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Monday, December 14, 2020

Understanding the Mirror Moment

The first time I heard of the "mirror moment" I cringed--because the only "mirror moment" I knew in writing, was the very cliche, often touted as a no-no, mirror moment in the opening of a book, where the protagonist stares at her or himself in the mirror to describe her or his appearance. This is frowned upon for several reasons that would be better saved for another post (and yes, all rules can be broken).

Luckily THEE mirror moment is something totally different! It's a moment that comes right at the middle of your story (aka, the midpoint) and doesn't actually require anything close to a physical mirror. This is a term coined by best-selling writer, James Scott Bell, and it's his version we are here to talk about today. (Sorry other "mirror moment"--I'll save you for another post). 

Midpoint Ambiguity --> Specificity

The mirror moment is a component of the midpoint.

Now, I gotta be honest: There are several different definitions of what a midpoint is and what happens at it. 

The first definition I was introduced to, was that the midpoint was where new information entered the story to provide more context for what is actually happening in the plot--it gives the protagonist a "bigger picture" of the events that are going on. 

This in turn leads the protagonist to move from a reactionary state to a pro-action state, or in other words, it moves them from wandering around to becoming more of a warrior and fighting antagonistic forces more aggressively. 

I did a whole post on that midpoint concept here. And I was first introduced to it by Larry Brooks in Story Engineering

Another school of thought on the midpoint is that it is a seeming victory or a seeming defeat for the protagonist. They either seem to get what they want, when they really haven't, or they seem to lose their heart's desire, when they really haven't. This is how Blake Snyder views midpoints in Save the Cat! 

Personally, the more time goes on, the more I think both definitions are right. So these days, I prefer to combine them together:

The midpoint is a significant event and/or revelation that is either a seeming victory or a seeming defeat for the protagonist. It provides a broader understanding of what's actually happening in the plot, enabling the protagonist to become more proactive in their goals. 

The midpoint almost always happens right in the middle of the story. 

And it pivots the story into the second half.

If you are newer to story structure and still feel like you don't understand what a midpoint is and what it looks like, no worries, you'll still be able to learn about the mirror moment and implement it. 

If you want to understand midpoints better, you can find more info on them here, here, here, and here

What is the Mirror Moment?

The mirror moment is the moment the protagonist moves from reaction to pro-action (typically), on a deep, personal level, and it happens on page. 

See, James Scott Bell also noticed there were different schools of thought on what happened at the midpoint: "I was never clear on what that thing was, because there’s conflicting advice on it, and some of it’s vague. So I set about to see if I was missing anything."

As Bell researched the direct middle of several books and movies, he realized each midpoint had the same moment (and shared it with us in his book, Write Your Novel from the Middle), an instance where the protagonist has to have a heart to heart with himself--where he is forced to look at himself in the mirror, so to speak--and reflect on who he is and who he needs to become in order to succeed:

"He takes stock of where he is in the conflict and--depending on the type of story--has either of two basic thoughts. In a character-driven story, he looks at himself and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming? If he continues the fight of [the middle], how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome his inner challenges? How will he have to change in order to battle successfully? 

"The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. It's where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him. At this point, the force seems so vast that there is virtually no way to go on and not face certain death. That death can be physical, professional, or psychological."

It's also possible for the protagonist to have both lines of thought. 

Bell gives plenty of examples:

In Casablanca, Rick, drunk and bitter, puts his head in his hands in self-disgust, clearly wondering what he has become. 

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett looks inside herself and realizes she is the only one that can save Tara, and she wonders who she needs to become to do that.

In It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Potter offers George a well-paying position in exchange for George giving up the Building & Loan his father started. George says he needs to think it over (a mirror moment), but soon after rejects the offer, because he realizes he can't become a man like Potter. 

In The Fugitive, Dr. Kimble breaks down as he considers the odds against him. 

Similarly, in The Hunger Games, Katniss accepts she will die--the odds are too great. 

In a case where the odds are stacked against the protagonist, the protagonist may realize he or she needs to become stronger somehow to overcome them.

One of the amazing things about the mirror moment, is it often clues us into what the story is actually about, on the narrative level and/or on the thematic level.

Concerning Gone with the Wind's mirror moment, Bell explains, "That is the concept of Gone with the Wind. It's a story of a young Southern belle who is forced to save her family home."

Whether or not you fully grasp the other components of the midpoint, understanding the mirror moment can help bring clarity to the kind of story you are telling. It's an instance that pivots the story, from first half to second half. When you understand yours, you get a better grasp of what the first vs. second halves need to look like. This will help you consider how your protagonist is pre-mirror moment, vs. post-mirror moment.  

The mirror moment gets the protagonist on the proper trajectory to overcome his inner demons, flaws, weaknesses, or misbeliefs by the end. 

Or . . . it might be a little different, depending on what kind of protagonist you are working with. If the protagonist has a negative change, then it sets him or her on the course to adopt inner demons, moral indecency, or misbeliefs by the end. 

In some cases, the protagonist may choose not to become this new person or face these dire odds, which often will result in a tragedy.

And finally, I would add that a protagonist who is already positively steadfast may not do a big shift or flip, but will still become more proactive as she chooses to press on. 

Once the mirror moment is decided, the second half will test and prove it true. If the protagonist is resolving to become something more, then they need to show us by their actions (the "proaction"). We will need to test that resolve at the end of the middle (generally this is when the protagonist is faced with something especially painful and deadly). How committed are they to this journey? Normally, we need to see that they are all in by the last act. 

Because how the protagonist changes or doesn't change is directly related to theme, the mirror moment is typically another signpost on the way to the true thematic statement. 

You can learn more about the mirror moment, and how to use it to write your own story, in James Scott Bell's short book, Write Your Novel from the Middle.

In closing, this week is your last week to enter the Advent Calendar for Writers at Writers Helping Writers. Visit this page to see all the prizes and enter any you missed.  


  1. I can't tell you how much I love getting into the craft weeds with stuff like this. I'm writing a trilogy, so I'm trying to juggle four different midpoints. Tricky, but fun.

    1. Structure is always a little more interesting with a series! So many pieces to keep in mind. Hope it all goes well for you!

  2. I think this is my favorite post you've done since I've started following you. The message about having an introspective moment at the middle, really made a difference to me. It got my wheels spinning and I now know how my MC will shift as she moves forward. THank you!

    1. I'm so glad it was helpful! You might like James Scott Bell's book on it--it's a quick read and has more helpful, related ideas. I always love it when some advice gets my wheels spinning.


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