creating stunning character arcs the midpoint

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 10: The Midpoint

In a positive change character arc, your protagonist will have spent the First Half of the Second Act blundering around in foreign territory, making mistakes based on false assumptions, and getting his hand slapped for his every wrong move. But he’s also going to have been slowly—maybe even subconsciously—learning his lesson and figuring things out. These personal revelations are going to lead him up to a very special turning point at the story’s Midpoint.

Creating Character ArcsUp to now, your protagonist will have been struggling under the burden of his Lie. He’s still overwhelmingly convinced he can’t possibly live without it. But the First Half of the Second Act has altered him, probably without his even realizing it. He’s ready for a big change. The Midpoint is that change. It prompts the character to turn away from the effects of the Lie, if not the Lie itself quite yet.

The Midpoint acts as the swivel for the entire story. Not only is it a crucial moment of revelation in your character’s arc, it also marks the end of his reaction phase and his transition into active mode. Before we continue with our discussion of character development, let’s quickly run through the important elements of the Midpoint’s role in plot structure:

  • The Midpoint caps the reactions in the first half of the book and sets up the chain of actions that will continue in the final half.
  • The Midpoint changes the paradigm of the story.
  • The Midpoint requires a definitive and story-altering response from the characters.
  • The Midpoint should be negative if the First Plot Point was positive; it should be positive if the First Plot Point was negative.
  • The Midpoint occurs at the 50% mark.

Director Sam Peckinpah referred to the Midpoint as a story’s “centerpiece”: it’s big, impressive, and the center of attention. Your Midpoint is an important opportunity for a killer scene. In his book Write Your Novel From the Middle, James Scott Bell recommends starting your plotting with your Midpoint, so you can plan your entire story around this moment.

The Midpoint

In discussions of plot structure, the Midpoint’s emphasis is always placed on the protagonist’s shift from a reactive (not in control of the conflict) role to an active (taking control of the conflict) role. This is the fundamental turning point in your book. Without this shift, you have no evolution, no variety, and no story.

But, taken at face value, this explanation of the Midpoint is incomplete. Where, after all, does this shift come from?

It comes from deep inside the character. It comes from the heart of his character arc.

The Moment of Grace

At the Midpoint, the character ceases to survive merely in a reactionary role and begins to take definitive action in overcoming the antagonistic force. He does this not because his goal or his determination to achieve that goal have changed, but because the Midpoint is where he will gain a better understanding of both the external conflict and his inner self in that conflict.

In other words, he finally sees the Truth. Stanley D. Williams calls this the “moment of grace.” James Scott Bell calls it the “mirror moment” (since it metaphorically—and sometimes literally—involves the character looking in a mirror and seeing the truth about himself). The character has been seeing evidence of the Truth throughout the first half of the story, but the moment of grace at the Midpoint is where he finally accepts that Truth. He accepts it not just as a universal, generic truth, but as a Truth that is the key to achieving his plot goal—the Thing He Wants.

Caught Between the Lie and the Truth

This does not mean the character rejects the Lie. It’s still too early in the story for that. But the Midpoint shows him the importance of the opposing viewpoint. Consciously, he will continue to claim he believes the Lie throughout the rest of the Second Act, but subconsciously, he will begin to act in harmony with the Truth.

For example, the murder of Po-han at the Midpoint in Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles forces protagonist Jake Holman to face the Truth that it’s impossible to stay personally neutral while in the midst of a war. He would still claim neutrality at this point, insisting the morality and politics of war were something for the officers to “fool with.” But his actions, as he plots to desert the Navy, prove that, deep in his soul, he no longer holds with that Lie of neutrality.

At this point, your character is now a divided person: caught between the Lie and the Truth. The fact that he doesn’t yet have a complete understanding of how to implement his new knowledge of the Truth is the reason he will not yet be able to achieve total victory in the remainder of the Second Act.

Part of a Subtle Evolution

Although the Midpoint itself will be part of a big and important series of scenes, the character’s personal shift from Lie to Truth will often be a subtle moment. He may not be able to consciously articulate the change, but the change itself is solid and dramatic for all that. In The Moral Premise, Williams writes,

 The Moment of Grace is usually triggered by a subtle event that is undergirded by earlier, more dramatic events. It is not the Moment of Grace alone that changes the character’s behavior, but it is the “straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

How Does the Midpoint Manifest in Character Arcs?

Your character’s arc in the Midpoint could manifest as:

  • A physical inability to lift his own hammer—and a realization that strength alone does not make him worthy to wield it. (Thor)
  • A glimpse into the horror of Rochester’s secret and his growing dependence upon her—and a realization that she cannot continue to work for him if he is to marry someone else. (Jane Eyre)
  • A stunning attack upon the children by the T-Rex, now loose from her pen—and a realization that the children must be rescued, even at the risk of his own life. (Jurassic Park)
  • A brawl between Uncle Hub and a greaser gang—and the realization that Uncle Garth’s heroic stories may be true after all. (Secondhand Lions)
  • A jealousy-fueled assault on Buzz that ends with both of them abandoned at a gas station—and the realization that he can’t return to Andy if he doesn’t save Buzz too. (Toy Story)
  • The discovery and theft of the sought-after Iraqi gold—and the realization that they can’t leave the Shiite villagers to bear the consequences. (Three Kings)
  • A victorious fight at the Manchester game—and the realization of the empowerment of being able to fight with and for people he cares about. (Green Street Hooligans)
  • A successful (if somewhat accidental) diving lesson with Dr. Leo’s son—and the realization that “the fam” are subsequently paying attention to him because they like him, not because he’s crazy. (What About Bob?)

Further Examples of the Midpoint in Character Arcs

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: After an eventful First Half of the Second Act, spent exploring his past, Scrooge is passed into the hands of the second spirit, the Ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge is already comparatively subdued by this point, not even daring to meet the ghost’s eyes. The First Act has shaken his belief in his Lie of money’s absolute worth, and the sights he has seen have convinced him that maybe he does have something to learn about being a better man. He humbly submits to the ghost’s powers and admits he has “learned a lesson which is working on me now.” He’s not quite ready to completely surrender his Lie, but the Truth has him in its grip. His moment of grace manifests when he not only doesn’t resist this ghost, as he did the first one, but even entreats him, “Tonight, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”

Cars directed by John Lasseter: After losing the race to Doc, Lightning still believes just as firmly as ever that he works best “solo mio.” But he’s also now faced with the Truth that he needs help. He can’t figure out how to make the turn on the dirt racetrack without Doc’s help. He doesn’t want to admit that Truth, but, deep down, he knows it’s true. He goes tractor tipping with Mater and finds himself having to further admit that he likes Mater and has fun with him. His moment of grace sneaks up on him when he starts complaining about his Rust-Eze sponsors, only to realize he’s also criticizing Mater. Miss Sally emphasizes the new Truth by reminding him that Mater trusts him and that, in having a friend he can trust, he also has to be trustworthy himself. Lightning responds nonchalantly, but his actions in helping in the town in the second half will bear out that, in his heart, he believes this new Truth.

Questions to Ask About Your Character’s Arc in the Midpoint

1. What personal revelation strikes your protagonist at the Midpoint?

2. How is your protagonist different at the Midpoint from who he was at the First Plot Point?

3. How does the revelation at the Midpoint prompt the character to move from reaction to action by providing him the knowledge to start taking control of the conflict?

4. What definitive action will your protagonist take against the antagonistic force?

5. What new understanding of the conflict does the protagonist gain at the Midpoint?

6. What new understanding of himself does the protagonist gain at the Midpoint?

7. What is his moment of grace? What Truth does he recognize and accept? What causes him to accept it?

8. How is your character still consciously clinging to his Lie?

9. What actions is he taking that are based on the Truth?

10. How does the contrast between the simultaneously held Lie and Truth evolve his inner conflict?

The Midpoint is one of the most exciting moments in your story. It’s the moment your character finally gets it. The puzzle pieces fall into place. He realizes what he must do to win the conflict, and he adjusts his actions accordingly. This isn’t an overnight transformation. It’s a build-up of everything he’s learned in the First Act, and he will continue to refine his understanding of the Truth throughout the remainder of the Second Act.

When planning your Midpoint, identify the Truth your character must recognize and create a mind-blowing scene to support it. Done right, it will end up being one of the most memorable chapters in your entire book.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll be talking about your character’s arc in the Second Half of the Second Act.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Part 1: Can You Structure Character?

Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes

Part 3: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

Part 4: Your Character’s Ghost

Part 5: The Characteristic Moment

Part 6: The Normal World

Part 7: The First Act

Part 8: The First Plot Point

Part 9: The First Half of the Second Act

Tell me your opinion: What does your character realize about himself and the conflict in your story’s Midpoint?

Creating Stunning Character Arcs The Midpoint

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. How very excellent this is. And dead on. Thanks for this, and the rest of this series.

  2. I’ve been waiting for this entry! Thanks so much for the series, it’s been helping me a ton in developing my protagonist’s arc, which was a main problem I was having in polishing up last year’s Nanowrimo story! 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Arcs can be tricky. The whole story revolves around them, but unless we plan them upfront, we don’t always understand how to integrate them into the plot as we go.

  3. Oh. I loved this. I am thinking about making my protagonist twist the truth to fit her lie until she finally has to give up on it and have her change of perception 🙂
    Thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Keep in mind that she won’t completely and consciously give up the Lie at the Midpoint. The shift here is usually conscious only in how it directly affects the external conflict at this point. The character is embracing the Truth here, but won’t fully reject the Lie until the Third Plot Point.

  4. Excellent as usual! Are you going to turn this series into a book to tie all of the posts together with more points/examples and other stuff like your other two guides on structuring and plotting? If so, that would be great.

  5. This is exactly what I needed! It’s helped me pull all sorts of details together and my story pieces are beginning to fall into place. And it’s giving fresh vigor and thrill to my entire writing process! 🙂 Thanks so much!!!

  6. This is an excellent series!!

  7. In editing my first draft and will soon be approaching this section. Great tips. Thank you!

  8. I’m rechecking my midpoint of my WIP:) Now, I find myself looking in novels for the lie, the ghost, the midpoint etc. Love reading your articles!

  9. What a great post in a great series! I’m curious what if my First plot point was negative and I want the midpoint to be negative as well, does it will have structural consequences in my WIP?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The idea is that the varying “charge” of the plot points allows for both variety in the plot and the necessary progression in the character’s evolution. All of story is a shifting back and froth from positive to negative to positive (each scene that opens on a positive note should end on a negative one–and vice versa). So I would encourage you to find a note of positivity (perhaps even just the Moment of Grace) in the Midpoint, even if the event itself seems overwhelmingly negative.

  10. I mean, seriously?! You’re blowing my mind. I feel like I’m at the Midpoint right with my protagonist, both of us teetering over the edge. I had no idea what the behind the scene structure of novels (and screenplays) looked like. As primarily a short story writer, I had gotten so comfortable with that form I could almost fly blind, but with the first draft of my novel i was flying blindly – and not gracefully – on intuition alone, but I see now it’s a combo of both. Thank you, again!
    -Dana

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      So glad you’re enjoying the series! I do find the similarities between the character arc and the arcs in our own lives to be fascinating. I look at certain things I’m going through or have gone through and say, “Yep, that’s my Ghost. That was my Normal World. Here’s my Moment of Grace or my Third Plot Point.”

  11. Betty Spinks says:

    Hi KM–

    Wonderful site. This is the first post of yours I’ve read, so I’m gonna jump in with a question before I have a look around for the answer elsewhere on your site, because I’m so excited I just can’t help myself! ;o) SO…

    This “moment of grace”… It doesn’t have to be applied literally to those moments which humans traditionally think of as having grace, right? Like the recognition of innocence in the smile of a child, or helping an old person cross the street?

    For example, could it be a murder? In the context of, say, the empowerment of a protagonist who has been steamrolled his/her entire life? And who is done taking crap and is taking back power? And feels free for the first time in his/her life and is humbled by this?

    Thanks in advance for any reply! Betty

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely (and particularly, I would say if the protag is in a negative change arc). The moment of grace is all about the character being offered the overarching Truth of the story and either accepting it or rejecting. The qualitative “good” or “bad” of the moment, the Truth, or the character’s actions are irrelevant.

Trackbacks

  1. […] K.M. Weiland’s Creating Stunning Character Arcs series, part 10: The Midpoint. […]

  2. […] For more tips on the Revelation / Midpoint, check out the linked articles from Fiction University (three act structure and preparing your novel’s middle), Mythic Scribes (Story Structure, Parts 2 and 3), and Helping Writers Become Authors. […]

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