Tag Archives: the middle of the story

The Mushy Midpoint #amwriting

I am not good at winging it when plotting a novel. I might begin with nothing but a few characters and a loose idea for a plot, but somewhere toward the middle, I will lose momentum.

F Scott Fitzgerald on Good Writing LIRF07252022I will have to spend a day or two thinking about the story as a whole and writing an outline as a framework to guide the story. The plot points I originally planned to occur at each of the four quarters of the story will be met, but how?

In my head, I know that character plus objective plus risk equals a story. In practice, it’s more complicated than it looks.

Every story begins with the opening act, introducing the characters and setting the scene. It then kicks into gear with the occurrence of the “inciting incident,” that first plot point that triggers the rest of the story.

I’m very good at getting this part on paper. But here is where my storytelling skills sometimes fail me.

At the midpoint of my outline, another serious incident is scheduled to occur, an event setting them back even further. They will be aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all.

While I  know that bad things have to happen at this place, I sometimes can’t figure out what those things are.

In my logical mind, I know that the protagonists must get creative and work hard to achieve their desired goals. I know they must overcome their doubts and make themselves stronger.

But what are those doubts?

We have arrived at the first pinch point. The characters are on the hunt for the MacGuffin. The antagonist makes an appearance, and the heroes survive the first roadblock and—


This sudden blank wall is where creating an outline comes into play. But since I know what the ending is that I must write to, I approach this part of the outline as if I were writing a murder mystery.

When I can’t figure out the middle, I start at the end of my story and work my way backward until I have joined the dots connecting the ending to the beginning.

Crime writers ask themselves several things when they begin plotting a mystery. We can all learn from their method:

  • What crime was committed?
  • Who committed the crime?
  • How did they pull it off?
  • Why did they do it?

So, I look at what I originally planned for the ending and ask, “What led us to this point?”

e.m. forster plot memeThe midpoint of the story arc is often where the protagonists lose their faith or have a crisis of conscience. Something terrible happens, and they must learn to live with it.

What was that terrible thing?

Maybe the protagonist has suffered a terrible personal loss or setback. Because of this, maybe she no longer believes in herself or the people she once looked up to.

How was her own personal weakness responsible for this turn of events?

How does this cause the protagonist to question everything she ever believed in?

What gives her the strength and the courage to pull herself together and finish the job?

How is she different after this personal death and rebirth event?

This midpoint crisis is where the protagonist makes the hard decisions and learns she truly has the courage to do the job. The antagonist has had their day in the sun and could possibly win.

What I sometimes forget is this: plot arcs hinge on our characters and their reasons for being there. No matter what genre we’re writing in, giving the individual players strong motivations makes the story easier to write.

If I haven’t made their motivations strong enough by the midpoint, I will lose track of the plot.

At the beginning of my story, I will know what “the crime” is, the incident that throws my characters into the action. I never lose track of that—it’s the middle that gets mushy for me.

I will know who the antagonist is and why they are acting against my main characters. I will even know why it is all happening.

The part I struggle with is the how.

WilliamBlakeImaginationLIRF05072022So, starting at the end, I look at my characters’ location when the story finishes. Then I ask myself what they were doing just before the final encounter.

And before they did that, what were they doing? What did they accomplish to move the story forward to that place? What location did they begin that part of the journey from, and why were they there?

I work my way backward through each step of the problem. It’s not a perfect method, and may not work for everyone. But by working in reverse from a known point, I can see what needs to happen and begin to write the story again.


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Crafting the turning point #amwriting

Last week we discussed the opening scenes of your story, taking it to the inciting incident. Today we are talking about the middle, a section that takes up about fifty percent of your story.

The middle is comprised of two acts joined by a major plot point, the midpoint event. Following the inciting incident is the second act, comprised of reaction to the inciting incident, and action, and more reactions, all of which leads to more trouble, rising to a severe crisis. All the action should relate directly to the core trouble, the quest.

At the midpoint, the protagonist and friends are in grave difficulty and are struggling. The midpoint of the story arc is the turning point, the place where there is no going back.

Consider J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit: At the midpoint, Bilbo is committed to seeing the Dwarves regain their home, and Smaug is routed, but at great cost. Now, he only sees disaster ahead of them, if Thorin continues down the moral path he has chosen.  Bilbo has been changing, evolving in to a strong and moral character, but now he shows his true courage, by hiding the Arkenstone. Then he takes matters into his own hands to head off the impending war.  Bilbo tries to ransom the Arkenstone, but Thorin refuses to see reason. He banishes Bilbo, and the battle is inevitable.

This arc is the same in every good, well-plotted novel: everything starts relatively well, but events soon push the protagonist out of his comfortable life and into danger. This peril can be physical, or emotional–after all, many things rock our world but don’t threaten our physical safety. Either way, the threat and looming disaster must be shown. At first, emotions are high, and the situation sometimes chaotic, but the protagonist believes he had a grip on it.

The Midpoint is the place where the already-high emotions really intensify, and the action does too. Toward the end of this section,  the protagonist suffers doubt, fear they may not have what it takes, and their quest won’t be fulfilled. From this point on, the forces driving the plot are a train on a downhill run, picking up speed, and there is no stopping it or turning back now. The characters continue to be put to the test, and the subplots kick into gear.

Within the overall story arc, there are scenes, each of which propels the plot forward, moving the protagonist and antagonist further along the story arc to the final showdown. Each scene is a small arc of action that illuminates the motives of the characters, allows the reader to learn things as the protagonist does, and offers clues regarding things the characters don’t know that will affect the plot.

As I mentioned in the previous post on the opening act, those clues are foreshadowing. Through the first half of the book, subtle foreshadowing is important, as it piques the reader’s interest, and makes them want to know how the book will end.

At the midpoint, another serious incident occurs, launching the third act and setting them back even further. Now the protagonist and allies are aware that they may not achieve their objectives after all. Bad things have happened, and the protagonists have to get creative and work hard to acquire or accomplish their desired goals. They must overcome their own doubts and make themselves stronger.

Just when the characters have recovered from the midpoint crisis, another crisis occurs, the event that launches the final act.

Someone may die. But be aware, random action, blood and gore, or sex inserted for shock value or just to liven things up have no place in a well-crafted novel. Blood and sex do have their place in some of the best stories I have read, and they were watershed moments in protagonists’ lives. I want to make this extremely clear: If those events don’t somehow move the story forward, change the protagonist profoundly, or affect their view of the world, you have wasted the reader’s time.

The middle of the story is also where we get to know the antagonist and learn what the enemy knows that the protagonists do not. We discover his/her motives and what they may be capable of.

By the final quarter of the story, the protagonists should be getting their acts together. They are finding ways to resolve the conflict and are ready to commence the all-important, final act, the moment where they will embark on the final battle to achieve their goal. They will face their enemy and either win or lose.

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