In my last post I talked about structure (here) and shared one of the many plot charts I use while working on a book. And yes, I said “many plot charts” because there are several different approaches and sometimes what works at one stage (such as pre-planning) doesn’t work as well in another stage (like revising). (It’s been a while since I read this link so I can’t remember how on point it is, but you can get an idea of various structures here).
Today I want to spend a little more time focusing on one of the plot points you’ll find in most of those structures (and which I think is critical to almost any story): the midpoint. As you’d guess, the midpoint takes place about halfway through the book (in the middle of Act 2 for you 3 Act structure fans).
Up until this point your character has faced challenges but has more or less overcome them. We’ve gotten the promise of the premise and maybe there have been some events that have caused the hero to have to change her plan but that’s okay — she’s handling it, adapting and still moving forward. Essentially, up until this point the Plan — the way forward to success — has been working.
That all changes at the midpoint. The way the character has been coping so far fails. The way forward is no longer viable but at the same time, the way back has been cut off. This is the turn that drives the character toward the climax — the point at which that climax essentially becomes inevitable and inescapable. The fun and games are over, the plan is falling apart, and there’s no going back.
The midpoint is where things get much MUCH worse for your characters. Michael Hauge calls it “the point of no return.” Basically, once your character crosses this point, there’s no going back or, put another way, they’ve burned the bridge.
Sometimes, the “no going back” aspect is physical — the character can’t physically return to where they were before. Think about The Hunger Games — once Katniss enters the arena, she’s trapped and there’s no going back. It’s also the point where things get personal — threats that may have been more generalized before now begin to hit home. Suddenly the shark in Jaws isn’t just threatening the general population, it’s attacked the hero’s son — now it’s personal.
But the midpoint is also often emotional — something has changed in the character and even if they were able to physically return to their world, it wouldn’t be enough for them anymore. In Cinderella after she’s been to the ball and danced with the prince, it’s impossible for her to be satisfied with the life she lived before.
Whenever I’m drafting, I pay particular attention to what the midpoint of the story will be. To me the key is to make sure it’s not wishy-washy; to make sure I’ve pushed it as far as I can. I ask myself how can I make these stakes more personal? How can I ensure the character can’t go back either physically, emotionally, or both?
At the end of the day, I want to make sure that if the character threw up her hands and said, “That’s it, I’m done with all of this,” that she couldn’t return to the life she lived before. The midpoint is where that change happens. Up until that point, the character could more or less go back — Katniss could return to District 12 and resume her life and wouldn’t be forced to change or complete her internal story arc.
The midpoint is where your character becomes committed to change. They may not like it and they’ll certainly struggle against it — but from that point on their only option is to continue forward. They have to face what lies ahead because there is literally no going back. This is what helps to raise the stakes — because there’s no going back, the hero *must* succeed, even as the obstacles become overwhelming. And ultimately, that’s what sets up your black moment — the point at which the hero sees no way forward and yet can’t turn back.