Further Thoughts On Your Story’s Midpoint, Starring Darth Vader

Yesterday, I wrote ten tips to get you tightening up the middle of your story, and the way to do that is to focus on the midpoint of the narrative. Right? Right.

I HAVE MORE THOUGHTS. SIT COMFORTABLY. STRAP IN. PLEASE HOLD STILL AS ROBOTS ADMINISTER MY THOUGHTS TO YOUR BRAIN WITH AN IDEA-INJECTOR.

The midpoint, as I noted, is not a long flat line — it’s not a stretch of horse-killing swamp or a sad pair of rain-soaked underwear hanging on a clothes line. It’s a knife in the table. It’s a sword cutting a rope. It’s a portcullis slamming down or a heart ripped out of a ruptured chest. It is a breach. It is drama and conflict. It is a state change, a pivot, a curtain pulled back to reveal the real show that’s been playing all along.

But it’s something else, too.

The midpoint creates tension between the first half and the second half of the story.

Let’s say you built two structures — towers, maybe — that will stand poorly on their own. We have a tree like this in our yard — two massive forking trunks that will inevitably fracture. The way we keep that from happening, and the way you would keep those two towers from falling, is by cabling them together. You let the weight of each pull against one another. They’re always just about to fall but never do, because of the tension held in that cable. Your story is like this.

The first half of your book is the beginning of the tale — the inciting incident, the introduction of the characters, the revelation of the problem. And then it’s what builds up from that. The second half of the story is a difficult, dangerous move to resolution. Maybe it’s a further climb or an uncontrolled descent, but the point is, you’ve got the end and climax coming, and you’re working toward that. The characters have taken agency. The stakes are bigger, or maybe they’re different than anyone thought they were. The midpoint provides tension between the build up of the first half and the unspooling of the second half. It is the cable forcing tension between the beginning and the end, and letting the weight of each provide that tension.

Practically speaking, that means that the midpoint is momentous. Something has to happen here. It isn’t just talk. It isn’t hemming and hawing. But it isn’t just some random event, either. A hard choice arises and must be made. A revelation arrives, or better yet, is forced. A character’s weakness is exploited. The character takes agency for herself, or sacrifices something. The character reaches a nadir and must climb out of it — or climbs to what he believes is the pinnacle and then is knocked from a great height. The midpoint must be a state change for the narrative — things go from solid to liquid, from order to chaos (or the reverse, sometimes). Something big has to change. Sometimes, everything changes at the midpoint. Character in particular is key to the midpoint. The big change isn’t just something that happens to the universe. It’s something that urges the characters or is urged by them. It’s linked to them, their goals, their problems. It exposes them, or demands they take action, or destroys their expectations. It may change their goal or even change who the characters believe themselves to be.

In the Star Wars original trilogy, that midpoint represents Luke shifting from believing Darth Vader is some faceless enemy to realizing that he is his father. It is the moment when he starts to shift his goal from defeating Darth Vader to believing he must redeem him. It is both so much better and so much worse than he ever knew. A straightforward physical goal becomes a complex, emotional one. Plus, the stakes are raised across the board. And our heroes, not the Rebellion, suffer a great loss at Cloud City. Han is gone — his debts have caught up with him. Leia is left reeling. Lando betrays them and then doubles back to betray the Empire. C-3P0 is in pieces. Vader, too, hits this midpoint. He has had a similar revelation from a different angle — he knows that he has a son, and he chooses not to kill him but instead to try to recruit him to the Dark Side. And he fails at it! It’s like Lucas kicked the story right off a cliff. That moment is huge! It ties the two ends of the whole story together. (The entire middle film of Empire Strikes Back does this really well, actually. It proves quite capably that the middle of a story needn’t just be filler.)

Here, then, is an exercise for you –

Pick a story. Movie, comic, book, whatever.

Or something you’re currently writing.

Identify in the comments –

What’s the midpoint?

What happens? Why is it momentous? What is the shift?

GO.

21 comments

  • I’m just at the midpoint of Silverwolf (sequel to Winterwood, due from DAW in Feb 2016). Ross has just revealed her magic in public, so now she either has to drop everything and run, or tough it out against the Mysterium who will want to hang her for a witch.

  • In L.A. Confidential, the fate of Jack Vincennes. In one scene, the heroes get a huge setback, we learn the villain’s identity, we see how the disparate plot threads must link up, and Jack plants the seed for the villain’s downfall.

  • In the French film, Brotherhood of the Wolf, for me the midpoint shifts with the death of Mani, best friend and companion to Monsieur Grégoire de Fronsac. Their mission was to capture a mysterious beast that ravaged a small French village. In the beginning, Fronsac’s demeanor was fun, flirty, self-assured and behaved as an aristocrat amongst the spoiled rich. Mani was Iroquois, very wise and a great warrior. He traveled with Fronsac for years.

    Mani, a true hero, was shot in the back by some crazy wolf cult responsible for all the countryside killings.

    After Mani was killed (sad by the way), Fronsac’s persona became a man of vengeance, an animal, and damned the posturing for the elite. You could actually feel the pain emanating from Fronsac when he discovered his friend’s body and while performing the autopsy. The kill shot told Fronsac who murdered his friend. After that, it was time for all the elite, wolf-religious assholes to die in the most badass way. There is so much more to this movie, but for me, this was the moment.

  • I frequently use the example of The Empire Strikes Back as a classic Act II done well. It’s the deepest and richest of the Star Wars films.

  • Im in B2 of my series while B1 marinates. Risky i know but hey! Bethany is realizing that hey this isnt just a simple haunting by a vengeful ghost, something deadly is happening to her. She’s having more out of body experiences, more dreams pf this ghost town. And to top it off, she finds a journal of her mother’s that changes the way she sees herself because she finds out more about her fateful birth that was hidden from her for so long and that changes the way she sees her mother dramatically.

  • From the current WIP: Norma is a computer telepath who has just escaped from the institution that raised her. As she runs through the landscape of people and institutions who want to use her for their own ends, she’s certain of one thing: she will never ever go home. But Norma’s twin sister Cloris is working for their father, and Cloris has no problem chewing up and spitting out every friend and ally Norma has made on the outside. It’s only after Norma neutralizes her twin that she realizes that the answers she wants and the future she needs do indeed, lay at home.

    • Im curious where the name Cloris came from for you. I have a old book Ive put aside based of The Birth of Venus painting. And one of the characters personalities was named Cloris. Its been so long since I’ve worked on it, i can’t renember where i got the name from, maybe from the myth, maybe not. I just tgought that was interesting.

  • This is very timely for me. I’m stuck in the editing stage of my scifi novel and the middle is driving me insane. Rewrite after rewrite. I made the mistake of walking the character into a minefield, and while there’s tension, it feels bogged down. Instinctively I know it isn’t right. I really need that minefield for the plot so I have to make it work. Now I see that this is an opportunity for a revelation – overcoming diversity leads to a momentous decision or a change in the character’s attitude or perception. Now the trick is to figure out how I can make it all fit back together. Thank you Mr. W. You may have saved my sanity.

  • In one of mine that I’m tinkering with right now, the female protag is promised help if she can meet up with the male protag, but getting to him poses great risk to her ship and crew, and the crew become increasingly fractious because she can’t explain to them why they’re going to all the trouble. And when they’ve finally braved all of that and get to the rendezvous point, he isn’t there.

    He isn’t there because he’s been taken and mindf*cked by the same elder race that f*cked with him 100 years ago, and his bid to force them to make him human again has completely backfired. Mentally and psychically he’s worse off now than he had been, also marooned and physically injured. He’s got far bigger problems than making the rendezvous.

  • Oh, for cri-yi, you’ve just doomed one of my prots to a terrible death. But you’re absolutely right… its gotta happen and I think tonight’s the night.

  • I’m almost at the mid-point of my post pandemic NaNo novel Devolution. Sarah has come to the city as a supplicant, looking for a place in the new community for herself, as well as her mother and grandmother. When she is offered a place for herself alone, she decides to become the leader she is looking for and create a community like the one she was hoping to join.

  • The midpoint for my current piece is right after a cook tries to kill her in a no-tell motel and she fights him off with a lamp. (It is either exactly as weird as it sounds or weird at all, I’m not sure which.) It is the mid because that’s the moment she stops trying to go backward and starts to embrace magic and move forward. She still has some stalling moments but overall she really wraps herself around fixing the problem by being who she is rather than claiming she doesn’t believe in magic.

    This is a very interesting thing because her first book has a similar I’m going to do something about this midpoint. From the mid it feels like a build up to the climax, before the mid it feels a little like trying to take down a brick wall…with a lamp. (Hopefully in an interesting way, but just, not the right tool for the job.)

  • Current project:

    Main character (an indentured servant in a loyalist village) teams up with a demon to kill the man who murdered her brother-in-law (one of the loyalist militiamen). It’s the first time she uses the demon’s magic, the first time she actively teams up with him (the demon’s a spy for a rebel army), and the first time she deliberately moves against her loyalist masters (she’s had rebel sympathies the whole time, but as an indentured in a loyalist town, she can’t do anything about it). It’s the first time she kills someone on purpose. Before this she’s been primarily reactive, but she takes a swan dive off the cliff right here.

  • How timely! Thank you. I have stood at the murky top of this hill of a story for two days now. Down I go. Darth Vadar has been uncloaked. There are battles. Perhaps, a bath and tea.
    Thank you.

  • The perfect example of a midpoint well done, IMHO, takes place during THE very best scene from my all-time favorite movie, Aliens. When Ripley commandeers the armored personnel carrier to Hulk smash her way through the alien nest (talk about agency!) to rescue what remained of the Marine squadron, this moment created the best mother-freaking knife in the table ever! The stakes are cranked up a thousand fold and a whole new story is born, the first half and the second half almost mirror images of one another.
    1) From cocky, we’re-here-to-rescue-you mission to a we’re-totally-screwed escape for their lives
    2) From a well-ordered military operation into a chaotic, seat-of-their-pants plan
    3) From Ripley, a “consultant” to be protected, to Ripley, the badass protector
    4) From an inexperienced military leader (Lt. Gorman) to an experienced civilian leader (Ripley).
    5) From a male in charge to a female in charge
    6) From super high tech to “street” smarts ingenuity (yay Newt!)
    7) Even Hudson’s character does a reverse course, from a “Hey, Ripley. Don’t worry. Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you” character into a “Game over, Man. GAME OVER!” one.

  • I’m reading a book called The Green Ember. It’s basically about medieval rabbits with swords. The midpoint, which I just passed, was when some of the main characters discovered that it was their ancestor who betrayed the great king. It is meaningful because they now need to figure out how they fit in this society that, as it turns out, harbor a hatred and distrust of them because of this past event. I assume there is a resolution at the end of the book, & not a “to be continued…”

  • Okay, let’s do this – great exercise, actually, ’cause let’s face it, if I can’t answer this question there’s no way any potential readers are gonna care enough to answer it for me… ;)

    My female MC, S12 (yes, that IS her name) is being ‘rehabilitated,’ along with two males, in a secret underground facility, by people she doesn’t know and who, for the most part, don’t give her much reason to trust them. They’ve told her she’s not a prisoner here, but whenever she asks if she can leave they go to great pains to insist that she would be in far more danger back in the outside world, and this is the only ‘safe’ place for her to be. She doesn’t know what their future plans for her are and they’re in no hurry to tell her, it seems.

    The spokesperson for the facility is one Dr Harvey. S12’s fellow rehabees don’t trust him, and are constantly warning her not to get ‘sucked in’ by his ‘caring doctor act.’ And it’s true, he’s been caught out lying to them on more than one occasion. But each time he’s explained his reasons, and they’re inevitably well-meaning – if misguided – attempts to protect them from knowledge he feels they’re ‘not emotionally ready to deal with.’ After an argument that ends in an ugly standoff between the rehabees and Dr Harvey, the rehabees tell S12 to ‘pick her side.’ Not wanting to be an outcast amongst her own kind, she allies with the other rehabees, but Dr Harvey comes to see her alone and tells her his side of the argument. At this point she starts to see Doctor Harvey may actually be the only person in the facility they CAN trust, and that all this time he’s probably been protecting them from more things than they realise. She agrees to talk to the other rehabees and persuade them to end the stand-off, knowing that, without their co-operation, he can’t keep them safe from other, more powerful influences in the facility.

    …Which is when he tells her he’s leaving for two weeks, and someone else will be in charge in his absence. He reassures her that it IS only two weeks, that he WILL come back and when he does he’ll try to improve conditions for them. But he needs her and the others to keep their faith in him until he gets back and to not do ‘anything rash’ while he’s gone.

    S12 can see the fear in his eyes. Two weeks without him around to watch over them is more than enough time for her and the other rehabees to be harmed. But the other rehabees are more likely to see his absence as a golden opportunity to poke around in business they’re not supposed to, or even break out of the facility altogether, and then put themselves right in the firing line for any ‘retribution’ handed out as a consequence.

    THAT’s the game-changing moment for S12. All this time, she and her fellow rehabees believed that no-one in the facility was fighting their corner for them; it was ‘them against us’ and they were surviving the regime with no help from any of the staff there. Now she knows that wasn’t true, that someone WAS looking out for them all along – but soon he’s not going to be around anymore. For the first time since they arrived in this mysterious facility, she and her fellow rehabees really WILL be on their own, and completely at the mercy of anyone with plans to harm them. But can she convince them of this, without alienating herself from them by ‘siding with the enemy?’

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