The Midpoint is a major turning point that occurs in the middle of all stories. This event falls smack-dab into the thick of things, so for it to make a difference, it’s got to fulfill several jobs:
- Raises the stakes for the hero
- Turns the story in a completely new direction
- Reveals the hero’s transformation
First of all, let’s talk about Act II, which is considered the middle of your book (and is the longest act in a three-act structure). Act II is all about REACTION. This is where your hero is in reaction mode in a brand-new world that he’s unfamiliar with. He is being tested, and in most stories, he is not doing so hot.
The Midpoint falls in the middle of this testing period and it is supposed to impose the largest test yet on your hero. Most stories struggle through Act II (also known as the Sagging Middle) and that’s because they didn’t make the Midpoint tough enough.
There are two main ways to go about this, and it largely depends on the kind of story you want to tell. Midpoints can act as either a false victory or a false defeat.
If your character has walked into Act II (his New World) and is actually doing pretty well, then you want to create a Midpoint that shakes him enough where he believes (wrongly) that he has achieved his goal, overcome his struggle, beaten the odds, won the fight.
This false victory would make him feel awesome, but there’s a problem. All is not well. He has lulled himself into a false sense of security and there is only one way to go from here: Down.
Why? Because we’re only halfway through the book! We need to find out what happens to the hero and how he handles his crisis. If we ended things on this false note, the book is over. And your story won’t work.
Flip things around and picture a character walking into Act II (his New World) and he is having a horrible experience. Things are not going well. He is struggling and with every effort he makes he either seems to go nowhere or falls further from his goal. A Midpoint where he feels he has utterly failed (false defeat) would give the readers a sense of futility.
The false defeat shows the hero he didn’t go about his journey into his New World the right way. He must have made a mistake. Or maybe he wasn’t strong enough. Or maybe the antagonist / antagonistic forces were more crafty than he first expected. Regardless, he sees he has failed and the goal he was trying to achieve feels further away than ever before.
The false defeat also shows the hero he must do things differently if he wants to achieve his goal. He may or may not have the best plan up his sleeve, but he knows he has to PIVOT and try again.
ELEMENTS INVOLVED IN MIDPOINT CONSTRUCTION
There are two antagonistic forces in play in well-developed stories:
- External antagonistic forces (which could be an ex-husband, a serial killer, a tornado, a schoolyard bully, an evil sorceress, an erupting volcano).
- Internal antagonistic forces (your hero’s internal flaws—personality markers—such as insecurity, fear, lack of self-worth, greed, prejudice).
Both the external and internal antagonistic forces have been in play since your story began—but likely your hero only is aware of the external forces. The flaws? The “bad guys” holding him back from achieving his goal? Yeah, not so much. Your hero is not ready to deal with those at the Midpoint.
What does this mean? He makes another effort to achieve his goal by pivoting in his course of action—but he is still ineffectual because he has not yet confronted the internal antagonistic forces.
RAISING THE STAKES
Your hero may have suffered a false defeat, but he hasn’t given up. Why not? Because something in that Midpoint showed him he has one more opportunity. You, the author, have raised the stakes in the story through this pivotal event, and your hero tries again.
-bring in a ticking clock
-bring in a plot twist (new information is usually revealed at the Midpoint, so why not make it as juicy as possible?)
-a character’s loyalty or betrayal is revealed
-collide your character’s Act I and Act II worlds
STORY GOAL vs SELF GOAL
From the beginning, your hero has had his sights set upon an external goal (story goal). This is commonly referred to as the thing he “wants.” Often though, our characters struggle to achieve the thing they want because they are really messed up with the thing they need (self goal). This is where your character’s flaws come into play. A hero’s flaws prevent him from clearly seeing their self goal, which is why they go about achieving their story goal the wrong way.
The Midpoint is the moment where your hero’s approach shifts. Your hero probably still isn’t aware of the reasons he’s doing it, but part of the pivot he makes during the Midpoint involves focusing less on the story goal and more on the self goal.
Hence, character transformation.
It’s still very subtle, very slight, and not enough of a breakthrough. But let’s just say he is stepping into the light now. He still has some work to do.
STORY STRETCHES—first half and second half of Act II
Visualize the Midpoint as the apex of your story and the apex of Act II. The first half of Act II is story stretch 1. This is usually rising action leading from the First Major Dilemma (turning point at the end of Act I) into the Midpoint. The second half of Act II is story stretch 2, typically falling action leading from Midpoint to Second Major Dilemma (turning point to kick off Act III).
Story stretches 1 & 2 need to be plotted strategically so that your pivot (Midpoint) works as intended. In other words, your Midpoint won’t be much of a pivot if story stretch 2 looks too much like story stretch 1.
No matter what, the antagonistic forces are in supreme control in both stretches. You just have to make sure that:
- the antagonistic forces are ALSO pivoting
- the stakes are raised for them as well
If your antagonistic forces are humans or magical creatures (any speaking character, basically), this is about character development. I won’t clog up the post here on that. Suffice to say—you gotta dig deep with your antagonists so that you are able to pivot their story, up their game, raise the stakes on them. They need to be in the best shape possible to give your protagonist a hell of a time.
If your antagonistic forces are inhuman such as avalanches or sea storms, then your biggest job is to make sure that force increases in danger and intensity and power. It needs to take lives, it needs to cause mass or personal destruction, it needs to be unstoppable.
Scene work in these stretches is your friend. Show us the antagonistic forces in full-on armor leading the charge against your hero. The antagonist is difficult in story stretch 1 and impossible in story stretch 2. Your hero is in a bind in story stretch 1, but the noose has tightened in story stretch 2. Your hero is surviving in story stretch 1 but is dying in story stretch 2.
What do you like or dislike about Act II? Do you find it to be more difficult to construct than the other two acts?