The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 7: The Midpoint
Halfway through our stories, something marvelous happens. There we are, minding our own business, toiling along in the seemingly endless desert of the second act, when—whap! bang! shazam!—everything changes all over again. Legendary director Sam Peckinpah talked about how he always looked for a “centerpiece” on which to “hang” his story. That centerpiece is your second major plot point, the midpoint, which divides your second act.
The midpoint is what keeps your second act from dragging. It’s what caps the reactions in the first half of the book and sets up the chain of actions that will lead the characters into the climax. In many ways, the midpoint is like a second inciting event. Like the first inciting event, it directly influences the plot. It changes the paradigm of the story. And it requires a definitive and story-altering response from the characters. The largest difference is that the character’s response is no longer just a reaction, but the moment at which he begins to definitively take charge of the story and act out against the antagonistic force.
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What is the midpoint?
If we return to our visualization of a story as a line of dominoes, we can envision the midpoint as a turn in the domino design. The line of reactions from the first half of the second act finally whacks into that domino at the turn—and begins a whole new line of falling dominos. This is a big moment in the story, a major scene, one that is the logical outcome of the previous scenes, but also one that is dramatically new and different from anything that has come before. It could be the capture of the main characters, as in Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher. It could be a battle, as in The Magnificent Seven directed by John Sturges. Or it could be the death of an important character, as in Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck. It might even be something slightly less dramatic, such as the close call and subsequent rescue of a main character stranded in the mountains during a storm, as in Kristen Heitzmann’s Indivisible, or a daring speech, as in I.Q. directed by Fred Schepisi.
Whatever your choice of events, the midpoint is yet another moment in the story that changes the direction of the characters. This is the moment that will push them out of their reflexive reactions. From here on, if they’re to survive (spiritually or physically—or both), they’re going to have to stop defending themselves and go on the attack. This series of actions (which we’ll discuss more fully in the next post) won’t always be a dramatic storming of the enemy’s castle walls. Sometimes, it can just be a figurative squaring of the shoulders and a first step toward the decision not to take “it” (whatever “it” may be in your story) anymore.
Where does the midpoint belong?
Not surprisingly, we find the midpoint (*drumroll please*) at the middle of the story. Your midpoint should take place roughly around the 50% mark. Why, you ask? Right away, we can see several important reasons for this placement.
1. As the smack-in-the-middle scene in your story, this is your centerpiece. If it happens too far in either direction, it’s not a centerpiece. (If you figured this one out ahead of time, go ahead and pat yourself on the back.)
2. As with the first major plot point at the 25% mark, a second major plot point at the 50% mark is very much an instinctive placement. Readers (and writers) have an internal sense for when something big is supposed to happen in a story. If some new and interesting development isn’t changing things up every quarter of the book, we feel the drag and get antsy.
3. Your story requires the full first half of the book to develop the character, his dilemma, and his internal weaknesses. It needs the second half of the book to resolve all the problems set up in the first half. The midpoint marks the turning point (the swivel, of sorts) between these two parts of the story. Placed too far to either side of the 50% mark, the midpoint will cut off
important developments in one half of the story or the other.
Examples from film and literature
So what do our master authors and directors have to say at the midpoint of their stories? Let’s take a look at how the midpoint can be effectively used in a variety of ways.
Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): Austen makes readers sit up straight by hitting them with a humdinger of a midpoint. Not only does she give us an unexpected (or is it?) proposal from Mr. Darcy to Lizzy, she also smacks it out of the park by having Lizzy turn him down flat and cast in his face everything she hates about him. Up to now, the relationship between Lizzy and Darcy has been nebulous. Now, everything is out in the open, and both characters have ended their period of reaction with a set of strong actions that will force them to reevaluate both themselves and each other.
It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): George Bailey’s period of reaction ends when Mr. Potter summons him to his office and offers him a job. This entirely unexpected and unprecedented move on the antagonist’s part sends George’s head spinning with the possibilities. Suddenly, the life he’s always dreamed of is within his grasp. He’s within seconds of accepting the offer, when he comes to a realization that changes his life just as surely as Mr. Potter’s job offer would have. This is the moment when he stops reacting to his fate in Bedford Falls and deliberately (if still unhappily) embraces it. When George leaves Potter’s office, he’s the one in control of his life for the first time in the story.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): Ender’s apprenticeship in Salamander Army ends abruptly when he is given command of his own Battle School army. This dramatic change in the character’s circumstances would have been enough, by itself, to create a solid midpoint. But Card takes it one step further and complicates the character’s plight by giving him, not the standard army, but a group of the worst students in Battle School. This brand new army—Dragon Army—is created especially to test Ender. If he’s going to survive, he has to
stop reacting to the pressures put on him by others and go on the offensive.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): After losing the Acheron as a result of the lethal accident at Cape Horn, Jack has no choice but to spend the rest of the first half of the second act reacting. But when the Surprise rescues a group of marooned whalers whose ship was sunk by the Acheron, everything changes. Jack immediately goes on the offensive and begins plotting ways to track down and capture the Acheron before she can again disappear.
So what have we learned about the midpoint? What are the must-have elements that will lift this crucial centerpiece into memorability and allow it to drive the rest of the story onward to the climax?
1. The midpoint should take place right around the 50% mark, both to properly highlight it and to allow it to separate the reaction and action periods.
2. The midpoint should be dramatic in a way that is new and fresh. What happens at the midpoint should be a natural outflow of the previous scenes, but it should be different from anything that has come before.
3. The midpoint must act as a personal catalyst upon the main character. It must force him to change his modus operandi. After this, simply reacting won’t be good enough. Like the first major plot point, the midpoint is one of the most exciting moments in any story. Don’t settle for anything drab. Plan yours carefully, so you can dazzle readers with the kind of scene they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.