The “saggy middle” of a story is one of the biggest challenges writers face. The Second Act is twice as long as the other two acts and yet is often less clearly defined. What’s a writer to do to keep the pacing just as tight and the events just as interesting over the long haul of the Second Act? The simplest answer is: Mind the Midpoint.
Writing instruction is often more prolific for the First Act and the Third Act, since their functions and responsibilities are more clearly defined. The First Act must hook readers and set up the conflict. The Third Act must ramp up into a satisfying Climax that concludes the conflict. Both of these acts are comparatively short, only a quarter each of the story, and so they are often very busy in their need to check all the necessary boxes.
The Second Act, by comparison, can seem a long desert trek. We understand something must happen between the setup and resolution, and we recognize this something is the conflict itself. But beyond that, we can sometimes struggle to keep this heart of our story pumping in a way that also keeps readers turning pages. Cue the saggy middle.
Fortunately, there is an obvious and simple solution, and it’s the same solution writers use to compose the First and Third Acts: story structure. The heart of that structure in the Second Act—and, indeed, the heart of the entire story’s structure—is the Midpoint. If you have the Midpoint in place and working well (along with its fellow Second-Act beats the Pinch Points), your Second Act will be on its way to pulling its own weight.
Over the last month or so, we’ve been exploring the idea that story structure is inherently chiastic—a pattern in which we recognize that the beats in the second half mirror, in reverse order, those in the first half. We can see this most plainly if we view story structure less as an arc and more as a circle.
So far, we’ve discussed the link between the Hook and Resolution, the link between the Inciting Event and Climactic Moment, the link between the First and Third Plot Points, and the link between the First and Second Pinch Points. Today, it’s time to discuss the final structural beat, the lone ranger of the bunch—the Midpoint.
As you can see in the graphic, the Midpoint reigns alone at the base of the circle. It has no paired beat but is rather the pivot point around which all the beats in the first and second halves swivel. As such, the Midpoint does not specifically mirror any other beat (although, as James Scott Bell discusses, it is often the representative Mirror Moment for the entire story). Rather, it acts to resolve certain elements in the first half, with this resolution then become the catalyst for all the mirroring elements in the second half.
Structurally Speaking: What Is the Midpoint?
Within the structural nomenclature I use, the Midpoint is technically the Second Plot Point. Other instructors and systems sometimes give the Midpoint no other name and refer to the Third Plot Point as the Second Plot Point. Don’t get confused, since although the names may sometimes differ, the structural beats at the 50% and 75% marks still perform the same functions in all the varied instructional systems.
The Midpoint occurs at the 50% mark, halfway through the Second Act and (obviously) halfway through the book itself. Although many writers neglect the Midpoint in comparison to more noted moments such as the First Plot Point or Climax, the Midpoint is arguably the most significant beat within the story. It is what director Sam Peckinpah called the “centerpiece” of the entire story. Everything hangs upon it. In many ways, it is the moment that decides the ultimate fate of the story. What happens here—what the characters realize and decide—will determine whether or not they arc positively and triumph in the Climax’s final confrontation.
As such, the Midpoint will often be one of your biggest and most visual scenes. In a more adventurous story, this might mean you stage a big set-piece battle scene here. In a more relational story, it may be only one single significant visual or conversation. Regardless, it must be electric. It must dynamically move the characters and the plot.
The Midpoint will feature at least one, possibly more, momentous revelations. Within the primary character arc and thematic exploration, the protagonist will encounter a Moment of Truth that forever changes his or her view of the story’s central philosophy. This revelation, perhaps in partnership with a further external revelation about the nature of the conflict itself, will forever evolve how the protagonist approaches the conflict—on both a personal and practical level. It signals a thematic shift from Lie to Truth (or vice versa) and an external shift from ineffective “reaction” to increasingly effective “action.” Not to put too fine a point on it, the lessons the protagonist has learned in the first half will now crystallize into an actionable plan in the second half.
Recognizing the Central Importance of the Midpoint
You can think of the pivot created by your story’s Midpoint in a few different ways:
- Centerpiece: Set-Piece Scene
One of the primary reasons structural turning points are important within a story is because they regulate the pacing, which in turn regulates the entertainment value a reader or viewer is receiving. The three main Plot Points in particular should be big moments within the story. Arguably, there is none bigger than the Midpoint.
This is your opportunity to create a stellar set-piece scene or sequence—one that not only performs its structural duties, but that wows your audience. If you imagine your story as a big dinner party, then the Midpoint is the jaw-dropping centerpiece in the middle of the table. Take this opportunity pull out all the stops and give your readers something they won’t easily forget.
For Example: In one of my all-time favorite examples of a viscerally unforgettable Midpoint shift, Jurassic Park revs out of a totally character-driven first half with a (literal) lightning storm of a Midpoint. During a tropical storm, the power goes out and the electric fences fail. The dinosaurs—most notably the T-Rex—escape, and the characters will spend the rest of the movie very actively trying to find a way off the island.
- Thematic Moment of Truth
The Midpoint’s primary thematic job is that of pivoting the protagonist’s character arc with a Moment of Truth. The protagonist will have spent the first half of the story engulfed in an inner battle between the Lie She Believes and the thematic Truth. Whether or not she will learn to move forward and embrace the Truth will be decided at the Midpoint, when she will be confronted with a powerful manifestation of the Truth.
In a Positive-Change Arc, the protagonist will see the Truth as true and begin accepting it over the second half the story—although she will not yet fully reject her Lie. In a Negative-Change Arc, she will reject the offered Truth and begin plunging even more deeply and irrevocably into the Lie. In a Flat Arc, she will make a stand for the Truth and offer it to supporting characters around her.
For Example: In the classic Bette Davis film Now, Voyager, the protagonist Charlotte returns home to confront her tyrannical mother. This is a wonderful Midpoint on so many levels. Fundamentally, it is all about Charlotte’s Moment of Truth: will she or won’t she revert to the person she used to be and submit to her mother’s unreasonable demands? There is true doubt about which direction she will take, but ultimately she chooses to reject the Lie her mother has always told her: that she can’t survive on her own. She does it beautifully and realistically, in a real attempt to maintain good relations with her horrible mother.
- Mirror Moment
It is apt that the Midpoint should be thought of as the “Mirror Moment.” Whereas all the other beats in the story’s first and second half mirror each other, the Midpoint stands alone in mirroring itself. In his book Write Your Novel From the Middle, James Scott Bell suggests the Midpoint’s MirrorMmoment is where “the main character has to figuratively look at himself… and be confronted with a disturbing truth: change or die.”
In short, this is the Moment of Truth, mentioned above. However, it is more than that, since it offers the opportunity for a particularly powerful bit of symbolism: the mirror itself. Bell notes with interest how frequently we will see a protagonist either literally look into a mirror at the Midpoint, or at least be present in the same room with a reflective surface. You can also symbolize your protagonist “facing himself” in other ways, such as having him face a character who is like him. (In my gaslamp fantasy Wayfarer, I had the opportunity to force my protagonist to witness the callous deeds committed by someone who had taken on his own appearance.)
For Example: In the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain, Gene Kelly’s actor protagonist literally faces himself when forced to watch his own dismal performance onscreen during a public movie preview. What he witnesses brings home the brutal truth about his own and the studio’s arrogance in thinking they could blithely transition from silent films to talkies. This truth pivots both the plot and his character arc.
- Major Revelation That Turns the Plot
Depending on the nature of your story, how prominent your protagonist’s character arc is, and what set-piece action you have chosen for the Midpoint, the revelation offered by the thematic Moment of Truth may be enough to turn the plot as well. However, it’s possible you may need a second (but hopefully related) revelation, which provides the protagonist with an important insight into the nature of the conflict.
Whether or not the Midpoint proves to be an outright success within the conflict for the protagonist, it will show him where his methods have so far been ineffective. It will inform him as to the true nature of the antagonistic force he is facing, and it will provide him with information about how he can move more effectively toward his plot goal in the second half of the story. As such, it signals the protagonist’s ability to shift from comparatively ineffective “reaction” in the first half (or Matt Bird’s “doing things the easy way”) to increasingly effective “action” in the second half (“doing things the hard way”).
For Example: In The Godfather (which showcases a Negative-Change Arc), the Midpoint features the death of the protagonist’s older brother Sonny. Since Sonny was the heir presumptive to his wounded Mafia don father, the role of avenging and protecting the family now falls to the younger son and protagonist Michael. This moment marks a total shift in Michael’s involvement with the family business and his willingness to engage with any and all effective methods.
3 Questions to Ask About Your Story’s Midpoint
1. What Is the Biggest and Most Interesting Set-Piece You Can Conceive for Your Story’s Midpoint?
Does something exciting, interesting, and visual occur at your story’s Midpoint? Take a moment to brainstorm as many possibilities as you can. If you can incorporate “Mirror Moment” symbolism into the scene, via an actual mirror or forcing your protagonist to face herself in some other way, so much the better. Regardless, don’t cut corners on this beat. It should earn its role as your story’s centerpiece.
2. What Moment of Truth Will Forever Change Your Protagonist’s Thematic Character Arc?
Within your protagonist’s character arc, this is the moment when he must be blatantly confronted by the Truth in some way. First, consider what that Truth will be; then consider how you can craft a scene that best dramatizes what he will learn from this Truth and how he will choose to engage with it. Remember that this is where the protagonist begins to truly accept or deny the Truth. It is not, however, where he fully resolves his relationship to the Lie. That won’t happen until the Climax. For the rest of the Second Act, the character will still be trying to juggle the Truth and the Lie, but now the Truth will be ascendant.
3. What Major Revelation Will Change the Protagonist’s Understanding of the Main Conflict?
Is what the protagonist learns in the thematic Moment of Truth enough to swivel both the plot and her character arc? If not, you’ll also need to dramatize the catalytic revelation at the heart of the external conflict. Determine what the protagonist needs to know that will change her perception of the antagonistic force, the conflict, and her own methods. Whatever she learns here should help her shift into a more effective mode of action in the second half, leading right up to the Climax.
Next week, we’ll conclude the series with a final post that dives a little deeper into chiastic structure in general and particularly how you can utilize it over the course of a series. Happy writing!
Previous Posts in This Series:
- The Link Between Your Story’s Hook and Resolution
- The Link Between Your Story’s Inciting Event and Climactic Moment
- The Link Between Your Story’s First Plot Point and Third Plot Point
- The Link Between Your Story’s Pinch Points
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What happens at the Midpoint that completely changes your story? Tell me in the comments!
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