How the Perfect Midpoint Moves Your Protagonist From Reaction to Action

How the Perfect Midpoint Moves Your Protagonist From Reaction to Action

I have to thank the Marvel movies for a lot of things–like my Captain America shield pillow, my Iron Man socks, my Spider-Man poster, my Hulk thumb-wrestler. Ahem. Where was I? Oh, yes, talking about being a writer, not a fan-girl.

One other, slightly more important thing for which I have to thank the Marvel movies is the light bulb that went off in my head while sitting in the dark theater, center row, center seat, last April when watching Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was a light bulb that did a fine job of illuminating the sticky question of how to shift your protagonist from reaction in the first half of your story to action in the second half–using your story’s Midpoint.

And for that, let us return to our regularly scheduled Marvel example.

So there I was, sitting in the theater, licking popcorn salt off my lips, immersed in Winter Soldier. Story technique was actually the farthest thing from my mind at that point–but then something happened. The story’s Midpoint happened, and right before my eyes, I actually saw the protagonist’s subtle mental shift from reaction to action.

Reaction in the First Half of Your Story

The protagonist is going to spend that first half of the story feeling pretty off-balance. He doesn’t completely understand what’s going on, why it’s happening, or why it’s getting in the way of his own personal goals. He may not even completely understand what it is he wants (although he definitely wants something).

If you’re Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, you want to protect the values you believe in and use your rather elite skill set in a meaningful way. You don’t want to be a stooge for a home-brewed Commie organization. You know bad things are going down in SHIELD, but you don’t know why or who’s behind them. You have no idea who to trust, especially after you’re branded a fugitive and have to go on the run.

When a character is in his confused reaction period, he’s going to spend most of his time with a concerned and wrinkled forehead. He’s going to walk around looking just a bit baffled as he struggles to keep up with the conflict and sort things out.

He’s going to look kinda like this:

Cap 1 The Moment of Truth at Your Story’s Midpoint

Then the Midpoint happens–and, along with it, the Moment of Truth. This is where everything changes for the protagonist. This all-important turning point in the Second Act provides him with a new understanding of the conflict, the antagonistic force, and his own goals in relation to them. Suddenly, he gets it.

If you’re Cap, then you suddenly learn from an old enemy (reincarnated as a super-computer) that the all-American organization you’ve been working for is actually the evil Hydra group you started out fighting way back in World War II. It’s not a happy revelation. But suddenly everything starts to make way more sense.

At the Moment of Truth, a new light suddenly dawns in the protagonist’s eyes. You can practically see the gears whirring and clicking in his head. All the clues he’s picked up in the first half suddenly fall into place. His eyes might get wide, his mouth might fall open. He’s shocked, sure, but he’s not bewildered anymore.

And he probably looks something like this:

Cap 2

Action in the Second Half of Your Story

After the Midpoint, the character is suddenly armed with enough information to allow him to start fighting back. He doesn’t have to continue merely shielding himself from the antagonistic force’s assault. Now, he understands how to start picking up some of those rocks and start chucking them back. He will still probably be at a significant disadvantage in the conflict. But thanks to the Moment of Truth, he now has enough inside information to see the chink in his opponent’s armor–and take advantage of it.

If you’re Cap, then you may “look pretty happy for a guy who found out he died for nothing.” A huge burden has been lifted from your shoulders because “you just like to know who you’re fighting.” And from there on, you do start fighting. You grab what you just learned and you put it to work by taking the battle directly to the antagonist’s doorstep.

In the second half of the story, the protagonist is going to get his game face on. No more confusion, no more realization–just determination. He knows where he’s going and how to get what he wants (although he’s sure to run into further new developments), and nobody better get in his way.

Cue the hero face:
Cap 3

It was while watching Winter Soldier that I first realized the shift from reaction to action is actually visible in the protagonist’s face. This movie is an especially great example because it’s also obvious in its demonstration of the reactions and actions themselves: Cap spends the first half running away from the antagonists and the second half running toward them.

Since then, I’ve spent the last year observing this phenomenon again and again in movie after movie. Take a look at some of your favorite movies (Marvel or not). Observe how the protagonist will be straining his brain to comprehend the conflict in the First Half. Watch the light dawn in his eyes at the Midpoint. And then take a look at how he shifts into determined and enlightened action in the second half.

The exact same principle should hold true in your books. Obviously, the visual shift in your protagonist’s expression won’t be visible to readers, but they should be seeing the exact same attitudes in your character’s thoughts, dialogue, and action. As long as your story’s Midpoint is properly facilitating this all-important shift in the middle of your story, your conflict is sure to progress in a powerful and resonant way.

Wordplayers, what do you think? How does your protagonist’s attitude shift from reactive to active at your story’s Midpoint? Tell me in the comment section!

How the Perfect Midpoint Moves Your Protagonist From Reaction to Action

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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. Natasha says:

    This post encouraged me to search for such shifts in future movies. When I plan my Midpoint, I always make sure my protagonist has a ‘mirror moment’, reflecting how he changed. Great article!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The “mirror moment” is inherently tie to the Moment of Truth/Moment of Grace I’m talking about here. As the character realizes important truths about the antagonistic force and the conflict, he should also be realizing important things about himself.

  2. Great post! I actually haven’t seen the movie. I’m more of a DC person. But I think I’ll have to check it out now. This helped me to understand the midpoint more and how important it is to be the center turning point to a story. I’m working on a futuristic sci-fi thriller in which my main character realizes his family is in danger, and the first half of the story is his reaction to this revelation and trying to do something about it. I’m trying figure out the shift from where he goes from reactive to proactive, and this will help. Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is something that you can observe in almost any good movie. But Winter Soldier *is* definitely the best of the Marvel movies to date, so dive in!

      • It’s a bit off-topic and a question of taste but I found Winter Soldier rather weak compared to “The First Avenger” or “X-Men 2”.

        That Hydra had undermined SHIELD was definietely an eye-opener but at the moment in which Cap is shown the air carriers I thought “and they will turn bad use it for repression”, and so it happened.

        Just my two cents.

        Although I never analyzed “Winter Soldier” from the point of structure. The photos of Chris Evan’s face are very illustrative, hehe. Well done.

      • I think “Winter Soldier” is when Chris Evans’s Captain America became my favorite Marvel character. It doesn’t hurt that he’s incredibly handsome, but he also loves his best friend more than life itself. My heart!

  3. Jennifer says:

    Great examples make everything easier to understand. Great post.

  4. Steve Mathisen says:

    Excellent point! I have been paying more attention to this recently since I started looking at your story structure database. I will now, often, stop a movie I am watching or pause in the reading of a book to check where I am in the story and to see if things (structure points) are happening as you describe them. In the better movies and books, they are. Others just seem to wander around and are not as cohesively structured. I now get a bit more frustrated with ones that take too long to get to the point. It seems that they may have started the story too soon and are frontloading their backstory more than they ought to. But, that is a topic for another day.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! It’s great to see how structure affects both stories that work and stories that don’t. It really drives home how important this stuff is.

  5. thomas h cullen says:

    2001’s one of the best “Moment of truth” scenes ever.. A reactive Bowman, obviously distraught from just recent events that involve HAL, finally coming to learn about the purpose of his Jupiter voyage.

    Kubrick’s storytelling here’s beyond brilliant.. His straight away cutting from the revelation to the alien intelligences’ “procedure” for Bowman is maturity at its best (and the kind of level of maturity which the Representative’s in abundance of).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I haven’t seen 2001 since I was a kid, but Kubrick always does things in an interesting way.

      • thomas h cullen says:

        I’m not even sure the example qualifies.. As the audience, we’re reasonably able to assume the purpose of the mission.

        (It’s what you said, that bangs the nail on the head: Kubrick’s approach.)

  6. K.M… Your description of the Mid-Point sounds much like my Heart of the Story. Perhaps in some stories it is. And perhaps this Mid-Point pinch/crunch/revelation is another powerful beat before the even more powerful turning point/heart. All good! Some stories just never seem to quit with their series of beats that keep tweaking the protagonist’s trajectory to the ultimate resolution.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve always equated your heart of the story more with the crisis at the beginning of the Third Act – what I call the Third Plot Point at the 75% – the low moment from which the character must fully confront the story’s painful but necessary Truth and then rise again.

      • Joe Long says:

        Given me a lot to think about. I recognized my mid-point where the first person narrator gets the girl, and the pursuit turns into a relationship. Reading the comments here, I was thinking “but what of the terrible events to come?” when he loses the girl.

        Funny thing, I Googled “Third Plot Point” and the top result was your blog entry from a year ago. So now my mind is racing with these new concepts of how to describe what happens to my main protagonist (the narrator.)

        Tell me if this is crazy – as this is a romance, I’m thinking I have co-protagonists. As it’s a first person narrative, everything is seen through that one person’s eyes. Could the protagonist’s choices, that you described last year, be mainly hers, made off the page, as he again struggles to understand what has happened? Later he finds out what has happened to cause the split and what her decisions were in the time that passed, and is hit with round two of crushing despair.

        It’s after that where I’m somewhat unsure about the structure. They’re apart, but he holds out hope until they finally get a chance to talk it out. He doesn’t keep the girl (what you want vs what you can have?) but they’ve both grown from the experience.

        Although by this part of the story almost everything is fiction (and why it takes longer) but even as I write this description I find myself crying. Now, if I can just make the readers cry…

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          You know what they say, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” So I’d say you’re on the right track!

          However, it is important for the protagonist to be proactive (even while he’s reactive in the first half of the book). The key to the Midpoint is the realization the protagonist comes to, which allows him to finally understand the conflict in a way that allows him to start being more effective in reaching his goals. This doesn’t mean he isn’t making choices or doing things to attempt to pursue his goals in the first half.

          Even though the antagonistic force (probably the love interest in your story) *controls* the conflict in the first half, the protagonist still has to be moving the plot himself. So you definitely don’t want him to be passively reacting to whatever is happening off-screen.

  7. This is great not only for my books, but my screenplays as well! The examples provided are what put this over the top.

    Thanks!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, definitely! The principles of story structure are applicable in almost all narrative forms (short stories being the occasional exception).

  8. I actually just watched The Winter Soldier the other night! As always, I was reminded of why it’s my favorite of the Marvel films. The use of character arc is superb–not just for Cap, but even some of the minor characters (especially Natasha). The movie did a spectacular job of not just showing Steve and Natasha’s arcs but also combining them and using them to develop each other, which I found quite effective.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. Cap in this film is a great example of how a flat arc character (who already possesses the story’s Truth) affects change arcs on characters around him and usually on one character in particular–that being Nat, of course, in this film.

  9. Another great movie example is The Fugitive. At the midpoint, Kimble is cornered above the dam. When he dives in, he makes a clear move from reaction to action, even shifting the direction he’s traveling from running away to running back, in order to catch the man who murdered his wife. His moment of truth/enlightenment comes in a dream: “You catch that man!” We move from resistance towards the beginning of resolution. Excellent post, KM.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great example! I always love it when we get to see a literal change in the protagonist’s direction at the Midpoint.

  10. Jack Baldwin says:

    I realized the mid-point shift in one of my favorite movies while reading your article. In JAWS, the mid-point would be where Sheriff Brody hires Captain Quint to catch the shark. The characters go from suffering the attacks of the shark to going out on the Orca to find and kill the shark.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s been so long since I’ve seen Jaws that I can’t confirm that, but it sounds totally spot on!

    • I believe the midpoint in Jaws is the low angle hero shot we get of Brodie looking out to sea and deciding to take his fight to the shark.

      Yes, you’re right he turns from reaction to action, having to get over his fear of the water because the shark just took a pass at Brodie’s family.

      Great post.

  11. Hi,

    Thanks for this! You used a really clear example and it made the whole thing very understandable for me – thank you! Plus it’s also a really good movie. 🙂

    I’m literally at my halfway point on my first (ever) MS draft and am finding the middle bit to be very laborious. I know so much needs more work in the story, but I’m just chugging through until the end so I can edit, edit and edit some more.

    What you said in your post was really helpful though and has me thinking a little more clearly at my halfway point. thank you!

    Jess 🙂

  12. I’ve read things along this line, and I think I do it instinctively in my work. But today it struck me in a new way. Thank you.

  13. I adore this. Cap is my favorite Avenger, and I knew when I was watching Winter Soldier that I was watching something special unfold. Not just an epic allegory to what I honestly felt like was happening to the country at the time (NSA spying), but absolute brilliant storytelling. This is also why I adore Marvel. Especially Cap. <3

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I agree. It’s a great movie in its own right, totally apart from the Marvel monster (and I say that very affectionately).

  14. What a great post! I am thrilled to discover I’m not the only one who sees these sorts of things in the movies I watch. Woo-hoo!

    I missed this mid-point shift in the protagonist’s story arc, but you can bet I’ll be looking for it the next time I watch Winter Soldier. Or any other movie, for that matter!

    Thank you very much and best wishes,

    Carrie

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Every movie and book becomes an adventure hunt once we start understanding these key moments in story structure!

  15. Michele says:

    I still struggle with structure. Isn’t the protagonist always supposed to be proactive? So at the end of the first act, isn’t the protagonist supposed to be moving towards the goal?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great question. And one I’ll actually be answering in an upcoming post. The important thing to realize is here is that reactive doesn’t mean passive.

  16. YES! Winter Soldier is an amazing example of the midpoint in action. What makes it even more amazing is that Winter Soldier is not a character driven movie. Cap is basically the perfect hero. He doesn’t change inwardly. So having the midpoint show on his face that much is just too amazing for me to believe. I wish they did that more in character driven movies.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Cap is a flat-arc character, which means he already possesses the story’s fundamental Truth and therefore does not need to change much over the course of the story. However, it’s important to note that flat-arc stories still *do* feature prominent change. The protagonist will use his Truth to work changes in the world around him and in other prominent characters (Natasha being the main example here).

  17. Aaron McCausland says:

    Let’s be careful to remember that the Midpoint is the structural middle, but not necessarily the chronological middle.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Most stories are chronological, so this isn’t a common issue. And we definitely *do* want the Midpoint always land right around the 50% mark in the book, neatly splitting it between its action and reaction halves. In stories that display their timeline in a non-chronological manner, this does get a little trickier. However, it’s still important to arrange scenes so the the Midpoint at the 50% mark is the major turning point in the story. If the Midpoint happens to be something that happened in the story’s chronological past, then the *memory* of that event needs to influence the present-day story just the same as it would in a chronological story.

      • I was watching ‘Ghost’ tonight and the midpoint where Sam finds out his best friend, Carl, had a hand in his murder is right at the one hour mark (2 hr movie). Totally re-directs the movie in another direction.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s a really good example of a plot-based Moment of Truth. It’s a revelation that shows the protagonist exactly who the antagonistic force is and what the true nature of the conflict really is.

  18. Even though I´m not a fan of Marvel at all (DC girl forever), I see midpoint is very important and I will have this in mind. Still, at the midpoint maybe the hero is still somehow mistaken…

    M.

  19. I loved this one, but I’ve loved all of your posts so far. I’ve been binge reading and listening for a few weeks now.

    I’m getting ready to get back into fiction after 4-5 years of nutrition, fitness, and health writing, and your way of teaching really hits home for me.

    Thanks!

    Roland

  20. I just always has to regret not watching captain america winter soldier. Those days, I was busy in my own and my brothers went to theater alone (we ritually go there together on every marvel movie).
    Since then, I am just not getting the chance to watch it. Even though I have already watched avengers age of ultron. *grumpy+sad face*

  21. I really enjoyed this post!

    Quick question though…If you’ve got more than one timeline in a novel (a primary for past and present and a smaller secondary for both, in short) Can a major plot point in the secondary timeline be a midpoint?

    I ask mainly because my protag of the past timeline is a flat arc impact character who, after the first plot point, discovers she’s equipped with the truths she needs to understand her situation and fight it. But this secondary timeline moment IS that sorta moment of truth from the reader’s perspective (or so i had hoped). My present timeline has that sorta Winter Soldier dawning moment because my present timeline protag is following a change arc and is coming into truths. Both “midpoint” chapters fall back to back in the novel.

  22. This just made me realize that the Midpoint in my main novel might not be what I thought. I mean, there’s an obvious shift from reaction to action as far as the main plotline goes, not so much concerning any of the antagonists though. It’s more of an internal shift I suppose… Which I’m guessing, since i’m writing a character and plot driven story isn’t a bad thing?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely not a bad thing. The Midpoint revelation is usually going to be multi-faceted. It’s not just about realizing something about the external plot and the antagonist–it’s also about self-realization as well, as per the Moment of Truth/Grace:

  23. You always write the most informative posts about creating fiction, but this – based on my very biased, recently discovered love for Marvel, Captain America specifically – this is the best article you’ve ever written! It enlightens me and opens my eyes to my current WIP. Thank you.

  24. I LOVE this! The screencaps really bring it home. I’m always in awe of how the Marvel movies manage to tell stories that are engrossingly well-written, and often with a huge cast. I still need to spend more time dissecting every character introduction in the first Avengers movie… Brilliant stuff!

  25. I absolutely love how you use Winter Soldier as an example (*waves* Hello fellow fangirl!). And thank you for the movie stills. Haha.

    This has made me think about the stories that I’ve written. It would make editing much easier because at least now I know what to look out for.

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