The Midpoint

Carrie RyanCarrie Ryan
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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.

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11 comments to The Midpoint

  • I love these posts on story structure, because while I am a plotter, someone who outlines and maintains a solid sense of where my story has been and where it’s going, I have never given much thought to the theory of plotting, or structural rules for storytelling. I think I largely adhere to these things on instinct, but seeing how the theory works, and having a name for the stages, seeing a larger tradition of storytelling of which I’m (unwittingly) a part — very cool. Thanks for this, Carrie, and also for the links.

  • David — thanks! I think you’re absolutely right that a large part of structure is instinctual. That’s one reason I think reading is so important to writing — with each book we read we’re internalizing structure without realizing it. I tend to look at structure as more of a check-list for after the fact, especially in revision or when I’m stuck. For example, while I know that the midpoint should up the stakes and mark a clear new direction for the story, I don’t always think about how to make it as personal as possible.

    I tend to buy books on craft whenever I’m stuck in a story in the hopes that I’ll read something that will jog something loose in my head and make the story fall into place. Sometimes it works, sometimes not – lol. But it means I’ve ended up with a huge shelf of craft books :)

  • I love this.
    I plot, but I do it by the seat of my pants. Ahem.
    Now I can plot efficiently, with reasoning. I am bookmarking this will read it several times this week! WONDERFUL!

  • Lol Faith — I’m not much of a plotter either. I tend to do a lot more by the seat of my pants. But whenever I’m stuck or trying to choose between options I like to think about stuff like this to help figure out what direction I want to go in :)

  • Ken

    I love these kinds of “Structure” posts. I’m still trying to find my way and, like you Carrie, I’ve got a lot of books on craft. I’m primarily a plotter and I’m on my first book. When the second one rolls around (or maybe when I’m revising this one) I’ll plan on using the charts, etc to hold up to the work so I can see where the elements in my story fall. Not as a strict set of rules, but more like a touchstone.

  • quillet

    I’ll join the chorus and say, I love these Structure posts. And not to be too much of an echo, but pretty much everything Ken said is true of me too. I plot by instinct, but it’s really helpful if afterwards (or if stuck) I can check my beats against the structure charts — which, to quote Captain Barbossa, are more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules. :)

  • Me, too! These posts are great for figuring out if the story’s fitting, or if something needs to be added/removed/changed. I just realized that my current WIP doesn’t quite have a defined midpoint, so I’m going to apply this and see if figuring that out will help me get things straightened out. :)

    Also, sorry to briefly hijack, but PSA: ConCarolinas’ hotel bookings are going rather quickly this year for their special room rate, and they recommend *everyone* who intends to go (presenters included) booking now, before they’re all taken. The credit card isn’t charged until checkin (so, May 2014), but it holds your spot. If plans change and you can’t make it, you can cancel close to the date without penalty. Just thought it was worth sharing.

  • ::grin:: Before I came to MW today, I was focusing on plotting JOY OF WITCHCRAFT, and I stumbled on the Dramatica post. So, that post is sort of like learning a new word, and then you find it *everywhere* :-) Thanks for the thought-provoking post!

  • Johnathan Knight

    Great post.

  • Great Post, Carrie!
    I actually got a chuckle while reading about the can’t-go-back moment. In one of my WIPs, the midpoint can’t-go-back moment occurs when my MC kills a guest (her new husband) in her parents’ house. He (the dead newlywed husband) is also the nephew of the Archbishop who presided over their marriage. She flees – can’t go back! LOL. I had no when I drafted out the storyline that there was a structure to plotting. I guess reading a lot, especially in genre, teaches through osmosis.

  • sagablessed

    I had never really given this much thought. It makes me think more about how I plot things out…by the seat of my pants.