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?