Do you know how I can fix my novel? My beginning and ending are both great, but I can’t get my middle to work at all. All my beta readers say so. Nobody can tell me what is wrong, though, only that it’s slow and not interesting. I agree with them, but can’t figure it out, either. I know that’s vague, but do you know how to fix a slow middle part of a story? Thanks!
Dear Middling Middle,
I’m certain all my students, current and former, are laughing at me right now. Because I get to talk about MIDPOINTS.
I love midpoints. They’re arguably the most important element within a storytelling structure, and yet so many writers overlook them. We get so focused on the epic qualities of an ending that we forget the epic qualities of a middle.
Your situation, my friend, is a common one. It’s so common that not only do I see it plenty in my workshops and consultations, but I also see it in books and movies that are released into the world as finished products. Stories that have a great premise, a wonderful beginning, and a clever ending. And yet…that whole middle bit. Sometimes you can’t tell exactly what’s wrong, but you know something is. The story’s lost its way, it feels off, something. You just can’t stop your mind wandering even when you really want to care.
(Note: It’s possible for a story to not have a midpoint and still be wonderful and engaging throughout its second act, but if the story isn’t wonderful and engaging in its second act, it’s likely a midpoint problem.)
So what is a midpoint? To start, it’s an element of plot within the basic 3-act structure. We don’t have time to get into it, but the 3-act structure is the dominating story structure of the colonized world. However, just because the 3-act structure dominates storytelling of the colonized world doesn’t inherently make this structure bad. Rather, the problem is that the colonized world treats it as if it’s the only storytelling structure in existence—or, at the very least, the only one considered reputable. There are many other story structures and some of them have midpoints of their own, though writers may call them by other names. And even structures that don’t have something like a midpoint doesn’t make those structures any less reputable.
But within the basic 3-act structure, a midpoint is, well, midway through your story. It’s the big moment where you shake things back up. This makes sense because we don’t want your readers to get too comfortable. If they get too comfortable, they get bored. Eventually, the excitement of the beginning wears off and the new doesn’t feel new anymore. So it’s time to put in some new newness.
- What does your character want? Like, really, really want? Give it to them.
- What does your character imagine is their worst-case scenario? Make it happen.
- What piece of information is wildly important for your character to discover? Let them discover it.
- What’s the central conflict to your character’s journey? Make it worse.
- Who is most important to your character? Take them away.
Have you ever noticed how, about halfway through, a protagonist gets in a fight with their best friend in a YA novel? Or how mystery and thriller novels tend to find an incredibly important clue? Or how the antagonist force of a high fantasy gets even stronger? Those are midpoints.
Ultimately, it’s whatever will cause consequences. This is my favorite word in all of story structure and is, I argue, the most important element in all of 3-act storytelling. What are the consequences of something happening? What problems will it cause or solve? We often get so wrapped up in making something interesting happen that we forget how it’ll affect the characters—but that’s where the interesting part lies. You should ask yourself these questions in every step of the plot you take, but when it comes to midpoint, that’s when the biggest consequences happen.
For direct examples of midpoints, I always turn to movies; and more specifically, Disney/Pixar movies. Yes, I’m a Disney queer, but also it’s because movies—and especially kid and/or family movies—tend to have particularly clean structures. This makes it much easier to spot various elements of story, especially when you’re still learning to identify them.
- In “The Little Mermaid” (1989), Ariel really wants to be part of the human world. She’s obsessed for the whole first half of the movie. Singing songs, collecting human trinkets, constantly popping her head up out of the ocean. What happens at midpoint? She makes a deal with Ursula, trading her voice for a pair of legs. Ariel wanted to be part of the human world and, at midpoint, she gets what she wanted. Only there are consequences, which take the second half of the movie to clean up.
- In “Encanto” (2021), Mirabel feels bad that she’s the only person in her family without magical abilities, which are gifted from a magic candle. When she sees her family’s home starting to crack, she worries this is going to destroy the candle, so she spends the first half of the movie trying to find out what is going on. At midpoint, she finds the information she was looking for. And there are consequences. The whole second half of the plot is her trying desperately to keep the prophecy she’s learned from coming true, all while the house breaks more and more.
- In “Mulan” (1998), she and the other soldiers goof off for the first half of the movie, terribly inept and not taking things seriously. However, halfway through the plot, they come across a burned-out village. Not only do they finally comprehend the true might of the antagonist force they’re up against, but they also realize they’re the last soldiers alive to save their city. That certainly alters their decisions and behavior for the whole latter half. The antagonist force has become stronger halfway through the plot and it has caused consequences for the remainder of the movie.
- In “The Lion King” (1994), Simba spends his first half in an emotional soup of father-son feelings. He blames himself for the death of Mufasa, forsakes his lineage as the next king, and runs away. Halfway through the movie, Rafiki forces him to confront his past and reclaim his lineage, the last thing Simba ever wanted to do—all through that iconic scene where Simba sees his father in the sky. Mufasa urges him to return home to set things right. So for the second half of the plot, he does.
Consequences, consequences, consequences. Whether your protagonist is getting what they wanted, finding out what they thought they wanted to know, clashing with an antagonist force, or finally confronting what they’ve been avoiding this whole time, the midpoint is your chance to really shake your protagonist’s core, causing them to spend the second half of your story trying to clean up the mess, pursue new knowledge, or move forward with fresh eyes.
How would “The Little Mermaid” change if Ariel didn’t get her legs until the very end of the movie? What if “Encanto” just had Mirabel running around the entire time, forever trying to find out what was causing the house to fall apart? What would “Mulan” be like if they didn’t realize they were the last soldiers? How would “The Lion King” be different if Simba only saw his dad in the sky at the very end? These movies would just not be as interesting. You’d get bored watching them jump through the same hoops over and over until the climax, where—finally—something significant happens.
So, my friend, let’s get pragmatic with this.
First, I encourage you to start training yourself on identifying midpoints. Get your friends on it, too, if you’d like. Watch a bunch of movies that you feel have particularly engaging storylines and pause the movie whenever you think you’ve hit the scene that includes the midpoint. If you’ve guessed right, the ticker should be smack dab in the middle of the film.
If you’re having trouble identifying the midpoint, do the opposite. Fast-forward the film to its exact middle and see what scene you’ve landed on. If you don’t believe that’s the midpoint scene, check the scene before and the scene after that smack-dab-in-the-middle scene. It’s highly likely the midpoint is in that area. (If certain movies continue to elude you, it’s possible the movie either 1) doesn’t have a midpoint, or 2) isn’t a 3-act structure. A third option is the movie does have a midpoint, but it’s incorrectly placed. This is easiest to tell based on how you feel the pacing is going. If the plot feels like it’s moving too fast, the midpoint may be happening too early. If the plot feels like it’s moving too slow, the midpoint may be happening too late.)
Second, take a look at your manuscript. Open up a fresh Word doc or flip to a new piece of paper. (NEVER make editorial changes to your original document. Always make a copy before you start playing around. That way, no matter what changes you make, you know you can always go back to what you originally had. It makes you more fearless in your edits.)
Now locate your climax. You probably know what that is already. It’s that big, final, epic moment of your entire book. It’s where truths come out, important information is learned, plot twists happen, and all that jazz.
But I want you to take that climax and move it to the middle of your story. Seriously. Now stare at it and ask yourself: What happens now? How does this change things? For my plot? For my characters? How does this help fill up the second half of my story?
—Say it with me now—
I’ve had students who, struggling with the middle of their story, realized their climax was indeed their midpoint all along, and it opened up all sorts of new, exciting plot avenues for them.
It could be that this exact change doesn’t work out structurally for your story and that’s okay. What we’re trying to do here is get you to shake things up. To think about what you can do for that pesky midpoint.
Devise the biggest thing you can think of, good or bad. Imagine the most ridiculous scenarios. Don’t be afraid to go big. Don’t be afraid to take your characters’ consequences head on. Writing is a serious endeavor, but it’s also a time for play. If we don’t play around with things, we’ll never know.
Be gay, make consequences. And make your midpoint the biggest moment of your entire book.