The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 7: The Midpoint

Halfway through our stories, something marvelous happens. There we are, minding our own business, toiling along in the seemingly endless desert of the second act, when—whap! bang! shazam!—everything changes all over again. Legendary director Sam Peckinpah talked about how he always looked for a “centerpiece” on which to “hang” his story. That centerpiece is your second major plot point, the midpoint, which divides your second act.

The midpoint is what keeps your second act from dragging. It’s what caps the reactions in the first half of the book and sets up the chain of actions that will lead the characters into the climax. In many ways, the midpoint is like a second inciting event. Like the first inciting event, it directly influences the plot. It changes the paradigm of the story. And it requires a definitive and story-altering response from the characters. The largest difference is that the character’s response is no longer just a reaction, but the moment at which he begins to definitively take charge of the story and act out against the antagonistic force.

Image by emedeme

What is the midpoint?

If we return to our visualization of a story as a line of dominoes, we can envision the midpoint as a turn in the domino design. The line of reactions from the first half of the second act finally whacks into that domino at the turn—and begins a whole new line of falling dominos. This is a big moment in the story, a major scene, one that is the logical outcome of the previous scenes, but also one that is dramatically new and different from anything that has come before. It could be the capture of the main characters, as in Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher. It could be a battle, as in The Magnificent Seven directed by John Sturges. Or it could be the death of an important character, as in Dragon Seed by Pearl S. Buck. It might even be something slightly less dramatic, such as the close call and subsequent rescue of a main character stranded in the mountains during a storm, as in Kristen Heitzmann’s Indivisible, or a daring speech, as in I.Q. directed by Fred Schepisi.

Whatever your choice of events, the midpoint is yet another moment in the story that changes the direction of the characters. This is the moment that will push them out of their reflexive reactions. From here on, if they’re to survive (spiritually or physically—or both), they’re going to have to stop defending themselves and go on the attack. This series of actions (which we’ll discuss more fully in the next post) won’t always be a dramatic storming of the enemy’s castle walls. Sometimes, it can just be a figurative squaring of the shoulders and a first step toward the decision not to take “it” (whatever “it” may be in your story) anymore.

Where does the midpoint belong?

Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding StoryNot surprisingly, we find the midpoint (*drumroll please*) at the middle of the story. Your midpoint should take place roughly around the 50% mark. Why, you ask? Right away, we can see several important reasons for this placement.

1. As the smack-in-the-middle scene in your story, this is your centerpiece. If it happens too far in either direction, it’s not a centerpiece. (If you figured this one out ahead of time, go ahead and pat yourself on the back.)

2. As with the first major plot point at the 25% mark, a second major plot point at the 50% mark is very much an instinctive placement. Readers (and writers) have an internal sense for when something big is supposed to happen in a story. If some new and interesting development isn’t changing things up every quarter of the book, we feel the drag and get antsy.

3. Your story requires the full first half of the book to develop the character, his dilemma, and his internal weaknesses. It needs the second half of the book to resolve all the problems set up in the first half. The midpoint marks the turning point (the swivel, of sorts) between these two parts of the story. Placed too far to either side of the 50% mark, the midpoint will cut off
important developments in one half of the story or the other.

Examples from film and literature

So what do our master authors and directors have to say at the midpoint of their stories? Let’s take a look at how the midpoint can be effectively used in a variety of ways.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813): Austen makes readers sit up straight by hitting them with a humdinger of a midpoint. Not only does she give us an unexpected (or is it?) proposal from Mr. Darcy to Lizzy, she also smacks it out of the park by having Lizzy turn him down flat and cast in his face everything she hates about him. Up to now, the relationship between Lizzy and Darcy has been nebulous. Now, everything is out in the open, and both characters have ended their period of reaction with a set of strong actions that will force them to reevaluate both themselves and each other.

It’s a Wonderful Life directed by Frank Capra (1947): George Bailey’s period of reaction ends when Mr. Potter summons him to his office and offers him a job. This entirely unexpected and unprecedented move on the antagonist’s part sends George’s head spinning with the possibilities. Suddenly, the life he’s always dreamed of is within his grasp. He’s within seconds of accepting the offer, when he comes to a realization that changes his life just as surely as Mr. Potter’s job offer would have. This is the moment when he stops reacting to his fate in Bedford Falls and deliberately (if still unhappily) embraces it. When George leaves Potter’s office, he’s the one in control of his life for the first time in the story.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1977): Ender’s apprenticeship in Salamander Army ends abruptly when he is given command of his own Battle School army. This dramatic change in the character’s circumstances would have been enough, by itself, to create a solid midpoint. But Card takes it one step further and complicates the character’s plight by giving him, not the standard army, but a group of the worst students in Battle School. This brand new army—Dragon Army—is created especially to test Ender. If he’s going to survive, he has to
stop reacting to the pressures put on him by others and go on the offensive.

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World directed by Peter Weir (2004): After losing the Acheron as a result of the lethal accident at Cape Horn, Jack has no choice but to spend the rest of the first half of the second act reacting. But when the Surprise rescues a group of marooned whalers whose ship was sunk by the Acheron, everything changes. Jack immediately goes on the offensive and begins plotting ways to track down and capture the Acheron before she can again disappear.

Takeaway Value

So what have we learned about the midpoint? What are the must-have elements that will lift this crucial centerpiece into memorability and allow it to drive the rest of the story onward to the climax?

1. The midpoint should take place right around the 50% mark, both to properly highlight it and to allow it to separate the reaction and action periods.

2. The midpoint should be dramatic in a way that is new and fresh. What happens at the midpoint should be a natural outflow of the previous scenes, but it should be different from anything that has come before.

3. The midpoint must act as a personal catalyst upon the main character. It must force him to change his modus operandi. After this, simply reacting won’t be good enough. Like the first major plot point, the midpoint is one of the most exciting moments in any story. Don’t settle for anything drab. Plan yours carefully, so you can dazzle readers with the kind of scene they’ll carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Stay tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about the Second Half of the Second Act.

Tell me your opinion: Does something dramatic happen at your storys midpoint?

Related Posts: The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 1: Why Should Authors Care?
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 2: The Hook
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 3: The First Act
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 4: The First Plot Point
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 5: The Inciting Event and the Key Event
The Secrets of Story Structure, Pt. 6: The First Half of the Second Act

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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. Thank you for this fantastic post. You wrote exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. Your percentages and examples drove home what others had hinted at.

  2. Awesome post. I haven’t gotten that far in my story yet, but yes, it’ll have a midpoint reversal.

  3. @Kittie: Glad the post’s timing was good! Thanks for stopping by.

    @Natalie: Those midpoint reversals are always fun to plan. Everything changes all over again – and the story gets *really* exciting!

  4. Thank you! This was very helpful and sparked some ideas. 😀 Which is always a good thing, right? 😉 I’m almost exactly halfway through my action/suspense-with-a-hint-of-romance book, so I was delighted to read this article.

    Methinks I’m going to have the two main characters betrayed, one of them saving the other and getting shot in the process. Sound good? 😀

    Following your blog now… 😀

    Blessings!
    Julia

  5. Sounds perfect! Nothing shakes things up more than an upheaval in character relationships – and a betrayal requires at least one of the characters to completely rethink things. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. K.M.;
    I have been following your story structure posts with great interest. I am (endlessly) revising my first novel and your posts are helping me to see things a little more clearly. I _do_ have structure! I’m finding nearly ewverything you’ve written about so far, but in the process of identifying these elements, I have been able to feel out the intrinsic weaknesses and look for opportunities to make the whole better.
    With regard to the Mid-point of my novel (epic fantasy), my protagonist, having nearly died as a result of the last plot point, discovers, as she tries to put her life and self back together, that her problems are only part of a more devastating scheme. The war that destroyed her home has a goal that threatens to end the world as she knows it. She has to stop being a victim and figure out how to prevent the sourceror Kane from releasing the mad god Yllel from his prison.
    I did say epic … yes? LOL
    I’m working with an on-line critique group in Author Salon, and have shared your blog with them. I’ve subscribed. I’ve become a huge fan. Thank you so much!
    I even blogged about your series (in curation mode): http://melaniemarttila.ca/2012/03/29/two-approaches-to-novel-structure-i-recommend-you-check-out/
    Just finding my blogging feet so I hope it passes muster.
    Again, thank you for helping me to re-envision my novel. It’s been a long road.
    Melanie Marttila

  7. Thanks so much for sharing the blog with your group and your blog readers! I appreciate that very much. I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series. I love epic fiction if for no other reason (and there are many!) than the fact that it’s plot points have the opportunity to be so dramatically pronounced. In quieter stories, the plot points tend to be correspondingly quieter, to the point that we sometimes have to do a little hunting to realize what they are. But the big, dramatic stories are always super obvious.

  8. Thanks for the mention, Katie – and you give wonderful examples here. I love that Sam Peckinpah quote about hanging the entire story on the midpoint – in fact I was ambling back to the house today with thoughts of a new WIP and thinking that very same thought. If you know the midpoint, it makes so much about your story clear to you.

  9. You bet! This, of course, is yet another reason to outline, At the very least, if we know our major plot points, we’ll have a feel for the overall arc of the story.

  10. Thanks for the mention, Katie – and you give wonderful examples here. I love that Sam Peckinpah quote about hanging the entire story on the midpoint – in fact I was ambling back to the house today with thoughts of a new WIP and thinking that very same thought. If you know the midpoint, it makes so much about your story clear to you.

  11. Thanks for sending me here. I am so myopic, I don’t usually think this clearly or this structurally. In fact, I blogged today about how distracted I get sometimes by certain details in novels . . .
    Thanks again!

  12. Writing a novel is hugely distracting. We have so many things we have to think about and keep track of at once. Really, it’s a miracle any novel makes sense! But structure is one of the best and most important ways in which we can keep track of everything that needs our attention.

  13. Thank you! I have a dramatic midpoint scene but I think I was ruining it by delaying my character’s response. If I use the midpoint to go from reaction to action like you explained, I think it will work a lot better.

  14. Don’t you find it amazing how the slightest of tweaks can sometimes make all the difference? Never ceases to fascinate me.

  15. I can’t wait to see the rest of this series. I only just came across it today and it has come at a point when I really needed it. Not only has it helped identify where I need to put certain vital scenes to ensure their impact but it has helped me realise that my outline needs rejigging to accomodate all the pacing in between and build up to each milestone in my book. Thank you!

  16. Outlines make the concept of structure so much easier. When you’re in the heat and rush of writing the actual story, it can be difficult to see the big picture. But in an outline, everything is so much more streamlined that it’s much easier to get a grip on what the major plot points need to be.

  17. What a great post. You certainly have a knack for saying a lot with few words. I love this one:

    Characters stop defending themselves and go on the attack.

    I placed it in my structure template as a reminder whenever I start a new idea. When this first clicked in my head, the second act was A LOT easier to deal with, but I still need a reminder:) I can’t stress how much outlining has helped me as well. Seeing the big picture – and knowing my story works before I start writing it – make the writing process easier for me.

  18. For whatever reason, second acts tend to get the short end of the stick in writing how-to – which is ironic, since they compose the largest section of the story. Once we start breaking them down, though, they’re really pretty easy to understand.

  19. This is really helpful! Sometimes it’s nice to step back from my particular WIP and think about the structure of a story as a whole. It’s a good reality check 🙂 Thank you!

  20. Writing is very much a balance between being “in the flow” and stepping back and evaluating. We have to combine the art with the craft – and structure is an inherent part of that. Thanks for stopping by!

  21. Definitely in my mystery. The antagonists finally catch up to my MC and attack her.

    I’m still working on my other projects and getting them to fall in line.

    This has been a great series thus far. Out of the ballpark! 🙂

  22. Nasty attack by bad guys (and, if I remember correctly, it was *really* nasty!) is exactly the sort of memorable midpoint we’re looking for. Anything that’s a game changer works perfectly.

  23. Anonymous says:

    When will the ‘Second Half of the Second Act’ article be available?

    Great blog, I’m utilizing all your wonderful articles for my novel, my first one. I’m still in the research phase, as I know nothing about writing novels, your blog has been very helpful in this endeavor.

    Writing a Steampunk novel. Working title: The SteamSphere Wars

  24. So glad you’re enjoying the blog. The next part of this series will be on Sunday, April 15th.

  25. This is something (rather I should say; the only thing) I have got right in my current WIP. But, I guess, right from here, I will be able to make a good story in both sides. Time to read JSB :/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good Midpoints are the centerpiece of the entire story. So they’re definitely a good place to start!

  26. Great articles. I honestly only discovered the existence of this specific story structure, and the existence of pinch points, the other week. So helpful with my writing, I can’t begin to describe it!

    Though I’m wondering as to your opinion as to applying the structure when you have a short series, where each book doesn’t have it’s own plot (like Harry Potter), but instead the one plot extends over the entire series with each book ending on a sort of “To be continued…” feel. Can’t just extend the structure across the entire series, because that would feel like one gigantic book that had been chopped into little pieces, rather than separate books in a series.

    I’m also having serious trouble as well identifying the first pinch point and the mid point in my own story, and I’d love to get your opinion.
    Basically, daughter of a merchant discovers she’s adopted, and eventually she discovers that the daughter of the evil corrupt governor was her birth mother. Also later discovers that her birth mother was kidnapped by a ruthless pirate many years ago only for the two to fall in love – and then the governor sends the regiment to slaughter the pirate and his friends at their secret wedding, before forcing his returned daughter to marry the head of the regiment (she later killed herself). When she gave birth to the pirate’s daughter, the governor left the baby in the street to die – that’s when the baby was found and adopted by the merchant.
    The girl will get revenge and take down the corrupt governor, honouring her pirate roots and possibly becoming a pirate herself. Will be a backstory with a love interest wanting to avenge his father, who was imprisoned by the governor on false charges or something.

    I’m THINKING the first pinch point is either meeting the governor for the first time and getting a hint of how evil he is, or when she realises she’s the granddaughter of the governor soon afterwards, or a combination of the two.

    But the mid point, I have no clue – maybe either finding out her father was a pirate, or when she discovers what the governor actually did to her parents, or a combination of both?

    And then as to the second plot point, I have no clue.

    What’s your opinion?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad you’re enjoying the series!

      Structure for books within a series remains the same for individual books. Every book will follow its own structure. If you’re writing an over-arching series (like Harry Potter), then the series itself will also be structured. More on that here.

      As for identifying your Pinch Points and Midpoint, that’s honestly pretty near impossible to do from just a summary of the story. Timing is one important factor that can help you identify the major points (the First Pinch Point belongs at the 37%, the Midpoint belongs at the 50%, and the Second Pinch Point belongs at the 62% mark).

      Beyond that, you’ll want to remember the specific roles of each of these structural moments. Both the Pinch Points are there to emphasize the antagonistic force. The First Pinch Point is all about introducing new clues that will lead into the Midpoint. The Midpoint is the major shift in the conflict, where the character moves from reaction to action, thanks to a crucial revelation–a Moment of Truth. And the Second Pinch Point is all about emphasizing what’s at stake for the character as she moves into the tragic low moment of the Third Plot Point.

      In addition to finishing this series on story structure, I think you’ll also find the following posts helpful:

      What Are Pinch Points? And How Can They Make Your Book Easier to Write?
      How the Perfect Midpoint Moves Your Protagonist From Reaction to Action
      A Reactive Protagonist Doesn’t Have to Be a Passive Protagonist! Discover the Difference
      The Mirror Moment: A Method for Both Plotters and Pantsers

  27. Hi,

    I absolutely love your structure format and it has really changed the way I write 🙂 Lately, I have been trying to plan the midpoint of my YA fantasy novel. I’ve been reading article after article to figure out how exactly to write the midpoint but it hasn’t worked. The midpoint is supposed to change the direction of the characters, to be a big reveal (The Moment of Truth). The antagonist is someone close to my main character so ideally, I would simply reveal the antagonist at the midpoint. However, I can’t because I planned to reveal the antagonist at the 75% point. I feel as if revealing her at 75% may interfere with the middle of my story but revealing her at the middle would ruin it. What do you think I should do? Should I just add a different conflict for the protagonists to focus on midway? Should I reveal her identity at 50% then simply lengthen what i had planned to write in the last 25% of the book? How do I reveal something big without giving away the nature of the conflict?

  28. Could a midpoint be the main character’s devastation in her succumbing to the antagonistic force (she gave into her desires and realizes the horrible mistake she’s made)?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely–although you’ll want to consider whether or not this moment is the character’s “lowest” moment in the story. If it is, then it may be better positioned at the Third Plot Point.

  29. Hi,
    I’ve been researching story structure on the internet (your website is the best by far, and I have your books Outlining your novel and Structuring your novel – excellent reads!), and I’ve read somewhere that the Midpoint is supposed to mirror the ending. If the protagonist succeeds in the end, then the Midpoint must also be a positive event for the hero, and viceversa.
    Is this correct?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The central facet of the Midpoint is the Moment of Truth. In a positive story, the protagonist will embrace that Truth, and it will allow him to move on to victory. In a negative story, he will reject the Truth and be destroyed (in some measure) as a result. So in that sense, yes, the Midpoint is a forecast of the character’s ultimate fate.

      Otherwise, what I generally recommend is that if your First Plot Point was negative, your Midpoint be positive and vice versa. It allows for a nice balance and variation of developments within the plot.

  30. Thank you for these amazing posts, they help me out immensely with my writing.

    I do have a question though, can you space out the protagonist’s moment of truth and his decision to finally take action? For instance, my protagonist has his moment of truth when he saves a supporting character and afterwards he finally decides to take action against the antagonist.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      They can be in separate scenes, but you don’t want them to be *too* spaced out, since that will endanger the overall balance of the reaction/action halves the story.

  31. onewordtest (@oneword_test) says:

    This really helped me fix up the middle point of my story, which was a collection of a few different disconnected scenes. I ended up combining them and adding one more element to create a higher stakes situation that flows more quickly. And I realized my protagonist needed an actual confrontation with the antagonist before the climax. I’m just still trying to figure how to keep things going through the second half now.

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