Welcome all dreamers, fantasists, bibliophiles, and romantics. Join me Mondays and Fridays for speculation about other worlds, exploration of the human heart and soul in fiction and fact, sojourns in history and science, advice and tidbits in the realms of story, and thoughts on everything in between...

Friday, April 25, 2014

Midpoints of Stories and Why They Can Sag

Most of the time, writers hear over and over how important their first line is, how crucial their first scene is to snaring a reader, how essential the first part of a story is to establishing all the building blocks of a solid, riveting piece of fiction.

Second only to this is advice about ending. The climax must engage and satisfactorily bring together and resolve the various plot threads. The last scene must satisfy the reader. The last sentence must be so poignant and deep that it rings with power and stays with readers long after they close the book.

But what about midpoints?

Sure, writers talk about them, but they’re usually not emphasized nearly as much as beginnings and endings. Why? Perhaps it’s because it’s easy to lose track of them in the midst of all those other scenes. After all, finding the opening and closing scene is simple. Finding the midpoint is a little more dubious. Is it really the center page, or do I need to flip a little more ahead or back? Perhaps it’s because fewer writers agonize over midpoints, either because they don’t realize how important they are, because they feel confident about them, or because they’d rather not consider that lesser discussed but essential bit of plot structure.

Yet strong midpoints are crucial. Without proper attention, they can sag and make the middle of the story feel like it drags on and on. I suspect that, most of the time, when there’s a problem with the midpoint, it’s because a writer doesn’t realize their function in the structure of a story.

What is that function? Midpoints are the big turning points of the plot. As K.M. Weiland describes in her Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing and Outstanding Story, the midpoint is the moment when the protagonist stops reacting and starts acting. It’s the point when the hero essentially stops taking the punches and starts fighting back, in whatever form that takes for the story, be it literal or figurative.

What this means for story structure and readers is that the midpoint is where the story should become reinvigorated. It’s where we see that new spark of life and energy. It’s where we think that maybe things stand a chance of working out. It’s a first big taste and hope of victory.

Perhaps my favorite midpoint in recent cinema is from Captain America: The First Avenger. This particular midpoint is when Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) stops being a prop for the U.S. politicians and proves that he’s really a soldier by rescuing those thought lost to the enemy. It’s a great part because, for the first time, we really see Steve step into is true heroic nature. We see him become the awesome guy we bought our movie ticket or the DVD, to see. We see him stop taking orders and being used and start acting to fight the real enemy. It’s a moment that lifts and brings the story to a new level. It gives a taste of the climax without satisfying our need to see evil vanquished. It takes the hero internally in the direction he must travel for the story’s resolution.

But how do you figure out what the midpoint of a story should be, aside from the fact that it’s roughly in the middle of your manuscript, of course? Consider what event brings about or will bring about a change in your protagonist. What would push him to stop reacting to the antagonist and start taking matters into his own hands? While the first half of the story sets the stage for this moment and certainly pushes the protagonist toward action, the midpoint should be the culmination and the actual internal shift. What would make your protagonist say, “Okay, I’ve had enough. Let’s do this,” and give your readers that feeling of anticipation and excitement when he makes that decision? When you figure out what event and impetus that is, you’ve found your midpoint.

So, writers out there, what helps you write midpoints? Readers, what stories do you think handle midpoints well? Are there any that let the middle sag? 

Be sure to drop by on Monday when we’ll begin reading and learning writing from Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn.

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