Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Magical Midpoint Moment

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



Being a structure guy, I've always been fascinated by how story works. When I was first learning the craft, I spent a year studying the 3 Act structure, taking my cues primarily from Syd Field's classic, Screenplay. In that book, Field talks about plot points, the hinges that lead the plot into Act 2 and Act 3. But I found frustrating a lack of definition of how these plot points worked. What was supposed to be in them? Field knew something happened, he sensed it, but wasn't quite able to define it.

After watching movie after movie and charting their structures, it came to me. Especially that first plot point, which I began calling “the doorway of no return.” That's because something has to happen to thrust the lead character into the dangers of Act 2. When you know this in your plot, and put it in the right place, it keeps your novel from dragging and gives it the momentum it needs to carry it to the end. It's crucially important. 

Then, several years ago, I decided to do more in-depth study on what many writing teachers call the "midpoint." If you do a search about midpoint on the Internet, you'll find all sorts of ideas about what is supposed to happen here. Some people talk about “raising the stakes.” Others talk about this being the point of commitment. Still others say it's a change in the direction of the story, or the gathering of new information, or the start of time pressure.

So once again I started watching movies with the midpoint in mind. And what I found blew me away. Even though the writers may not have been conscious of it, they were creating something in the middle of their stories that pulled together the entire narrative.  The name I gave it is the “look in the mirror” moment. My workshop slide looks like this:
At this point in the story, the character figuratively looks at himself. 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 Act 2, how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome himself? Or 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 forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way to go on and not face certain death. That death can be professional, physical, or psychological.

These two basic thoughts are not mutually exclusive. For example, an action story may be given added heft by incorporating the first kind of reflection into the narrative. This happens in Lethal Weapon when Riggs bares his soul to Murtaugh, admitting that killing people is "the only thing I was ever good at."

A few more examples may help.

In Casablanca, at the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick's saloon after closing. Rick has been getting drunk, remembering with bitterness what happened with him and Ilsa in Paris. Ilsa comes to him to try to explain why she left him in Paris, that she found out her husband Viktor Lazlo was still alive. She pleads with him to understand. But Rick is so bitter he basically calls her a whore. She weeps and leaves. And Rick, full of self disgust, puts his head in his hands. He is thinking, “What have I become?” 

The rest of the film will determine whether he stays a selfish drunk, or regains his humanity. That, in fact, is what Casablanca is truly about, in both narrative and theme.

In The Fugitive, an action film, at the very center point of the movie Dr. Kimble is awakened in the basement room he's renting, by cops swarming all over the place. He thinks they are after him, but it turns out they are actually after the son of the landlord. But the damage is done. Kimble breaks down. He is looking at the odds, thinking there's no way he can win this fight. There are too many resources arrayed against him.



Then I went looking for the midpoint of Gone With The Wind, the novel. I opened to the middle of the book and started hunting. And there it was. At the end of Chapter 15, Scarlett looks inside herself, realizing that no one else but she can save Tara.

The trampled acres of Tara were all that was left to her, now that Mother and Ashley were gone, now that Gerald was senile from shock . . . security and position had vanished overnight. As from another world she remembered a conversation with her father about the land and wondered how she could have been so young, so ignorant, as not to understand what he meant when he said that the land was the one thing in the world worth fighting for.

Scarlett wonders what kind of person she has to become in order to save Tara. And the decision is made in the last paragraph:

Yes, Tara was worth fighting for, and she accepted simply and without question the fight. No one was going to get Tara away from her. No one was going to send her and her people adrift on the charity of relatives. She would hold Tara, if she had to break the back of every person on it.

And that is the essence of GWTW. It's the story of a young Southern belle who is forced (via a doorway of no return called The Civil War) to save her family home. 

Also, notice how this is different from other definitions of the midpoint you'll see. Virtually all books on the craft approach it as another "plot" point. Something external happens that changes the course of the story. But what I detect is a character point, something internal, which has the added benefit of bonding audience and character on a deeper level.


In preparing for this post, I grabbed three of my favorite movies and went to their midpoints. Here's what I found:



In Moontstruck, right smack dab in the middle, is the scene where Loretta goes into the confessional, because she has "slept with the brother of my fiancé." The priest says, "That's a pretty big sin." Loretta says, "I know . . ." And the priest tells her, "Reflect on your life!" He is actually instructing her to look in the mirror!

There's a perfect mirror moment in It's a Wonderful Life. It's the moment where Mr. Potter offers George Bailey a well-paid position with his firm, a job that will mean security for George's growing family. In return, though, George will have to give up the Building & Loan his father started. Potter offers George a cigar and George asks for time to think it over. He is actually requesting look-in-the-mirror time, and is seriously considering this move. Then he shakes Potter's hand, and the oily exchange suddenly clarifies what's at stake for him as a person.  "No," he says, "now wait a minute here. I don’t need twenty-four hours. I don't have to talk to anybody. I know right now, and the answer's No!" George had to make a decision as to what kind of man he was going to be. And he chose not to become another Potter.

Finally, in Sunset Boulevard, in the middle of the movie to the minute, Joe Gillis also has to decide what kind of man he is. Norma Desmond, his benefactor and lover, has tried to kill herself because Joe found a girl his own age that he wants to start seeing. When Joe hears about it he rushes back to her mansion with the thought that he'll finally tell her it's over, that he's leaving. But she threatens to do it again. And Joe sits down, literally, next to a mirror. In that moment he makes his fateful decision, the one that drives the rest of the movie.

Could the reason these movies are classics, and others not, be that the writers understood the power of the look in the mirror? Whether instinctive or purposeful, they knew exactly what to do.

Books:

In the middle of The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice is alone in her room, having just heard of Chilton's betrayal of Lecter, meaning she won't get any more information from him, meaning the certain death of the kidnapped girl she's been trying to save. The odds are now firmly against her and the FBI. In the shower, Clarice reflects back on a childhood memory which symbolizes loss for her.  

At the midpoint of The Hunger Games, Katniss accepts the fact that she's going to die. The odds are too great:

I know the end is coming. My legs are shaking and my heart is too quick . . . . My fingers stroke the smooth ground, sliding easily across the top. This is an okay place to die, I think.



And, if I may, in the exact middle of my thriller, Try Dying, Ty Buchanan's home has just been firebombed. His fiancée has been murdered. And he reflects on two kinds of people, those who keep driving toward something, and those who have "given up the fight."


The question I had, and couldn't answer, was which kind was I?

Of course, not every film or book will have a "mirror moment" like I've described. But the ones that do have a depth about them, a better cohesion and focus, and a satisfying arc. That's the sort of thing that makes a reader search out more of an author's work.

Since I incorporated "look in the mirror moment” into my workshops, students have reported it has been incredibly helpful in discovering what their novels are really all about. The nice thing is you can explore this moment at any time in your writing process. You can play with it, tweak it. Whether you are a plotter or pantser, just thinking about what the "look in the mirror" might reveal will help you find the real heart of your novel.

That’s why it's a magic moment (cue The Drifters). 

43 comments:

  1. This was a fun exercise. I opened TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD in the middle and came to the scene where Atticus is explaining to his children why they should try to be something they're not. He does this because his sister convinces him Scout and Jem are growing up without direction. Atticus realizes halfway through his sermon what he is doing is wrong and tells his children to forget everything he just said.

    It's not a big mind-blowing moment. No bombs go off and no one dies but the impact hits the reader. Atticus saw, reflected in his children's faces, what he was in danger of becoming due to peer pressure.

    Certainly a little mind-blowing.

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    1. Good thoughts on that great novel, Amanda. As I noodled about your insight, it seems that there are several of these moments sprinkled "softly" throughout. The cumulation of them makes up Scout's ultimate transformation. No "bombs" have to go off, as you say. The middle portion of the book is where the Tom Robinson case intensifies the pressure.

      Your comment makes me think, too, that this is a good exercise for students trying to find the theme of a book (something I was never good at in school!)

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  2. This has become more instinctive in my writing. I didn't know what to call it, but I know to have it in the book somewhere midway. Once I've got that part down, and I've got a good grasp on how things could go either way from there, I know I'm on the right track. If not, I have had to figure out what when wrong. So, thank you once again, James, for coming to my rescue! Great piece and I've shared as I always do!

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    1. Lorelei, that may be why I love teaching the craft. Most writers, like you, "sense" things. I like to make that sense explicit, unpack it, and try to turn it into a useful tool. So thanks for the kind word.

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  3. Jim,

    Thanks again for another great teaching moment. I look forward to reading your post every Sunday morning.

    After reading your post this morning, I trotted off to see what Christopher Vogler said about the "look in the mirror" moment. I keep your books and A WRITER'S JOURNEY handy on my bookshelf for reference. I discovered the priority I give the books. I had lent my copy of Vogler's book to my sister. I would never lend any of your books to aspiring writers. I tell them to buy them for themselves; they'll need them. In fact, I'm rereading and studying PLOT AND STRUCTURE, REVISION AND SELF-EDITING, and CONFLICT AND SUSPENSE - all at the same time, as I work through my second draft of my WIP.

    I'm registered for your presentation on "Quantum Story" at the ACFW convention in September. I look forward to hearing about these things in more detail.

    Thanks for another great post.

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    1. Thanks, Steve. Chris's explication (and I get to revisit this each year at Story Masters) focuses on the outer journey, but he does talk about the Herald (character) as being someone who calls for change. That would be a good device for getting to a mirror moment, like that priest in Moonstruck.

      It's so much fun thinking about this. See you at ACFW!

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  4. I'm like Steve -- reading your post is one of my first Sunday morning activities, along with a good cup of coffee. Getting the brain off to a good start!

    Reading this post takes me back to your fiction writing workshop (Austin, Texas). What a fantastic weekend! I'd love to do it again and see what I missed the first time around.

    I'll add another plug here -- your new Knockout Novel program does a great job of walking us through things like the midpoint scene, and generally reduces the overwhelm. I love it so far, and recommended it to a friend who is using it as well (and loves it).

    I haven't yet nailed the midpoint for my WIP, but am grateful for some great resources to help me get it right.

    Thanks, Mr. Bell!

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    1. Thanks, Diane. And for the mention of KNOCKOUT NOVEL. I have several pro friends who are using it and saying very nice things. (People can sign up to try it risk free by going here.

      And, again, I find this such a useful tool to help you "nail" what your novel is about. Have a second cup, and go exploring!

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  5. Great insight. Thank you for these structural posts that help shore up our writing. The first time I understood the three-act structure (or felt that I really understood it) was explained using the original Star Wars movie. Is the look-in-the-mirror point when Luke realizes he's on his own after Obi Wan dies?

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    1. Lance, I'd have to look that over again, but it sounds right. That would be Luke thinking the odds are now stacked against him and the rebellion. How can they move on without Obi Wan?

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  6. This is so helpful to me! I relate to the 'look in the mirror' much more than 'mid-point' in the structure of a novel. Thanks so much for how much you do for writers!

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    1. Thank you, Ferris. As with "plot point," I wanted to know WHY it works, not just that it's there. I think this mirror metaphor is helpful in that regard, and I'm gratified you have found it so!

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  7. Thanks again for your column. I use Scrivener and I've pasted this column in the document notes for the middle-most chapter. I know this will strengthen my story.

    Also, looking into Knock Out Novel. I'm on Chapter 4 of 48 (I'm an outliner). I expect the 1st Draft to be finished in early September. Should I start with KON now or wait until the 1st draft is finished?

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    1. The nice thing is, you can use KNOCKOUT NOVEL at any point. Plotter or pantser, too. If you run into a wall at any point, try using it as a jackhammer.

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    2. The other great thing about KNOCKOUT NOVEL is that, like Scrivener, it's constructed to be extremely flexible. It's super easy to backtrack and change any portion you want. I highly recommend it, Brian.

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  8. Thanks. I'm in the middle of what I hope is the final rewrite of my WIP, and you've given me a new way to think about what's happening and how to make it more effective.

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    1. Right on, John. It's a fantastic tool for revision. Good luck!

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  9. Interesting, but maybe overly simplified? Or, maybe I don't completely understand what you're driving at.
    My take: Whether plot-driven or character-driven, a fiction novel can have many of these points. I prefer to call them ups and downs. My character, NYPD homicide detective Castilblanco, for example, has them sprinkled through three books--punctuation points on a growing discomfort with his Catholic heritage, until he becomes a Buddhist in the third novel. I suppose one might argue that this is secondary to the plots of each novel, but they're turning points in the readers' understanding of the character.
    While I agree that these structural things might be lurking in our minds as we write, I'm not sure they're a useful algorithm for constructing a good story (as if there were algorithms to follow!). To paraphrase Clancy, just write the darn story. Corollary: don't overthink what you're doing. It's like an oil painting--the more you mess with it, the uglier it gets.
    r/Steve

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    1. But, as a painter friend of mine often says, in painting there are no mistakes, there's only texture (because you can always paint over it, of course.) And in a novel, plenty of texture and depth are good things, no?

      Don't let them get in the way of the story. This is more a way to think about the action and maybe make it work for you a little better. That's all.

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    2. I'd say that this tool is a way not to overthink, but to discover. Discovery is good. And exciting for the author...and that translates to the reader.

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  10. Great post and, as always, timely.

    My first act turns pretty cleanly into the second. My MC is hiding in plain sight from a legal issue that threatens her family. Amusing adventures along the way. Then she opens the door in her skimpy PJs to let the dog out and, bam, on her doorstep is an FBI agent and Texas Ranger. Game is simultaneously over and just beginning. End Act I

    And the end of Act II in the outline is also fairly clear-cut. Much mayhem has ensued and she has been betrayed by the FBI agent she thought she was falling in love with. She has won the war, but the price of the battles was very very high. Very bleak and gray. End Act II.

    Now you have reached into what was bothering me, how to turn the focus in Act II toward the pending mayhem. Perhaps when she confronts the FBI agent about his distracted attitude (distraction that could get them killed). That is the moment they bond emotionally and sets off the sparks between them as well, setting up the betrayal later on.

    Hmmm . . . *pulls out drawing board*

    Terri

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  11. This is a timely post for me! I'm doing Camp Nanowrimo right now, and I've been consulting three act structure to keep myself on track. I believe my two protagonists will each have to have their own moment of clarity as Act 2 rolls along. Basically they each have to overcome their baggage and admit they're each in love with the other, and take a hard look at what that will cost--and if they're willing to pay it. And them BAM--act 3 goes all action movie on them. :-)

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    1. Sounds like you've got a good handle on it, Kessie. BAM is good!

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  12. I'm gonna sound like a broken record here, but this post really came at a good time for me too. There are times that I swear you are looking over my shoulder, but not in a creepy way.

    I'm about a third of the way through my next thriller - The Last Victim - and after I had my point of no return moment, I was heading out of the first turning point into Act 2. I was brainstorming ways to ramp up the stakes and escalate the tension toward the black moment.

    You've given me plenty to think about, Jim. As always, thanks for the excellent post.

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    1. And just how do you know I'm not actually there?....Did you hear that noise?....

      Anyway, glad to help!

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    2. Ok, now you're creeping me out. :)

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  13. I took a session at TWAs conference in May, and Jamie Morris presented her Plot Clock design which broke a story plot into 4 Acts. She describes the middle (combined Acts 2 and 3) as having a low entry point and low exit point.

    To me, it was so fascinating, I drew a graphic from my notes I took in class and wrote a condensed post on it.

    The Plot Clock

    Hope you don't mind if I share it! Great posts on plotting. They help me tremendously.

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    1. No problem. The more we think these things through, the better.

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  14. It seems that as a story moves forward, foreshadowing the big midway decision point to come will inflame the angst and conflict of "Will he or won't he?" stand up to the task.

    In the Bruce Willis film, Tears of the Sun, Bruce has to decide whether or not to buck the prevailing tide and the military commanders and put himself and his team in mortal danger to save "the good people" from the village or not. Up to that point, he was being the typical hardcase. Of course, we "know" he's gonna be a standup guy in the end, but watching his hard exterior melt away to reveal his "Heart of Gold" is what the story theme was all about.

    Strangely, JSB's pointing out the "face in the mirror moment" reveals the relationship between theme and the little seed kernel that often sparks a story idea in the first place. For me, that kernel is always vague (comes as music or some image pattern or color).

    Seeing how this becomes "realized" in theme and story discourse is today's mind-blowing moment for me!

    Just think, all this, despite the rotten review the movie got on the Rotten Tomatoes site. Maybe it's just my runaway imagination here, but I didin't find it difficult to identify with the "big question" the Willis character had to face. So phooey on the reviewers at RT.

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    1. Seeing how this becomes "realized" in theme and story discourse is today's mind-blowing moment for me!

      Yes! That's what it feels like. Brings theme and story together, and I was never good at "theme" in school. This helps me find it. Thanks for the good word.

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  15. Excellent advice and a fresh viewpoint on how to deal with sagging middles as well. In a mystery, it's easy to throw in another body, but less visible is the character growth necessary to hook the fans for the next installment. I'll keep these insights in mind for my subsequent works. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

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  16. Writers can do all the right things to get readers drawn into the story, and still falter in the middle, losing the reader’s interest. Other factors might be involved, but this ‘look in the mirror’ concept may often be all that the story is lacking. An important concept to keep in mind as writers struggles to keep their readers captivated and invested in the story. Thanks, Jim.

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    1. Yes, that mirror moment....and then you can construct a scene around it, and the scene will have power and organic connection to the story. I love this.

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  17. Great post. The moment you spelled out those two possibilities for the MC in the middle of the story, I thought of favorite books and which route each one took. Very helpful. Thanks!

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  18. This is utter brilliance. Now going back over my WIP. I had better find this and in the right place! :D

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  19. This is great. I'm polishing my wip, working toward the middle of the book and this blog is perfect timing. Excited about taking your class at ACFW.

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  20. This is terrific. Thanks for posting. Lots of food for thought.

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  21. Excellent. Thank you so much! I'm going to be reevaluating the midpoint of my current work in progress. :)

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  22. Thanks, all. I'm gratified I can be of help. This tool has certainly helped me.

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  23. I just found your blog from another blog that I follow, Joel D. Canfield's. I am not exactly new to writing in that I took several courses in college, many years ago and then quit writing. It wasn't until I retired that I got back into wanting to write. I had more time to devote to it. When I decided to write a novel, I started researching and developing my platform and reading up on the craft and started a blog for debut authors like myself, I review their novels. My question is one of structure and being a pantser. I've never been one for outlines, so I tried to just start writing and realized that I needed more structure to know where to go. Since you are definitely a structured writer, I thought you might have some suggestions for me. I would appreciate any pointers you can help with. Is this possibly covered in your Conflict and Structure book? I have it but haven't read it yet. Thanks so much. This post was helpful for midway pointers. :)

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