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Monday, September 16, 2019

Mastering Midpoints (The Saviors of Saggy Story Middles)



I've been pulling my hair out lately trying to fix the middle part of one of my novels, and one of the main problems with it, relates to the midpoint. You see, I plotted and largely wrote this manuscript years ago, before I had an in-depth understanding of story structure--like a lot of us have probably done. Heck, a lot of us don't even like thinking about story structure because it feels too restrictive and formulaic, and that's fine. But whether you plot your stories' structures by the books or just do what you want as you go, understanding story structure can be hecka important. And even if you hate it, at least knowing how it functions can be super useful, especially if you are trying to troubleshoot what is wrong with a manuscript, like I was weeks (months?) ago.

Once I realized that my problem related to the midpoint, I was able to begin brainstorming (and praying) how I might fix it. And a lot of times, the midpoint is key in doctoring a problematic middle. I kind of like to think of it as the savior.

The midpoint typically happens in the middle of the plot (no surprise there). It is the moment when new, significant information--or at least a shift in context--enters and turns the story in a different direction.

(Wow, is that definition vague enough?)

Now, the direction of the story can change completely, like a 180, or it may be very slight and subtle, more like 10 degrees, but it changes in a significant way.

Most often, in a typical story structure, the change is this:

The protagonist moves from being primarily responsive to being more (pro)active, in regards to the main plot.

So, it's usually like:

Character responding to problems --> Midpoint (new information or context) --> Character being proactive toward main problems.

The "new information" is just something that allows the character (or audience) to have a greater understanding of what's going on, so that they can now be more active in attacking the problem.

There are literally so many ways this can play out, which is why the midpoint can seem difficult to grasp, so I'm going to grab some popular examples:


In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the midpoint happens when Harry overhears the professors in the Three Broomsticks and learns Sirius Black is the reason his parents are dead.

Why? Because prior to this, he is responding or reacting to the fact Sirius is after him. But after this, he wants to seek revenge on Sirius, in other words, mentally, he becomes active in "attack mode."

In Legally Blonde, the midpoint happens when Elle realizes that she will never be good enough for Warner.

Why? Because prior to this, she is just responding to Warner's breakup. But after this she is actively trying to succeed at Harvard, with an intensity she hasn't had prior--she buys all new materials, studies hard, answers questions in classes.

In Interstellar, the midpoint happens when Cooper, Murph, and by extension, the audience, realize that there is no real "Plan A"--everyone on Earth is going to die.

Why? Because prior to this, Cooper is responding to the destiny of humankind, but after this, he goes into an active "attack mode" by planning to do whatever it takes to return to Murph and Earth right away.

In Ralph Breaks the Internet, the midpoint is when Ralph realizes he can get the money they need from making viral videos.

Why? Because prior to this, he is unsuccessfully responding to the broken steering situation and the internet itself, and after this, he hatches a solid plan to get the cash, with a better understanding of how the internet works.


But a midpoint can be rather loose, which is why it's hard to define and wrap our minds around. For example, I may use terms like "respond" and "reaction" paired with "attack" and "pro-action," but you could argue from another perspective, some protagonists are doing all of them all the time. For example, from the inciting incident, Ralph is trying to actively solve a problem, and same goes for Cooper. But here's the thing. At the midpoint, new information or a new understanding allows them to "attack," better or more accurately, the focal conflict.

Think of it as a moment that jump-starts the protagonist into a different direction.

In some cases, this may be a rather unexpected direction. 

In Lion King, Simba spends the first part of the story reacting to the fact he will someday be king, but then the midpoint hits--Mufasa dies and Scar tells Simba no one will ever love or forgive him--Simba goes into an "attack" mode of sorts, except his is that rather than just responding to being king someday, he proactively chooses to never be king, and takes action by running away and starting a new life. It relates to the main conflict of the story, but his "attack mode" is to actively, intentionally, run away. After all, he thinks he is the problem, so in a sense, he is "attacking" himself.


The content of a midpoint can be very flexible, as you can see from these examples. If you want to get a better discerning eye for what a midpoint is and how many different forms it can take, start pausing movies smack dab in the middle--there should be something around there that enters the story and pushes it in a new direction. You can also try opening books to the middle and searching around there. Harry discovering Sirius is responsible for his parents' deaths is near the middle. In Stranger Things season one, Will's body is found smack dab in the middle, which is new information that changes context, and therefore the direction of the story. And after that point, the characters have to all decide how to act next.

So now that we have some idea of what a midpoint is (significant information that changes the direction of the story, usually by changing the protagonist), let's talk about how it actually works.

Step One: New Significant Information Enters . . .


In order for a story or protagonist to start going a new direction, there has to be something that causes that. Information. Or an event that is new information.

Or at least a shift in our understanding of the information we already have (context shift), which in a sense, is its own kind of "new" information.

But let's not confuse ourselves quite yet.

In order for the information to significantly change the direction of the story, the information itself needs to be significant.

Remember how I broke down what constitutes "significant" a few weeks ago?

Something is significant when it either:

1) Has important personal consequences, or
2) Has far-reaching, broad consequences
So, new information enters the story that has personal or far-reaching consequences. This means that the midpoint itself is either going to "broaden" or "deepen" the story, or do both. And it's going to do this in a powerful way.

Elle realizing that she will never be good enough for Warner has deep (a.k.a. personal) consequences. Harry realizing that Sirius is responsible for his parents' death has deep consequences.

Cooper learning everyone on Earth is going to die has broad consequences--all of humankind.

Simba believing he killed his father has both personal and broad consequences, as it affects himself and his whole kingdom.

Sometimes the new information is big and mind-blowing, maybe even a juicy twist, like in Incredibles 2 when Elastigirl realizes that Evelyn is the real Screenslaver, and she's in deep trouble. Or it can be subtle, like a character making an important connection between information he already had.

Like I touched on earlier. The new information can come as:


Information

- Ralph learning he can make money by making viral videos is straight up information.

- Harry learning Sirius is responsible for his parents' deaths is straight up information.

An Event

- Scar killing Mufasa and telling Simba it's his fault is an event. Mufasa being dead and Simba believing he is responsible is the "new information" (along with the fact Scar actually killed Mufasa).

- In Stranger Things season one, Will's body being recovered is an event that brings in new information. The characters either have to accept he's actually dead or prove to others he is not.

Or a Context Shift

- Dr. Brand reciting a poem he's recited through the whole movie isn't really anything new. But him reciting it on his death bed in that tone shifts the context and gives it a whole new meaning, which leads to characters' new realizations.


Whatever the case, something significant arrives in the middle that changes how the story has been going. And this something needs to have greater potential consequences than probably anything that has happened since the inciting incident.


Step Two: . . . Which Leads to a New Direction or Understanding


Now that new, significant information has entered the story, it means the protagonist or the audience (or both) will change their approach to the problems, because their understanding has changed.

In some stories, the change may be aggressive. For example, in Incredibles 2, I would consider the results of the midpoint to be more aggressive and drastic. Elasticgirl falls under Evelyn's control, and later, so do other superheroes. The midpoint means that this problem is going to be much more difficult to solve than we first thought. (Note though, how all the of protagonists (the family) change more drastically after that moment.)

In other stories, the change may be softer. Sure, Harry now wants revenge on Sirius, but content-speaking, this doesn't drastically change what happens in the plot, until the climax, when he meets Sirius. The midpoint is still critical, for Harry, and for our understanding of the story, but Harry's "attack" mode is not super aggressive. The midpoint largely changes the story's context. We all now see everything with Sirius in a different light, and we also now have more things to worry about.

In either method, the midpoint kicks up the tension, like a catalyst.



Variations

Like everything in writing, you can break rules and play with variations. Once you understand what a basic midpoint is, you can mess around with it, to an extent.

Often a midpoint is, well, a point, a moment, an instant, or a single scene. But sometimes, like plot points, it might be more of a sequences of scenes. It might be a sequence of information. For example, in Into the Spider-verse, the midpoint is when the heroes successfully get the computer from Alchemax and realize where they can get another goober. Prior to this, Miles and Peter are largely responding and reacting to their situations. During the course of the Alchemax scene, they learn to work together, and Miles learns to use his abilities. They also learn some new information about Kingpin, Doc Oc, and the collider. But in the next scene, it's Gwen who says she knows how to fix their problems. There isn't really a strong, critical, earth-moving moment, but rather a sequence of new things that bring them into "attack mode."

At some midpoints, the protagonist doesn't learn new information, but only the audience does. The protagonist can still get more desperate in solving the problems, but it's the audience alone that has the greater context. Because it still changes the direction--our understanding--of the story, has significant consequences, and kicks up tension, it can still work as a midpoint, if an unusual one.

On the flip side, it may be that the midpoint brings in information that is new to the protagonist, but that the audience already knew or surmised earlier, but the fact the protagonist now knows changes the direction and meaning of the story in significant ways, jump-starting the next part of the plot.

Some stories may place the midpoint a little earlier or a little later than the middle, and if that doesn't mess up the pacing or make the stakes drag, why not?

Some stories may even have multiple midpoints. In Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, he talks about this in regards to The Da Vinci Code. One moment is when Langdon and Sophie decide to meet Professor Teabing, who is "The Teacher," and another moment is when they learn what the Holy Grail actually is. Each moment changes the direction and meaning of the story.


In particular, you may have multiple midpoints when you have multiple plot lines. For example, in Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry learning that information about Sirius is a midpoint, but a lot of the other plot lines hit a midpoint near there as well. Harry hasn't been able to get to Hogsmeade, but in that same chapter, Fred and George give him the Marauader's Map--new information that drastically changes his ability to travel. There is also a plot line about winning the Quidditch cup, and near the middle, Harry's broom gets busted and someone sends him a Fireblot, drastically changing things.

For the werewolf/Lupin plot line, near the middle, Snape substitutes D.A.D.A. and teaches about werewolves, particularly how to recognize one. With the Hagrid and Buckbeak plot line, in the middle, the trio learns that Buckbeak has to go to trial, and they promise to help with it. With the Dementor plot line, around the middle, Harry falls off his broom and then Lupin offers to teach Harry the Patronus charm.

In short, every plot line hits something new and significant that changes the direction of it. It is almost always something greater than anything that has happened since that plot line's inciting incident.


If you find your story middle isn't coming together, check the midpoint(s). Think of the midpoint as the nail you hang your story's whole middle on. It transitions from the first half of the middle to the second half of the middle. It's the story's middle middle. 


Related Posts:
Story Structure Explained: Pinch Points, Midpoints, Plot Points, and Middles
How to Write Stakes in Storytelling
What to Outline When Starting a Story

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