The Magical Midpoint

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Thread: The Magical Midpoint

  1. #1

    The Magical Midpoint

    For a lot of novelists, the middle of the novel presents the most creative challenges. You've come up with a catchy opening, and you've got a spectacular climax in mind. So, how to fill out that great, vast middle ground?

    What many authors don't realize is that screenwriters have known the answer to this problem for decades. It's been called the tentpole, the belt-loop, the hook, the turn. Whatever crazy names are given to it, it's hard to deny the significance of the midpoint of your story.

    Novice writers can go astray by forcing their reader to meander through an uneventful middle in order to "pick back up" again in the third act, the climax part of the story. This is often called a "sagging middle".

    Then you'll have writers who are aware of the midpoint "sag", and attempt to defeat it by filling the second act of their story with random acts of conflict. The hero is closing in on his way to victory but you've still got 40,000 words to write?

    I've got it!
    thinks Mr. Writer, I'll just make random catastrophes happen to my hero along the way!

    While such an approach would be arguably better than a middle where no conflict happens at all, it's still not the ideal way of handling a plot. A second act filled with episodic conflicts can begin to feel not only monotonous, but predictable.

    So, what to do with that soft mid-section?

    There are a few tried-and-true methods the professionals use when plotting out their midpoints. Sometimes, more than one method is used. But always something significant happens here.

    Method: The Reversal

    This is one of the most common techniques used at the middle of stories and screenplays to avoid the saggy middle. Here, the story takes a drastic turn at the midpoint, spinning everything in a new direction.

    If things are going good, here's a good place to flip it and make everything go wrong.

    Example of a classic reversal: in Ridley Scott's 1979 film Alien, the crew is celebrating the return-to-health of one of its members, Kane, after an alien parasite fell off his face.

    The mood is light and smiles and laughs are all around as the crew sit down for a meal, happy and ready to return home. But the uneventful dinner is turned serious when Kane goes into mouth-foaming convulsions, and an alien creature bursts through his chest, killing him. The creature escapes into another part of the ship. A man-killing monster is now loose on board.

    It's a huge reversal, spinning the story in a completely new direction.

    Method: A Countdown Begins

    The introduction of a time clock is a classic and well-known approach to elevating reader tension and tightening a sagging middle. With the introduction of a countdown, the characters take on a new sense of urgency, one that filters into the reader as well.

    Example of a classic countdown: in James Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, a countdown begins right after the big midpoint event—the giant ship has struck an iceberg! While listening to the architect of the ship explain that the majestic boat "will sink", the Captain desperately asks, "How much time?"

    "An hour. Two at most," is the grim response he gets.

    The result? The audience is hooked and riveted. That magical midpoint has done it again!

    Method: Story lines Collide

    Another method of giving the midpoint an extra pop is to combine two parallel story lines in one dramatic moment. Up until this point, the narrative has been juggling two (or more) protagonists in seemingly unrelated plot lines. The midpoint is the perfect opportunity to slam them together, throwing the characters headlong into a thickening plot, and the reader headlong into a gripping story development.

    Example of a classic midpoint where two story lines collide: in Ridley Scott's 2000 film Gladiator, there are two story lines running alternately through the second quarter of the film:

    1) Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) rising to power as the villain in Rome
    2) Maximus (Russell Crowe) rising to power as a gladiator in the outer districts

    At the midpoint of the movie, the A and B stories collide when Maximus is brought to Rome to fight in front of Commodus at the Colosseum.

    Method: The Stakes are Raised

    What seemed like a normal smash-and-grab has now turned into something far more serious and risky. The stakes are dramatically raised at this midpoint beat, giving the story new weight and momentum.

    Example of a classic midpoint where the stakes are raised: in Robert Zemeckis' 1985 film Back to the Future, Marty has travelled back in time to 1955 and encounters the younger versions of his parents. At the midpoint of the film the stakes are dramatically raised when Doc tells Marty he has to avoid interacting with anyone due to the risk of altering the future.

    Doc asks, " Marty, who else did you interact with today, besides me?"

    Marty replies, "Well, nobody, really. I just sort of bumped into my parents."

    Doc's eyebrows shoot up and he yells out, "Great Scott! Let me see that picture again!"

    We see the family photograph from Marty's wallet, and the head of Marty's brother has been erased from existence!

    The stakes have been raised to the ceiling now, as what was originally just a time-travelling film has now turned into a matter of life and death, not just for Marty's family, but for Marty himself, as well.

    When using these methods, remember there is always the possibility of combining several at once, or layering them together in consecutive scenes.

    What other Midpoint methods can you think of to tighten a sagging middle? Which ones do you most prefer to read? To write?

    Don't let your midsection go soft. Craft an unforgettable midpoint. Your readers will thank you.

  2. #2
    WF Veteran Gavrushka's Avatar
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    A great post, as always.

    The slight issue I now have is, having just concluded the first novel that I intend to publish, I'm looking at my reflection in the mirror. - Have I a paunch? Does my middle warm my kneecaps?

    You describe a tent, but is it not possible to have a lean-to also?
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  3. #3
    I'm going to play devil's advocate here. I think trying to shore up the middle section of your novel with a gimmick, for want of a better term, can do more harm than good. I've read novels where this sudden 'twist', as you call it, happened towards the middle and most of the time it was a cheap attempt at shock tactics. You should strive to make the middle interesting without the need for a formula or method.
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  4. #4
    This is not a knock against pantsers!

    I think most midpoint problems stem from poor planning.

    Personally, I think every chapter should have a climax and resolution of some kind. From the first chapter onward, the story should constantly build, creating a steady increase in tension overall. The final climax being the highest point (hopefully at the end of your story).

    Most of my drag comes in at those transition chapters, where the characters are coming down from a mini-climax and moving towards the next situation. That in-between place that requires me to organically build the characters by creating, addressing and/or resolving micro conflicts stung together by the overarching tensions. Things I didn't plan and must create on the spot (pantsing basically).
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  5. #5
    WF Veteran Gavrushka's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Tettsuo View Post
    This is not a knock against pantsers!
    I had thought that too, but let it slide. - I think the thing is, a pantser can't have midpoint blues as he/she will not have a clue when they've reached halfway.
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  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Sam View Post
    You should strive to make the middle interesting without the need for a formula or method.
    I think I agree with this. Until recently, I never even considered three-act structures or five-act structures or any of that. I just told the story I wanted to tell, and it's trickier to break up my novel as a result. I do have six distinct parts - "acts," if you will - but they don't really follow the traditional structure.

    Introduction: The story world is revealed.
    Rebellion: The protagonist's backlash against the world.
    Recovery: The protagonist coming to terms with the world.
    Initiative: The protagonist using the world to his advantage.
    Descent: The world fighting back against the protagonist.
    Finale: The conflicts resolved.

    I know those are incredibly vague, but more accurate description would take too long. However, you can see it doesn't quite fit into either the three- or five-act models. (If anything, it's two five-act models crammed together.) Still, because things are dynamic throughout, there's no real lull that needs to be gimmicked out. Furthermore, because the plot is intended to work as a whole, there's no way I can break it into two stories without ending the first in an blatant sequel hook.

    I feel if you're struggling to fill the middle of your book, you don't truly know the story you're trying to tell. Well-designed characters should grow all by themselves, without any contrivances on the part of the author. Well-made plots should unfold naturally, without any devices forced in.

    And if you still are left with no middle, just join the parts you do have! If this means speeding up plot or character development, so much the better. I think nearly every reader would prefer development that's too quick rather than development that's too slow, and a pace that's too quick over a pace that's too slow. If you have to err at all, err on the side of brevity.
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  7. #7
    Great to see Alien being used in another example! Thanks!

  8. #8
    WF Veteran FleshEater's Avatar
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    Very interesting post, Kyle. Unintentionally I used the "Countdown" method in my novel. Though, as I said, it was unintentional due to my ignorance of this method, but it seemed very appropriate at the time of writing it. Perhaps it's from all the media I've digested in my 29 years playing with my subconscious.
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  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by Gavrushka View Post
    I had thought that too, but let it slide. - I think the thing is, a pantser can't have midpoint blues as he/she will not have a clue when they've reached halfway.
    I can't knock pantsers because I'm part pantser myself! I've come to terms with it. Just because I plan out the key points in the story, doesn't mean I'm not flying by the seat of my pants to get to those points.
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  10. #10
    As I see it, the protagonist is on a sine wave.
    Click image for larger version. 

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    There are a lot of ideas captured in this image, but the most relevant for the purposes of this thread concerns the plot points (where the slopes of the curves equals 0). One error many new writers make is to have a really bad problem hit the protagonist at the inciting incident (the first place m = 1) and then the protagonist runs off to fix it or deal with it (ex. "John learns he has cancer", "Lord Farfegnugen discovers dragons have taken up residence in his gold mine", etc.) In actuality, the damage caused by the inciting incident is far more extensive. It is often more destructive than even the protagonist first recognizes. That is because it is aimed at the protagonist's way of life. The protagonist comes to realize that his entire global paradigm is proven deficient. Everything that it is based on (that the protagonist may not realize that it is based on) such as fear, guilt, self-deception, etc. is brought out into the light. The blue sine curve in the image represents that, after the inciting incident, the protagonist keeps falling as he has the rude awakening that his old way of doing things is insufficient.

    The turn around (the slope equals 0) at the midpoint happens primarily because the protagonist has lost his old way of life, his old ideas of social reality, his flawed self-image, his old models of what is good. He may come to realize that his old friends like him only for his money. Having lost everything, he is ready to be baptized into a new life - to reincarnate into a new person. The turn around occurs because the protagonist's ideas of what is valuable (and thus how he's keeping score) have changed.
    This is often a baptism of fire. The protagonist makes this change at the same point that the enemy is launching an attack and the enemy is at its strongest. The protagonist finds himself unarmed and defenseless and, to survive and move forward, he must make a leap of faith in his new paradigm.

    This is A way of looking at plot. There are many such views and a writer should strive to not only know several, but to be able to switch views quickly and combine them at the drop of a hat
    Last edited by Justin Rocket; February 13th, 2014 at 10:46 PM.

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