the point of no return is just that nothing will ever be the same again-- not necessarily that the main character is an irredeemably nasty dude. Frodo isn't headed toward psychopathy, but it's way too late to back out now.

    1. Well stated - here, I think, I'm referring to the Point of No Return more in terms of tragedy. It can, of course, be used in less extreme and more positive modes, but I chose to focus on this one because, to me, it's the most powerful use of the "point of no return" plot point.

      As for placement . . . hmm . . .in Macbeth it's fairly central, though it tends more toward the later stages. The others, again, I think it's middling, but a little toward the later stages. It really depends on where and when you want to put the moment, I think. Scripts - stage and screen- seem to rely more on neccessary placement of certain events than novel-narrative setups.