If you’re about to write a novel, start with the midpoint. That’s the place to begin to build your world around.
The midpoint is the point of no return in a story, where the character undergoes a crisis, and finds within the necessary qualities to reverse the action or fortune of the book. Often this is the point at which the character is most challenged and therefore at their lowest.
The idea is developed in John Yorke’s book Into The Woods as a convention or precept axiomatic to the development of screenplays.
From John Yorke’s book:
‘The midpoint in our change paradigm corresponds to the moment of Vogler’s ‘supreme ordeal’… the moment of ‘big change’. It isn’t necessarily the most dramatic moment, but it’s a point of supreme significance.’ John Yorke.
This week I watched Darkest Hour (2017) with Gary Oldman and the midpoint shows Churchill at his lowest in confidence when Roosevelt advises him the Americans cannot substantially help the British in 1941, and there is the sense that Western Europe is on its knees capitulating nation by nation daily and Britain is quite alone. Churchill’s voice breaks during the call.
I ransacked the tried and true movie repertoire of Tom Hanks to find an upstanding classic and watched The Road to Perdition (2002). It’s a perfectly executed story, thrilling for a writer to watch the way in which everything is set up with such economy and visually and is resolved throughout the story with such aplomb. My writers are very familiar with the way a paradox energizes a story and here it is in The Road To Perdition. Mike Sullivan is a good father and husband, but also has a job that requires him to be a violent killer. The film explores this ruthlessly.
Hanks – who must surely have a connoisseur’s nose for story said of the script, “At the moment we’re dropped into the story, it is literally the last day of that false perspective.”
Writers, take note.
At the midpoint of the movie, we find Mike Sullivan sat down in the hallway of his house, stunned to find his wife and child murdered. A perfect midpoint. Nothing can ever be the same and he is at an all-time low.
If you reverse engineer this, I think you may have a clue as to how to find a story. Find the major, life-changing setback, and build around it using the five part structure (which we teach at The Novelry.)
This virtuosity caused me to reshuffle my notes and consider – what is the thing which truly severs my main character’s relationship with who she was and compels her to find the strength to undergo a spiritual metamorphosis?
Hmm, I thought there are a few blows she endures… Ok, where does she cry?
I think you’re probably not going to have your character crying more than once in a book, so this simple rule – The Kleenex Test shall we dub it – should help you locate the midpoint.
But let’s check the theory in fiction.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I scrolled through the book to the exact middle of it mathematically. Here we have Pride meet Prejudice, the pledge of the premise of the book is fulfilled – when Elizabeth refuses Darcy with harsh words and she cries. Note –
‘The tumult of her mind was now painfully great’:
Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
I teach from this textbook great novel substantially in The Ninety Day Novel course. Does it meet the Kleenex Test at midpoint?
At precisely half-way through the 66,019 word novel, after the rape Lucy says this of Petrus:
‘I can’t order Petrus about. He is his own master.’
Given the post-apartheid setting this is a cataclysmic change in social politics. It is preceded by David Lurie’s reaction the rape of his daughter and we find this passage at 30,935 words.
‘The events of yesterday have shocked him to the depths. The trembling, the weakness are only the first and most superficial signs of that shock. He has a sense that, inside him, a vital organ has been bruised, abused – perhaps even his heart. For the first time he has a taste of what it will be like to be an old man, tired to the bone, without hopes…’
So, the midpoint – the rape of his daughter which he attends in a state of impotence, is notionally, more or less midpoint but it’s not as precise as in a screenplay where every second counts.
One more test? The Great Gatsby, of course.
This novel runs to 48,761 words. At 24,668, we find Gatsby’s crisis as he is unable to make his dream a reality with regard to Daisy:
‘He had passed visibly through two states and was entering upon a third.
After his embarrassment and his unreasoning joy he was consumed with wonder at her presence. He had been full of the idea so long, dreamed it right through to the end, waited with his teeth set, so to speak, at an inconceivable pitch of intensity. Now, in the reaction, he was running down like an overwound clock.’
At precisely half-way in the text, the quotation above is preceded by this:
‘I could have sworn I heard the owl-eyed man break into ghostly laughter.’
What interests me with the rendering of the Midpoint in fiction novels is this: the theme of the book is at this locus, halfway, and pinned to its belly button.
Almost immediately after that, it’s devastating effect on the main character who unravels is served.
If you’re writing first draft, write to know the story, then before second draft, use the Editing Course to get your big theme and storyline down to sentence by sentence style ordered with all your ducks in a row.
‘The Editing Course is a safe homecoming for writers who’ve been sailing the choppy seas of the first draft. It’s both pragmatic and inspiring – from how to lay out a manuscript for submission, to interrogating structure, dialogue, characters, sentences, words, hook…I know that, once I’ve completed it, my manuscript will be as professionally executed as it can be. And here’s a weird thing – I shall be using the Editing Course when I construct my next novel. It’s the only ‘reversible’ course I’ve ever encountered!’ Susan Nott-Bower.
If you’re on second draft, have a think about the theme, and the effect of the theme at the midpoint.
Director Sam Peckinpah talked about how he always looked for a ‘centrepiece’ on which to hang his story.
If you’re about to write a novel, start with the midpoint and the action which devastates. That’s the place to begin to build your world around. So much that is great in fiction is built on the site of an old wound.
Remember: Tools Not Rules.
At The Novelry we offer writers tools, not rules. If a tool like the midpoint works for you, great. But writers are an unruly lot…so choose what you use. The best position for innovation is one of education. Know why you’re breaking a convention before you break it.
Click the link above to find out more about us and our courses.
(c) Louise Dean
About This Human Season:
It’s not personal, he says. But that’s a lie in a place where everything is personal, and a matter of life and death too.
This Human Season is award-winning Man Booker longlisted author Louise Dean’s second novel set in Belfast, Ireland, during The Troubles of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. It was widely praised by critics internationally and described as ‘astonishing’ by reviewers from The Daily Telegraph in the United Kingdom to BookForum in the United States.
It is November, 1979. Kathleen’s son Sean has just been transferred to Belfast’s most notorious prison – Long Kesh, recently renamed the Maze. Kathleen knows that he will join the other prisoners on their non-cooperation protest, known as the Blanket. Rumours of a hunger strike are beginning to circulate.
John Dunn has finished twenty years in the British Army. After three tours of Belfast, he’s found a girl and a house and a job as a prison guard. In the weeks before Christmas, both Kathleen and John will find themselves in impossible situations. Both will have to find a way to survive when everything they love is in danger of being destroyed.
‘Breathtaking…This Human Season is a novel that confirms the arrival of a significant voice in British fiction’. The Observer
Order your copy online here.