What is a Point of No Return?
The “point of no return” is essentially when the plot leaves the character with no choice but to go forwards.
Perhaps the easiest way to imagine a point of no return is as an island from which a character can’t escape. The setting of the new TOMB RAIDER film, with a screenplay by Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons, is one example.
Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) hires a ship to sail her to a mysterious island, in search of her father. The ship capsizes and she’s washed ashore. She has limited options.
The island is completely unknown and she hasn’t trusted anyone with its location or her mission. To make things worse, the villain captures her.
The villain attacks the plane and it crashes. They survive but they’re stuck on the island.
I’ve passed the point of no return… That’s the point in a journey where it’s longer to go back to the beginning. It’s like when those astronauts got in trouble… They were on the other side of the moon and were out of contact for like hours. Everybody waited to see if a bunch of dead guys in a can would pop out the other side. Well, that’s me. I’m on the other side of the moon now and everybody is going to have to wait until I pop out.
– Bill Foster (Michael Douglas), FALLING DOWN
In fact, video games often build the point of no return into their storytelling as part of their mechanic. It’s the moment before the player tackles a big challenge or takes a significant risk and, unless the developers are particularly cruel, can save their progress first.
Even non-narrative games feature a point of no return. In the hugely popular Fortnite, players battle it out on an island that’s slowly shrinking.
These are just the most visible and literal examples of a point of no return. There are also plenty of stories that might not have life and death stakes but still mark a point of no return.
– Is it better to speak or to die?
– I’ll never have the courage to ask a question like that.
Once a character has said something to another it can’t be unsaid again. (Unless the story takes place in a sci-fi world where memory wiping exists, of course.)
However, once Elio confesses his feelings for Oliver to him, neither character can resume their earlier relationship in the same way. Their shared bedroom, originally an annoyance for Elio, now has a different significance and tension.
A more subtle way of phrasing the point of no return is the idea that “you can’t go home again.” Whether the place itself, the people in it, or simply the person observing it, something will have changed.
They’ll soon be back, and in greater numbers.
The point of no return connects with Joseph Campbell’s twelve steps of a hero’s journey. “Crossing the threshold,” Campbell’s fifth step, is where the hero begins their quest. They leave behind the world they’re familiar with and enter a new one.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) follows a very clear hero’s journey in George Lucas‘s original STAR WARS. Luke, guided by Ben Kenobi, enters a new world. He sees the seedy underbelly of Tatooine in the Cantina. Luke leaves Tatooine. Ben introduces him to the Force.
But the point of no return actually happens slightly earlier. Because Luke’s aunt and uncle, his only family, are dead, he can’t return to his old life even if he wanted to.
A point of no return can also prove highly effective in the climax in the third act.
BACK TO THE FUTURE III, screenplay by Bob Gale, makes this literal. Stuck in the wild west, Doc (Christopher Lloyd) explains to Marty (Michael J. Fox) his plan to return to the present by hijacking a train.
The DeLorean needs to reach 88 mph to travel through time, and the locomotive can push it. Doc points out that a windmill on their route is the point past which it’s too late to slow down.
That’s our fail-safe point. Up until that point we can stop the locomotive before it plunges over the ravine. But once we pass that windmill, it’s the future or bust.
However, a poorly executed point of no return can undermine character arcs by limiting the character’s options.
Sometimes, if the protagonist can’t actually choose between running away and doing the right thing, then doing the latter becomes less meaningful.
(This is a philosophical conundrum as well as a creative one. If our choices are just the results of our circumstances, how can we be held accountable for anything? How can we be punished and rewarded for our actions?)
There are ways to use this third act point of no return to force characters into making these difficult decisions themselves, rather than taking them away from them.
In the BACK TO THE FUTURE III example above, the point of no return forces Doc Brown to make a choice. Rather than join Marty in the DeLorean, he chooses to save Clara (Mary Steenburgen), as they’ve fallen in love.
The train crashes into a ravine. As far as Doc and the audience understand it, he sacrifices his only chance of returning to his own time. Throughout the story, he and Marty have been working on this plan to escape. Now, he’s found a reason to stay, something and someone that’s more important than him.
Beyond a certain point, no return is possible. That is the point that is to be reached.
– Franz Kafka
In the first act, the point of no return strips the protagonist of their choices. They can’t go backwards, even if they wanted to.
In the third act, however, it can force them into making a choice. When facing a point of no return, who are they really? And what is the most important to them? This is when a character shows their true colours.