Insights into Your Midpoint Scene

As we’re going deeper into the ten key scenes you need for the first layer in your novel, I want to explore the midpoint some more. I wrote about that 50% mark of your novel in past posts, but I’m going to share more examples of great midpoint moments.

The midpoint is a crucial part of novel structure. As I’ve explained before, it’s the moment in which something new occurs. Some new major development or complication. Some twist or disruption.

Sometimes it’s the spiritual or emotional place the protagonist comes to, after a series of difficult setbacks or obstacles, where he’s pushed to make a hard decision, go through another “door of no return,” solidify his resolve, and move into further action. It’s a turning point that usually ramps the story up into a higher gear.

Midpoints can also be reversals. Something unexpected happens and changes the worldview of the protagonist. His plan no longer works and things have to change. A good midpoint reversal will also raise the stakes, even if they were already high. It often elevates the personal stakes in a way that wasn’t there before or reveals a secret. Sometimes it requires a sacrifice, be it a personal belief or an ally. It may involve all these things.

If you’ve developed a great premise (that concept with a kicker I so strongly preach about), and you brainstorm to come up with a killer midpoint situation, that can anchor down your framework.

If you have your basics: your inciting incident, your protagonist’s goal for the book, what is going to happen in the climax and end of the story (how the goal is reached or not, and what those consequences will be), then focusing on your midpoint can be a great way to zoom in on the heart of your story and character.

Examples of Great Midpoints

The movie Casablanca has a terrific midpoint. Up until that moment, Rick, the bitter, negative, selfish bar owner, has been closed off to everyone and everything else, a bystander watching the war take its toll. At the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick’s bar after closing. Rick is drunk and treats Ilsa with contempt, reminding her how she’d abandoned him in Paris. Ilsa tries to explain, pleads with him to understand, but Rick will have none of it. She leaves in tears—but not until after she shatters his assumptions. Ilsa had left because she’d learned her husband, Victor, was alive.

Rick, full of self-disgust, puts his head in his hands, finally facing his demons. “What have I become?” This is the moment of decision. Will he stay a selfish drunk or step up and stand up for something more important than his own little problems (which he later calls a hill of beans)? Everything that transpires in the movie is now impacted by his shift in attitude that occurs at the midpoint.

In the midpoint of the lengthy Gone with the Wind, we find Scarlett in that “mirror moment,” reflecting on how the war has destroyed every vestige of her life, her world, and her home, yet, she still has Tara, her family homestead, and in that moment she determines she will do whatever it takes to preserve and rebuild Tara. This midpoint, as are many, reveals an internal, personal shift in attitude. Most of the midpoints in my novels are exactly that.

In Ghost, dead Sam learns that his best friend Carl hired the murderer. A shocking revelation that changes and ramps up the conflict. Now that Sam knows who is behind his murder and that his wife is under attack, he is now shifts from reactive mode and into assertive attack mode to protect.

In Ender’s Game, 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 Orson Scott Card takes it one step further and complicates Ender’s plight by giving him a group of the worst students in Battle School. Dragon Army is designed to test Ender’s mettle. The stakes for him are now as high as can be if he is to be victorious.

The Subtle but Powerful Midpoint

Not all midpoints have to be huge and intense. They can be subtle. The midpoint in Despicable Me shows Gru taking his adopted girls to an amusement park, planning on ditching them. Up till now he’s been resisting caring for them. He’s evil and heartless, right? He only acquired the girls from the orphanage to use them for his despicable purposes.

But then cute little Agnes is treated unfairly by an employee at a theme park attraction, Gru is moved to defend her interests, surprising himself to see how much he’s grown to care about them and wants them to stay with him after all.

Often the midpoint is about a tectonic emotional or perspective shift though little is happening in the action itself.

We see this often in romances. In Ever After, Danielle finally agrees to an outing with Henry. He takes her a monastery, where she inspires him with her passion about life.

That moment is so understatedly impacting. It is in this moment that Henry sees himself for who he truly is. Danielle quite masterfully mirrors him back to himself, and it both astonishes him and makes him angry. All his years of arrogance and complaining melt into remorse and self-denigration. This moment, which shifts to an attack by gypsies (in which Danielle outfoxes them and saves Henry’s life) is the game-changer for Henry and it influences his decisions for the rest of his life.

Even Dogs Can Have Midpoints!

In The Art of Racing in the Rain, one of my favorite novels of all time, the midpoint comes at the moment when Denny’s cancer-ridden wife, Eve, dies. Keep in mind that Enzo, the dog, is the narrator. He’s like the classic narrator we see in Greek tragedies and Shakespeare plays. He observes, he reacts, he gives running (pun intended) commentary.

So, in the novel, Denny is the protagonist; it’s his story about how he meets his wife, falls in love, has a daughter, then watches Eve die—which comes at the midpoint.

Why is the novel set up so perfectly with that event? Shouldn’t that be the inciting incident?

Good question.

At the 10% mark, Denny has already met Eve and married her. Then, Zoe is born.

Midway through that scene, Eve turns to Enzo and says, “Will you promise to always protect her?” meaning, Zoe, whom she is nursing at the time.

Read what follows. It’s interesting:

She wasn’t asking me. She was asking Denny, and I was merely Denny’s surrogate [Denny is off at a car race when Zoe is born]. Still, I felt the obligation. I understood that, as a dog, I could never be as interactive with humanity as I truly desired. Yet, I realized at that moment, I could be something else. I could provide something of need to the people around me. I could comfort Even when Denny was away. I could protect Eve’s baby. And while I would always crave more, in a sense, I had found a place to begin.

Why is this interesting? Enzo is acting as Denny’s surrogate. This means at the inciting incident—Zoe’s birth—Enzo, and Denny in absentia, is making a promise. The new direction: he/they will do everything possible to protect and care for little Zoe.

The midpoint? Eve dies, so there is no turning back. And this terrible turn of events leads to shock and fear as Eve’s parents go all-out in war to rip Zoe from Denny’s arms, even falsely accusing him of crimes in order to get custody of their granddaughter.

A few pages after the exact 50% mark, the next chapter begins with “For Eve, her death was the end of a painful battle. For Denny, it was just the beginning.” The beginning of the fight over Zoe.

Instead of seeing Denny’s detailed reaction at the midpoint, to Eve’s death, we watch Enzo in his grief.

“She’s gone,” [Denny] said, and then he sobbed loudly and turned away, crying into the crook of his arm so I couldn’t see.

I am not a dog who runs away from things. I had never run away from Denny before that moment, and I have never run away since. But in that moment, I had to run. [Note: Enzo running is a big motif in this novel, and especially comes into play at the end.]

. . . Off to the south, I burst off down the short path through the gap in the split rail and out onto the big field, then I broke west. . . . I needed to go wilding. I was upset, sad, angry—something! I needed to do something! I needed to feel myself, understand myself and this horrible world we are all trapped in, where bugs and tumors and viruses worm their way into our brains . . . I needed to do my part to crush it, stamp out what was attacking me, my way of life. So I ran.

His narrative goes on another page, showing how his grief and rage makes him kill and eat a squirrel (okay, maybe that doesn’t sound too “undog-like,” but Enzo prides himself on being more like humans). He says, “I had to do it. I missed Eve so much I couldn’t be a human anymore and feel the pain that humans feel. I had to be an animal again. . . . My trying to live to human standards had done nothing for Eve; I ate the squirrel for Eve.”

Enzo, too, changes at the midpoint. He, along with Denny, is all in. And his actions play a key part in helping Denny reach his goal for the novel: to protect and keep Zoe from harm. Not a typical novel story or structure, with this “dual-character” midpoint with upped stakes for both, but Enzo and Denny—man and his dog—are in this together for the long haul.

When you sit down to start plotting out your scenes, think hard about the midpoint. If you know your character’s goal that will be reached or not at the climax, and you’ve set up your opening with the inciting incident that leads to fixing that goal at the 25% mark, you should be able to brainstorm ideas for that midpoint scene. What could you have happen that will make your character go all in?

Got a midpoint moment? Share about it in the comments! How does this moment change everything for your protagonist?

Master novel structure by learning about the Ten Key Scenes. They provide the sturdy framework for a successful story! It’s all in the new installment in The Writer’s Toolbox Series: Layer Your Novel.

CLICK HERE to order yours today! (release date September 15, 2017).

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  1. Thanks for the great info. I’ve shared it online.

    From your description of midpoint scenes, the midpoint of my memoir about attending college as a mother of five may be when I decide under pressure to attend and do well at the Ivy League in order to finish my undergrad degree. There’s no turning back now. I am committed and had received scholarships to do so. What do you think, Susanne?

    1. Midpoints apply to novel structure, and I imagine you could follow those constructs to fit a memoir too. I am not an expert in memoirs, so I’m not sure how to answer that. But it makes sense to have a midpoint like that if these is a specific incident that changes the game and pushes you forward with greater commitment.

      1. Memoir is a true story about a time in your life where something significant happened. As such, memoirists need to tell this small slice of their life as a story. And boy, if anything pushed me forward with greater commitment–and fear of survival–it would be attending the Ivy League.

        Thank you so much for all you do to assist writers with their work, Susanne.

  2. Thanks. Ive read about everything I can find on structure, but your word choices in this article planted the mid-point concept firmly in my brain. It’s there to stay. Much appreciated.

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