June 15, 2016
Middle Me This...
Last post we discussed the First Act Turning Point, which is the moment that kicks off Act Two of your story. (This also assumes you have a three-act story, which is the most traditional structure, though not to say the kind you must write.) Act Two is the longest act in your story, which can make it the most unwieldy. It can get boring or bogged down or repetitive if you haven’t given yourself enough plot to keep it interesting. Obviously the solution to this is just to have a really interesting plot so you don’t run into any of these problems. Got it? Great. Post done!
If only it were that easy.
If you’re wondering how to keep your plot feeling fresh and interesting, it’s very important that you keep track of your mid-point. Make sure it’s close to the actual middle of your story. This means that if you have a 300-page book, it should be very near to page 150. (See? I can do math, mom.) I’ve seen analogies that liken story structure to a tent, and the mid-point is the tent pole. If you have it too far away from the middle, the plot is lopsided. One side is too long, the other too short. No one will buy this tent.
Why is the mid-point an important part of an interesting plot? Because it’s the moment where something in your story shifts. It can be a major plot change or an emotional change, but it’s the moment where Act Two takes on a new dimension. Say you’re reading a book about a girl pushing a boulder up a hill. Then she gets to the top and the boulder starts racing down the other side. That’s approximately page 50 of your 300 page book. As much as we all love boulders, 250 pages of a rolling rock are simply not that thrilling. If the heroine is chasing the boulder, desperately trying to prevent it from reaching the bottom of the mountain and crushing a small, wonderful village, the mid-point would be the moment where that momentum shifts. Maybe she learns her evil ex-boyfriend is visiting his evil new girlfriend in that village and she abandons her plans to stop the rock and decides to let it keep rolling after all. Maybe she learns the rock is actually full of evil spells and the villagers are anticipating its arrival so they can seize its powers and use it to take over the world, so now she has to figure out how to divert the rock. All of a sudden the story has taken on a new shape and our interest is piqued again.
When I was in film school I wrote a script I thought was fantastic. Three mismatched ghosts are haunting a rundown house that’s bought by a university fraternity. Unfortunately for these ghosts, there’s a rule in the ghost universe that says only one ghost can haunt an occupied house at a time, so if the boys move in, two of these ghosts get recycled into the universe for their “final” death. The ghosts then do their utmost to scare the crap out of the two boys responsible for renovating the house so they don’t move in. The inciting incident is the purchase of the house. The FATP is the commencement of the haunting, which really means the ghosts setting up a lot of traps. The climax is the ghosts realizing the traps they’ve been setting have the potential to really hurt the frat boys (who they have come to care about), so they hasten to undo them before they kill somebody. I didn’t realize this at the time, but there’s no mid-point (by default there’s a middle, but do not assume this is automatically your mid-point) which just means the entire second act is setting up traps, falling into traps, and setting up new traps. When writing the script I thought this was great! And for a short while, it was. But how many times do you want to see someone dodge a flying lamp? Because no one’s goals change until very late in the story, it becomes one-note. We’re just hitting the same drum in the same place in the same rhythm...forever.
Something needs to change at your mid-point. It’s why we don’t eat a really great appetizer and then keep eating it for the next three courses. It’s good...but then you want the next thing. And the next-next thing. You want the courses to build on each other and create a satisfying whole. As described above, the ghost story summary is simply this: Three ghosts conspire to scare away the frat boys who want to move into their haunted house. And that’s the ENTIRE plot. In fact, it’s not a plot, it’s a premise. The next logical question is, “And then what?” And the unfortunate answer is, “Well...then they try to scare them for 90 minutes.” A great idea is just the first step. A great story is another thing. What would make this ghost story more interesting? What shift at the mid-point could turn the plot on its head? What would make life harder for the characters, forcing them to come up with unique and interesting and character-changing solutions? (Spoiler: I never figured this out and abandoned the script. I was also much younger and more easily discouraged.)
For romance, I consider the mid-point an emotional shift (there can be a plot shift, too, certainly). Characters who hate each other love each other, characters who love each other hate each other, a character who’s ruthless suddenly learns to be empathetic, a character who’s been a pushover develops a backbone. (Note: you must put in the work to make these moments believable and meaningful. I’ve read so many books where the mid-point shift happens simply because it’s the middle, not because the groundwork has been laid to make this change convincing and compelling.) Even though I said “characters” above, it can be single-sided, where just one character has a change of heart at the mid-point.
I can’t find the article now, but years ago I read an interview with Judd Apatow discussing his film Knocked Up. He mentioned how he had struggled to identify the conflict, since the plot is not especially confrontational: a slacker guy impregnates an ambitious young woman who’s out of his league and they try to get along over the course of her pregnancy. Okay... That’s a premise. Beyond the obvious oh-dear-god-how-do-you-raise-a-baby, what makes this different? Then he said that the conflict came when someone fell in love first. That’s a scary and relatable feeling, isn’t it? It’s vulnerable and dangerous and opens up a whole new avenue of story potential. Does he tell her? Does he hide it? Does she know? Does she want to know? Even if she remains oblivious, his behavior changes, and as a result, so does her response. So does the story. Suddenly he wants to be good enough for her, and he begins taking steps to grow up. As your character changes and becomes more interesting, so, happily, does your story.
Here are the mid-points for my books:
Just Once - Kate and Shane, who have been resisting each other since day one, give in to their attraction, vowing to scratch their mutually annoying itch—just once—to get it out of their system. Of course, after they do this nothing goes back the way it was, and the story (which is he wants to stay at the ranch forever and she plans to leave in a month) is complicated by their growing feelings for each other.
Going the Distance - The hero, Jarek, refuses to reveal much of his true self to the heroine, Olivia. As mentioned in the last post, the FATP is the first time they have a sexual interaction, which Olivia describes as “fine” and to which Jarek takes great offense. By the mid-point they’ve had sex several more times, but he can’t shake the feeling that the experience is less than fine for Olivia. At the mid-point he hurts her feelings, she dumps him, and he finally starts to let her see the real him. This connection translates to their sexual relationship and things suddenly start looking and feeling better than “fine.” Jarek’s understanding that letting someone in doesn’t mean they’re going to destroy him sets the story on a different path and ups the emotional stakes.
Time Served - Rachel and Dean have been messing around for a month, but neither is willing to put a name on it, largely because Dean is still harbouring a huge grudge against Rachel for the way she abandoned him years earlier. At the mid-point Dean finally lays out his hurt feelings and the revenge he’d always fantasized about getting, and though it’s hurtful and upsetting, they’re finally being honest, which they’ve never really been. (It’s also the moment that shows that gone is the boy who used his fists to express his anger, replaced by a man who uses words instead. I really wish I’d spelled this out better in the book.) After some more struggle, they finally agree to be “lonely together” and the admission means that these isolated people are now navigating two very different worlds together. Their goals as individuals shift as they become a couple, which changes the outcome and stakes of the story.
In Her Defense - Caitlin and Eli have been keeping other “occupied” during Caitlin’s mandated summer vacation, with the express understanding that it’s just to kill time. Actual feelings can’t be involved, right? Of course not! At the mid-point, Eli convinces Caitlin, who has an aversion to receiving oral sex since she gets so bored she can’t enjoy it, to let him prove her wrong. Which he does. (Hey, it’s fiction.) At the end he smugly asks if she’s had a change of heart (re: oral sex), to which she replies that she has (subtext re: her feelings towards relationships in general and Eli in particular). I was thinking a bit about the Judd Apatow interview when I wrote this scene. The stakes change when Caitlin starts to care. If she didn’t care, Eli could vanish off the face of the planet and her life would continue without interruption. Now that she’s troubled by these bothersome “feelings,” every corner of her life is cast in a glaring new light and she begins to make some changes.
Undecided - I spoiled this for you in the last post, but the mid-point here is Halloween, the night Crosbie and Nora first have sex. Up to this point the story has been about Nora not wanting anything to do with romance, discovering these questionable feelings for Crosbie, then learning that they are very much reciprocated. Nora is a reformed party girl who’s finding life on the straight and narrow pretty dull, and this night is her first venture back to the “wild side.” Crosbie is not the first guy she’s ever had sex with, but he’s the first guy she’s ever been with that she had really gotten to know in a meaningful way, and from here the story switches from Nora’s “I’ll have no friends or distractions this year!” strategy to “Well, maybe I can have a boyfriend and still not fail out of college,” which comes with a new set of complications.
To use a reference in a story I did not write (dammit!), the first book in The Hunger Games trilogy has several major shifts at its mid-point: Rue is killed, which angers Katniss and turns her from a character who has simply been doing her best to hide into one who is now willing to fight; the rules of the Hunger Games are altered to say that there can now be two winners, so Katniss is able to find an ally; and Katniss and Peeta’s relationship begins to evolve into a slow romance. Suddenly it’s not just a game about trying to survive; it’s about trying to win. It’s not about accepting her depressing fate; it’s about fighting back. And when Katniss and Peeta kiss and begin to entertain a relationship to entertain the viewers and gain advantages, the stakes become even higher. Now Katniss cares about more than just her own life, she cares about Peeta, too. (And the world. And justice!)
Does your story have multiple dimensions? Do your characters change? Does the plot? Do the stakes? In school I had to do a presentation on Benjamin Braddock’s character arc. (That’s Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate.) Early in the script, when asked about his future, Benjamin says something like, “I want it to be…different.” Then various things happen and at the end, things are different. That may sound vague, but it is a goal, and it opens lots of doors for your plot. If your character’s initial goal is to kill the neighbour’s cat for destroying her flowers, then shifts to kidnapping the cat for ransom so she can buy a fence instead of resorting to murder, then shifts to an accidental murder when the neighbour breaks in to retrieve the cat then falls down the stairs and snaps his neck—the goal is still the same: have a nice garden. It’s just gotten a little more complicated than initially planned, and the stakes are much, much higher. So, of course, is your reader’s interest.
Now that I’ve spent 2000 words telling you to keep people interested, let me say that you shouldn’t do any of the above if it doesn’t interest you. I’m a big believer in the idea that if that you do what you love, that passion will come out in whatever it is you’re doing. It doesn’t mean it will be perfect, but what works for one person won’t necessarily work for the next. You’ve probably heard about plotters and pantsers—a plotter is a person who plots out the story in advance, the pantser is the one who just starts writing. (I plot, obviously.) If you’re a pantser, you can keep these plot points in mind as you’re going, or use them as part of your editing and structuring process later.
And finally, as I’ve also said in each post and will probably say forever, just think about it. Read other books. Pay attention to the page count. What happens at the middle? Anything? Is your attention waning? Has it been perked up? Sent careening off in a wild new direction? Good or bad? What would you do differently? Remember: it’s one thing to say “We’re going to watch ghosts set traps!” It’s quite another to add “for 100 pages!”
Now that you know why the mid-point is so important, we’ll talk more about how to make your entire middle great. (Bonus: these tips work for the beginning and end of your story, too.) We’ll talk about combining scenes, showing versus telling, action versus reaction, when to enter a scene, when to exit, and a host of other things I have yet to think of.
Questions? Comments? I’m still on the fence about adding a comments section to these pages because a) I’d have to figure out how to do that, and b) I’m not sure I have the time to moderate it. But I do monitor my social media accounts with astounding unpredictability, so feel free to message me on Facebook or tweet me or email me, and I’ll do my best to respond and, if necessary, update my post accordingly.