Time for some writerly discussion on craft. Today, writing mentor Sydney Smith and I discuss a novel’s mid-point.
I’m approaching the middle of my new manuscript, although still a few thousand words away. Since reading Sydney Smith’s wonderful new book, The Architecture Of Narrative, I’ve been giving a lot more thought than usual to structure. So many writing gurus emphasise the significance of the magical midpoint. James Scott Bell, in his clever book, Write Your Novel From The Middle, calls it the mirror moment, when the main character looks at himself, and takes stock. What kind of person is he? What is he becoming? How must he change in order to achieve his goals?
My favourite film example of this is Casablanca with the fabulous Humphrey Bogart. At the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick’s bar after closing. Rick is drunk and bitter, remembering how Ilsa left him in Paris. Ilsa tries to explain, pleads with him to understand, but Rick essentially calls her a whore. She leaves in tears. Rick, full of self-disgust, puts his head in his hands, thinking, ‘What have I become?’ Will he stay a selfish drunk, or regain his humanity? This goes to the central theme of the narrative, and the second half of the film answers that question.
Alexandra Sokoloff calls the midpoint the Call to Action, or Point of No Return. It heralds a major shift in the story, and is one of the most important scenes in any book or film. Something huge might be revealed. Something might go disastrously wrong. A ticking clock might be introduced, heightening the suspense. This fits in well with James Scott Bell’s analysis. In Casablanca, Ilsa reveals something huge at the midpoint―that she found out her husband, Viktor Lazlo, was still alive. This information leads Rick to a moment of self-reflection, then locks him into a course of action, thus linking the external and internal conflicts.
The midpoint of a novel can be a powerful place where change happens. In Pride and Prejudice, the midpoint is the chapter where Darcy first proposes to Elizabeth and she rejects him, citing his pride and arrogance, his interference in her sister’s romance with Bingley, and his cruelty to Wickham as her reasons for rejecting him. That propels him into writing the letter in which he reveals the truth about Wickham but admits to meddling in Bingley’s business. That in turn leads Elizabeth to realize she’s been prejudiced toward Darcy, which had blinded her to the truth about Wickham. And it leads Darcy to modify his behaviour toward others. That’s a powerful about-face for both of them, and a vital hinge. All that follows is a consequence of that. It’s interesting to note that this hinge is also the most memorable part of this time-honoured novel.
Gregg Hurwitz, thriller writer extraordinaire, uses the midpoint in his novel, Don’t Look Back (dull title but don’t be fooled―it’s amazing!). Eve Hardiman has lost her nerve in life after her husband leaves her for a younger woman. She gives up the low-paid nursing job she loves and takes a highly-paid post with an insurance company, turning down applications for medical treatment by seriously ill people. She goes on a holiday in a distant outpost in Mexico, and for the first part of the novel, she collects clues that point to the mysterious disappearance of Teresa Hamilton, and hands them to others to deal with. Then smack in the middle of the novel, something happens. A member of the holiday party is seriously injured. Eve takes charge of the situation and the threat to all their lives, and she doesn’t let up until she’s destroyed the villain. High-octane is not the word for it.
Lesser novels can employ the midpoint effectively, too, though in a different way. Philip Pullman uses it in his Sally Lockhart mysteries. For the first half of each novel, questions pile up. After the midpoint, they’re resolved one by one.
All these examples show just how crucial the midpoint really is. The sagging middle is a frequent trap for novice, and not-so novice writers. A lot of brainstorming is usually put into the start of a story, and to the climax, but the middle is neglected. It meanders, becomes boring, and loses the reader’s attention. As a manuscript assessor Sydney, you must have had a lot of experience with this all-too-common problem.
The thing to understand is that, if a story sags in the middle, it’s weak at the start. The weakness is the lack of a character flaw in the protagonist. In many, many examples of the midpoint, the critical moment is the protagonist’s realization of their character flaw. When Eve recognizes that she lost her nerve, that’s the moment she gets it back. The midpoint in Casablanca is the moment when Rick realizes his character flaw―his bitterness over Ilsa. This kind of self-knowledge always leads to a dramatic change in direction for the story because the protagonist is now able to change internally and act externally without the nagging hindrance of their character flaw.
To highlight my point by contrast, why is it that many, possibly most, series novels don’t employ the midpoint this way? Because the series hero will lose the very character flaw that drives him or her to do what they do. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is obsessed with catching murderers. But his obsession keeps him from connecting at a deep level with others. He’s single and can’t be with the woman he loves. His friendships are superficial. If he lost his obsession, he would no longer be driven to solve crimes. Karin Slaughter’s Will Trent is ashamed of his dyslexia. He is driven to compensate for it by solving crimes. If he lost his shame over his disability, he might become a more balanced human being, but he would lose the drive to compensate for it by being a super-duper crime-solver.
Look at the Sally Lockhart series: the midpoint is the hinge where the questions amassed in the first half begin to be answered. It’s cute. It’s obvious. It works. But it lacks that power-pack oomph that comes from a midpoint resting on the protagonist’s recognition of their character flaw.
Love these examples Sydney. They illustrate the importance of mid-points and character flaws in such a practical way. I’ll be sure to keep this discussion in the front of my mind as my manuscript grows.