the mirror moment for plotters and pantsers

The Mirror Moment: A Method for Both Plotters and Pantsers

I want to thank Katie for giving me some space here to talk about my new book, Write Your Novel From the Middle. Rather than have her come up with interview questions, I took that burden upon myself. The only problem was, when I questioned myself, I tended to go on and on. I’ve thus mercifully cut this interview to the bone.

I sat down with myself on a sunny afternoon in Los Angeles. I found myself to be a bit distracted that day, but dogged former lawyer that I am, I persevered.

Write From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters and PantsersMe: So what prompted Write Your Novel From the Middle?

JSB: It was a discovery I made a couple of years ago, about something I call the “mirror moment.” I’ve written this book to explain not only what that moment is, but how to use it to write better novels. And screenplays, for that matter.

Me: Can you be a little more specific about this “mirror moment”?

JSB: Yes, I can.

Me: Well?

JSB: Ah, okay. There are quite a few writing teachers who talk about the midpoint, a scene in the structural middle of the novel that does an extra something. Only I was never clear on what that thing was, because there’s conflicting advice on it, and some of it’s vague. So I set about to see if I was missing anything. I took a few of my favorite movies and went to the exact middle of the films. Then I went to some of my favorite novels and did the same. What I found excited the heck out of me.

Me: Did you ever get the heck back in?

JSB: Not even close. What I found, to my utter delight and excitement, was that the true midpoint is not a scene at all, but a moment within the scene. And not only that, this moment revealed the very heart of the story.

Me: How so?

JSB: The character is forced to look at himself. As if in a mirror, only it’s a reflection of who he is at that moment in time. Who am I? What have I become? What do I have to do to regain my humanity? Sometimes, it’s the character looking at the odds. How can I possibly win? It looks like I’m going to die—physically or spiritually. Now what am I supposed to do?

Me: Can you give us an example?

JSB: I’ll give you two. In the middle of Gone With the Wind, Scarlett looks at herself and wonders what will become of her and Tara. What must she do to save her way of life? She makes the decision right there that she will do whatever it takes. She becomes a doer, not a victim. In the middle of The Hunger Games, Katniss accepts that she’s going die. She states it plainly, right in the middle of the book. She prepares herself for death, but then gets a chance to fight on.

Me: Interesting. Any other examples?

JSB: Try Dying.

Me: Nice self-promotion.

JSB: Honestly, I was surprised to find it, because I had not yet formulated the “mirror moment” idea when I wrote the book.

Me: So how did it get there?

JSB: All I can say is it must have been instinct. Which is probably how Margaret Mitchell and Suzanne Collins did it, too. What Write Your Novel From the Middle is doing is popping open the hood and showing writers how they can be intentional about it.

Me: Should a writer know what this moment is before beginning to write?

JSB: It helps enormously, because knowing this moment illuminates the entire book you’re trying to write. It’s the deep tissue of the story, which many writers don’t discover until much later, sometimes after the book is published.

Me: You make the claim that this method of yours will bring peace to a longstanding feud—that between plotters and pantsers. So back that up, please.

JSB: Sure. The Write From the Middle Method is powerful because it can be used at any point in the writing process. If you’re a pantser, and you want to write without a plan, you can wait awhile before brainstorming the mirror moment. But then, once you do know it, your pantsing will have a focus that you’ll be delighted with.

A pantser could also start with a mirror moment “out of the blue,” and then write a whole novel around it.

Plotters will love the mirror moment because they usually have a good structure set up, but don’t always know the deep, interior story for their main character. The mirror moment gives it to them. Planning scenes gets much easier as a result.

Me: Have you found this to be true in your own writing?

JSB: Absolutely. Ever since I discovered the mirror moment it has become an absolute essential for me. For example, when I’m just starting to plan a story, when I’ve given thought to my LOCK elements, I—

Me: What is LOCK again?

JSB: Why are you asking me? We came up with it.

Me: For the benefit of the readers.

JSB: Ah. LOCK stands for Lead, Objective, Confrontation and Knockout. That became the basis of my book, Plot & Structure.

Me: Nice self-promotion again.

JSB: You asked the question!

Me: Okay, go on with what you were saying.

JSB: I like to lay out my LOCK elements first. That’s when I know I at least have a plot. But then I go right to that mirror moment. I brainstorm it. I come up with several possibilities, and invariably one of them just seems right. It illuminates the entire narrative. That’s when I’m ready to write.

Me: Anything else about this book we should know?

JSB: Just that I’ve included a section with extra tips on writing the novel. Helping fellow writers is one of the things I enjoy most.

Me: Well, that about does ‘er. Wraps ‘er all up.

JSB: You’re quoting The Big Lebowski, of course.

Me: Of course. Someday I want to have Sam Elliott’s voice.

JSB: Good luck with that.

Me: And good luck with the new book.

JSB: Thanks. It’s been a pleasure.

Me: We should do this more often!

JSB: I, um, have to go now.

Tell me your opinion: Can you identify a moment of reflection in the middle of your story?

the mirror moment a method for both plotters and pantsers

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About James Scott Bell | @jamesscottbell

James Scott Bell and his doppelganger live and write in Los Angeles. His website is www.jamesscottbell.com.

Comments

  1. I really like the Middle Method! I never called it so, but used it – my story ideas always come from a scene in the middle. I might not be sure about the beggining, neither about the end; but the middle is like the starts: “silent and sure”, which is useful as I am not very neat with outlines, there are always new bends in the plot and I’m flexible.

    I was aslo glad to read this as I had often heard “you must have a nice ending before start” or a “stricht outline”, but never to have the middle done. I am much encouraged that even if I do it my way, there are others who do it in the same way and successfully.

    Thanks for posting!

    • Lora, I think you’re the first writer to tell me this. Fantastic! You discovered this organically. And that’s how it felt for me when the flashbulbs popped: organic. Right. True. Just waiting for us.

      Keep writing.

  2. Wow…all my favorite people converging on the same website. Jim, I read it over the weekend (well-used time during a round trip drive from Michigan to New York). You hit me with the man-in-the-mirror idea last year at the ACFW conference. I was a believer right away. The Casablanca example, I think, is your best. But I was still confused. Some writers claim a major event must occur at the midpoint, at the very least an exploding planet. And then there’s Bogey, no dialogue, just him with his head in his hands. Your new book straightened it out for me. The comparison between a plot-driven and character-driven novel made it clear. Of course, now I find myself annoyed at books that breeze right through the middle with no mid-point moment. I’ve been recommending this to all my writing friends. I hope to see some classes on this alone at future conferences.

    • Thank you, Ron, for the nice comments. And indeed it was Casablanca that really got me started on the mirror moment. That was the first DVD I tested by going to the middle. When I saw Bogart put his head down in self-loathing, it started to become clear what the movie is really about. Yes it’s about Nazis and love and WWII…but the heart of it is the reclamation of Rick’s humanity.

      Thanks again.

      Keep writing.

  3. How fascinating! After reading this, I went and checked all my published and not yet published books, and yes, it’s there, smack in the middle. It may not be an entire chapter, or even an entire scene, but something pivotal happens: an insight, a change or perspective, a sudden understanding of something that seemed incomprehensible before. Yep, it’s there all right!

  4. I can always count on this blog for epiphanies of varying degrees.

    I’m something between a plotter and a pantser. I usually say I’m a “percolator.” That means that I’ve pantsed the first couple of drafts in my head and worked out the worst of the kinks, then sat down to plot it on the page (my “plotting” is tends to still be pretty loosey-goosey, though).

    This method sounds like it could be a big help for me in making sure my pace and structure flow. I’ll be giving it a try.

  5. I thought the self-interview was hilarious! It made me laugh out loud. Also, being a plotter and having just outlined my MP scene, it will be very fascinating to go back and figure out where my mirror moment is. Now, I wonder, how this will work with a book like mine with 2 main POV characters…do they each need a mirror moment at around the same time? A question to be pondered, for sure…very helpful post! Thank you!

  6. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Jim!

  7. This mirror moment is the crux of why I write. It’s at the heart of what I want to say. Truthfully, it is for all of us. I haven’t quite finished Write Your Novel from the Middle, but so far it has helped me to put the flesh of understanding on the bone of an instinctual concept.

    Thanks for writing it!

  8. I can see the beginning and the middle of my story. It’s usually 20% at the end I don’t see! Many writers don’t end their stories with a bang. And I don’t want to be a writer who writes weak endings. But as my story evolves, so the ending. 🙂

  9. I loved hearing about this moment in your class at ACFW last fall. So excited it’s in a book now! Must buy ASAP.

    I just wrote the mirror moment in my current WIP. Reading this made me realize that’s what it is. He’s finally allowed someone to make him think about what he needs. His core identity to this point is how everyone around him is more important than him and it’s his job to keep them safe. But he’s losing himself in the process.

    Lots to chew on with it as I head into the second half.

  10. This “interview” was a very amusing read. I’m very interested in this new perspective on the mid-point.

    At the mid-point of my manuscript, it looks like the protagonist is going to escape all her problems, only to have that hope dashed away. Then she has a moment of great awakening for her faith. All of this happens in the midst of a big action sequence. I think I kind of have what you’re talking about.

    The thing I love about learning more and more about story structure is that I can start being more deliberate about these things, rather than letting it all to chance.

  11. Jim Dandy says:

    I like the notion that “death” can be physical, professional or psychological.

    But a thought occurred to me – death can also be social. One of the most primitive – and universal – of emotions is the fear of being excluded from the social group. After all, we humans are social animals.

    For example, the recent movie “The Hunt” is about social death, where a man is accused of child abuse in a small town. Sure, he suffers from professional and psychological death (and even the threat of physical death), but those deaths are a corollary of social death.

    PS. Love your work – I have all your books on writing.

    • Jim, thanks for the comment. I actually talk about the “social” dimension as a “raising of the stakes.” The Lead has his death struggle, but then the consequence of the wider community is added.

      Good though.

  12. Katie, thanks for posting this interview. I thoroughly enjoyed Mr. Bell’s _Plot and Structure_ and would love to get this book. Will it be available as a print copy at any point?

    Thanks for your continued support of writers and this wonderful craft!

    • Hi Ekta, thanks for the comment. Yes, the print version is almost ready. I would say 2-3 weeks.

      • Good morning, Mr. Bell, and thank you for replying. I will check again for the print version in about a month and add it to my writing workshop book list (due to family and financial constraints I have been unable to attend conferences and workshops, so I designed one for myself. I just started Year 2 of the workshop.) _Plot and Structure_ became one of my favorite books in Year 1, and I have no doubt that this book will rank just as high on my list of favorites about the craft. Thank you again!

  13. Wait…Wouldn’t “Writing from the Middle” really be from the beginning of the real story?

    I know I’ve skipped at least to a “mirror point” in many a story to see that is where the tale actually SHOULD have started, so what makes this point so different in the long run? You’re only telling them to start at the “real” story point instead of padding their story, right? So you’re telling them they should not write the first half of their novel…?

    Please, forgive me if this sounds confrontational (I truly do not mean it to be), but I am REALLY confused about this method.

    • Thanks for the question, Matthew. It’s a good one. I’ll try to explain.

      The “mirror moment” happens as a RESULT of the first half. IOW, the character isn’t forced into it without the confrontation elements already putting the pressure on.

      For example, The Hunger Games doesn’t start with Katniss accepting her own death and in the middle of the games. That would make it a different book.

      What I mean by “what the story is really about” is that the deeper significance, the inner journey, is revealed here. And being in the middle, one can go in either direction for fleshing out the story.

      Hope that helps.

  14. I have the same question as Cecilia. How does this work with a story that has more than one MC? Do they both have a mirror moment at about the same time, one right after the next?

    Also, how close to the literal, page count mid point does the mirror moment have to be? How close is it generally?

    • Good questions.

      If the book truly has two, parallel plots, then each character should have their own mirror moment. It would come roughly in the middle of each plot line, which means it may not be the EXACT middle of the book.

      And there is no literal page count rule here. But structurally, it should be around the rough middle.

  15. What a coincidence. I just stumbled across this book this morning and put it on my wish list. (I have to talk myself into buying anything but since I have 2 of Bell’s books it will happen at some point)

    I hate the word pantser. But I do just sit down and start writing with no idea where I’m going. The thing I immediately thought of when I saw the title was you can’t have that, as you call it, look in the mirror moment for a character unless you know this character. At least I’m thinking along those lines.

    If Collins didn’t know Katniss and understand all that had gone on how could she have come up with her accepting her dying?

    I guess what I’m saying is I can maybe see this working for those who outline because I guess part of the outline is character development plus you know the plot so might have an idea what would happen in the middle. I may be wrong and probably am (that is not self defamation but the point is I’m me and James Scott Bell is, well, James Scott Bell).

    OK, maybe I’m over thinking. Forget I wrote this. 🙂

    • I have written both ways, and it seems to me that when I sit down without any plotting and just write, I have to at least know why I’m writing the story (the theme). I think the theme is a big part of Bell’s mirror in the middle.

    • No, B.D., it’s not overthinking. It’s a very good question.

      As I say in the book, the mirror moment can be used at any point along the way. But I do point out that if you brainstorm it first (or early) it can guide your writing.

      For instance, Collins could have decided she was going to write about a young girl is going to die….for her family….or something along those lines. The how’s and why’s could then be worked out.

      Margaret Mitchell could have brainstormed writing about a Southern belle during the Civil War. Hmm, what if, right in the middle, she has to face up to saving her ancestral home, all alone? Ah, yes! That’s the story! Now, let’s add characters. How about a handsome rogue?

      IOW, this is a flexible tool.

      • Thanks for the reply! That makes sense and is worth at least considering. I’ll pick up a copy and read it through and test it. I mean you can’t beat the price. 🙂

  16. I finished your book tonight and tested the rough draft of one of my novels in progress to see if it measured up. What I discovered blew me away! I found just what you said I’d find, right in the middle (exactly!).

    “He stood by her bed and wondered if either one of them would ever be able to do as the Beast Master had instructed. What good was a cure if no one could implement it? Stephanie had failed, and he had found a better way. He laid a parting hand on her shoulder.
    “I must tell her about it soon,” he whispered.

    I’m a total believer in your system now. I wrote this novel like Stephen King or Dean Koonz and yet look what my intuition did. I’m a total believer in your system now, for sure!

  17. Great information, here! I swear by Plot & Structure, and the LOCK system. I go through that process as I plan each book. Now it looks like I’ll need to also plan a mirror moment. I do see mirror moments in my books that I added instinctively.

  18. Really interesting concept. I wanna test this out now! Thinking back I think I’ve done it instinctively, too.

    Stori Tori’s Blog

  19. For a plotter like myself, this scene in the middle is the character’s epiphany is it not? Before I even start writing, I structure that epiphany in. It’s one of the nine checkpoints. Correct me if I’m wrong here folks.

    • Barb, you’re not “wrong” if it works for you! I would say for myself, however, if there’s an epiphany (new self-realization) it more often comes near the end.

      But this is art as well as craft, so if something works better for you, use it by all means!

  20. You two are pretty hilarious. Maybe you should team up and do stand-up comedy! Jim, I love the “pop open the trunk.” Guess I’ll have to steal that expression too (since I already stole your joke about the guy who walks into the bar with a piece of asphalt). Love this whole concept about finding the “moment.” I write a lot about high moments in scenes, but I like thinking of the midpoint moment as the defining moment of the novel. Thanks!

  21. Takeyla B says:

    This was very helpful! I have read all of JSB’s books and countless others on developing and honing in on the story telling craft (as I am a serial plotter and habitual editor). Since I use notecards to organize and think in scenes I can already sense this will help me move my novels right along. I don’t know why I keep feeling like working from beginning to end is the only way to get it done the right way. Thanks so much for offering advice on approach often over not explored. I can’t wait to try it out.

  22. Just received my copy of your book and am devouring it this weekend. I’ve only just reached the midpoint in my novel, and realized due to a missing inciting incident / doorway moment that I need to rewrite the entire first act {and then some, obvs!}, so this will help me get back on track in no time! Loved Plot & Structure, which is how I realized my error, so THANKS! 🙂

  23. Tina Goodman says:

    Could this “Mirror Moment” also be the Moment of Grace?

  24. Laurence says:

    After I read your book (well, technically still reading it–most of the way through), I kept asking myself how this concept could/would work for a protagonist in a series of books (or TV episodes perhaps, film trilogy); does he or she continue growing and changing with each novel/episode?

  25. Interesting method. I definitely will try to apply this to my next writing project.

    I found this interesting due to fact that most writing tips I read is about ‘how to open your story magnificently and how to end it in good way’. Rarely they talk about a method to spice up the middle part of the novel (which I often find hard to write, rather than the beginning or the end of the story).

    May I post this link to my fantasy writers group? I believe they will be delighted to learn new technique like this 😀

  26. Thanks for such a nice post and awesome books 🙂
    The interview was funny and interesting, (and I do it with myself quite often)
    One funny thing about writing is, most people, especially in history, used to knew it and get it right with instinct. And nowadays, we get to know it and realize at way at the beginning. Thanks to those writers who take their time and research and discover it for us. And in a bam moment, we get all of it from a blog post and books like these.
    People says digital age has dragged us out of many small happiness’ of life, I would say it has make it only more beautiful.
    Thanks again 😀
    P.S It feels cool to be able to address a post to James Scott Bell 😉

  27. Found this post via a comment in Facebook in the Realm Makers group. Someone had mentioned Bell’s LOCK method and when I searched for info this post was in the search results list. Will have to read in more detail later.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Discover a method that will bring peace to the longstanding feud between plotters and pantsers!  […]

  2. […] James Scott Bell’s Writing From the Middle […]

  3. […] Amazon “look inside” feature), but when I saw his interview with himself here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/2014/03/plotters-and-pantsers.html I knew I had to check it […]

  4. […] Scott Bell suggests you try writing your book from the middle. This approach is helpful for both plotters and pantsers and a really original idea that might be […]

  5. […] a mirror-moment in every game, preferably in the middle.   The goal here is to have a player reflect upon the […]

  6. […] **Mirror moment. JSB describes this in an interview with KM Weiland as a point in the story when “The character is forced to look at himself. As if in a mirror, only it’s a reflection of who he is at that moment in time. Who am I? What have I become? What do I have to do to regain my humanity? Sometimes, it’s the character looking at the odds. How can I possibly win? It looks like I’m going to die—physically or spiritually. Now what am I supposed to do?” Interview here. […]

  7. namevah says:

    […] James Bell Scott, The Mirror Moment: A Method for Both Plotters and Pantsers […]

  8. […] more on the subject: “Can you structure if you’re a Pantser?” by K.M. Weiland “The Mirror Moment: A Method for both Plotter and Pantsers” by James Scott Bell “The Pros and Cons of Plotters and Pantsers” by The Magic […]

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