THE MIDPOINT

Look at any diagram of three-act-structure and you’ll find two main turning/plot points (Act One into Act Two/ Act Two into Act Three) and a midpoint.

Michael Hauge calls the midpoint, the Point of No Return (PONR). In aviation terms, the Point of No Return is that point in a flight where the aircraft does not have enough fuel to return to its point of departure, and must make it to its destination safely or crash and burn.

At the PONR in a story, something happens in the ‘plot’ that will turn the story around and take it fractionally closer to the end than the beginning. There is no going back. For example, in a mystery novel, it might be a clue that finally puts the detective on the right path to solving the crime.

When it comes to character development, something will happen here that allows the character to become closer to the person he will be at the end of the story than he was in the beginning.

James Scott Bell calls this the ‘Mirror Moment’. He says: ‘What I detect is a character point, something internal, which has the added benefit of bonding audience and character on a deeper level.’ It’s a moment, not a whole scene. He also says, the midpoint of your story is where your character faces some kind of death.

  • Physical – where there is a real threat to his life.
  • Professional – where his reputation is on the line.
  • Psychological – where something inside the character changes.

JK Rowling says, ‘It is our choices that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities,’ and it will be at this point in the story where a character makes a choice – or understands the ramifications of past choices – that gives them a glimpse of who they truly are, or want to be. It is the moment of transformation from who the character was, to who they will become. It’s when they get the chance to look in a metaphorical mirror and see themselves in a new light.

CASINO ROYALE: There are stories where the character doesn’t change/arc – James Bond. Hercule Poirot. Indiana Jones. Miss Marple – but every rule comes with an exception. Casino Royale – the version with Daniel Craig – tells the story of how James Bond becomes ‘James Bond’, so the character does arc in this story. Check out this ‘mirror moment’ in Casino Royale – halfway through the movie – which actually uses a mirror!

Look at the dress Bond brings for Vesper Lynd to wear. It’s on a plastic hanger and looks like it’s just come from the dry cleaner’s. Compare that with the tuxedo she has for him. And that moment, when he wears a tailored suit for the first time ever, watch his reaction when he looks at himself in the mirror. He’s seeing himself a little differently. Interestingly enough, this is the first time you will hear the strains of the Bond theme in this movie.

Contrast that with the last scene in the movie where he is fully revealed as ‘James Bond’ and we hear to whole theme for the first time.

 

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: Open Pride and Prejudice half way through the book and you will find a couple of scenes: 1) Where Darcy visits Elizabeth and offers her a horrible proposal of marriage. 2) Where Elizabeth reads the letter Darcy writes to her following her refusal of his offer.

The title Pride and Prejudice tells you what the book is about. Both Darcy and Elizabeth are proud people – he of his wealth and position, she of her ‘discernment’. For them to end up together at the end of the book, they’ll both have to find a bit of humility and get rid of their prejudices.

And the first stirrings of that happens in the middle of the story. Darcy is so shocked by Elizabeth’s refusal – ‘And this,’ cried Darcy, as he walked with quick steps across the room, ‘is your opinion of me!’ – that he goes home and writes Elizabeth a letter explaining the truth about Wickham. After she finishes reading it, Elizabeth says, ‘ How despicably have I acted!’ she cried. ‘I who prided myself on my discernment…. Till this moment, I never knew myself.’

(Ironically, there is a mirror in this scene!)

Elizabeth and Darcy still have a long way to go before that second – successful – proposal at the end of the book, but at the midpoint of the story, they cross that line from being who they were, and how they saw themselves and each other, to who they will be by the end.

THE HUNGER GAMES: Set in a dystopian future, Katniss Evergreen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the murderous Hunger Games, where out of 24 participants, only one victor will be left alive at the end.

Midway through the book/film, Katniss finds herself facing physical death. She has no weapons – except for a knife – is trapped up a tree, and is literally waiting to die when daylight comes. Then something happens which can change her fortune, but only if she decides to go for it. Watch carefully for that ‘moment’ when Katniss realizes she has a chance to live. By the end of the scene, she has a weapon she is skilled in using, has killed some of her deadliest opponents, and has allies in Rue and Peeta.

DANTE’S PEAK: A perfect example of when the midpoint of action and character development meets beautifully. (Unfortunately there is no Youtube link for this.)

A mountain is threatening to erupt, but the scientists won’t know for sure until sulphur gets into the water supply. Hero and heroine have been badly hurt in previous relationships and wary of becoming involved with anyone again.

Midpoint of the story is when hero and heroine come back from enjoying an evening at the bar. She sends the babysitter home and invites him in for coffee. Both are nervous – ‘I haven’t been with anyone in a long time.’ – and are leaning in for their first kiss when her daughter calls down from upstairs. She’s thirsty. Can she have a glass of water? The heroine turns on the tap. It’s contaminated with sulphur.

The mountain is now going to blow – not right this minute – but there is no doubt it’s going to go.

Hero and heroine have taken the joint risk to open up their hearts again. (In a love story, the midpoint is often where the hero and heroine will kiss or make love.)

Dunkirk

It’s funny, isn’t it, how sometimes things ‘connect’?

Although I wasn’t born until long after The Evacuation of Dunkirk, it’s always hung there, over me, throughout my life. My dad was one of the 350,000 men rescued from its beaches in May 1940 by one of the ‘Little Boats’, and I have come to believe it was, perhaps, the defining moment in his life.

My dad was a good, honest, hardworking, honourable man, and I sometimes think any illusions he had about mankind were, literally, shot to hell on the beaches of Dunkirk.  He didn’t speak about Dunkirk very often, but when he did, one of his memories was of watching  Nazi pilots bomb a hospital ship clearly marked with the Red Cross.

So when I saw the trailer for Christopher Nolan‘s movie Dunkirk this week, and saw a clip of a Red Cross ship being bombed… well it brought all those memories back.

The second ‘connection’… ?  A friend and I were talking about our favourite Christmas movies.  Mine is The Bishop’s Wife, made in 1947, starring Loretta Young (who looked like my Mum) and Cary Grant.  What has that to do with Dunkirk?  Well it turns out, the original book of The Bishop’s Wife was written by American writer Robert Nathan who also wrote a poem about Dunkirk.

There weren’t just men on the beach at Dunkirk.  British army nurses were rescued from those beaches too. And I love the idea – as in this poem – that at least one of those Little Boats had a girl on board too.

Dunkirk

Robert Nathan

Will came back from school that day,
And he had little to say.
But he stood a long time looking down
To where the gray-green Channel water
Slapped at the foot of the little town,
And to where his boat, the Sarah P,
Bobbed at the tide on an even keel,
With her one old sail, patched at the leech,
Furled like a slattern down at heel.

He stood for a while above the beach,
He saw how the wind and current caught her;
He looked a long time out to sea.
There was steady wind, and the sky was pale,
And a daze in the east that looked like smoke.

Will went back to the house to dress.
He was half way through, when his sister Bess
Who was near fourteen, and younger than he
By just two years, came home from play.
She asked him, “Where are you going, Will?”
He said, “For a good long sail.”
“Can I come along?”
“No, Bess,” he spoke.
“I may be gone for a night and a day.”
Bess looked at him. She kept very still.
She had heard the news of the Flanders rout,
How the English were trapped above Dunkirk,
And the fleet had gone to get them out
But everyone thought that it wouldn’t work.
There was too much fear, there was too much doubt.

She looked at him, and he looked at her.
They were English children, born and bred.
He frowned her down, but she wouldn’t stir.
She shook her proud young head.
“You’ll need a crew,” she said.

They raised the sail on the Sarah p,
Like a penoncel on a young knight’s lance,
And headed the Sarah out to sea,
To bring their soldiers home from France.

There was no command, there was no set plan,
But six hundred boats went out with them
On the gray-green waters, sailing fast,
River excursion and fisherman,
Tug and schooner and racing M,
And the little boats came following last.
From every harbor and town they went
Who had sailed their craft in the sun and rain,
From the South Downs, from the cliffs of Kent,
From the village street, from the country lane.

There are twenty miles of rolling sea
From coast to coast, by the seagull’s flight,
But the tides were fair and the wind was free,
And they raised Dunkirk by fall of night.

They raised Dunkirk with its harbor torn
By the blasted stern and the sunken prow;
They had reached for fun on an English tide,
They were English children bred and born,
And whether they lived, or whether they died,
They raced for England now.

Bess was as white as the Sarah’s sail,
She set her teeth and smiled at Will.
He held his course for the smoky veil
Where the harbor narrowed thin and long.
The British ships were firing strong.

He took the Sarah into his hands,
He drove her in through fire and death
To the wet men waiting on the sands.
He got his load and he got his breath,
And she came about, and the wind fought her.

He shut his eyes and he tried to pray.
He saw his England were she lay,
The wind’s green home, the sea’s proud daughter,
Still in the moonlight, dreaming deep,
The English cliffs and the English loam
He had fourteen men to get away,
And the moon was clear, and the night like day
For planes to see where the white sails creep
Over the black water.

He closed his eyes and prayed for her;
He prayed to the men who had made her great,
Who had built her land of forest and park,
Who had made the seas an English lake;
He prayed for a fog to bring the dark;
He prayed to get home for England’s sake.
And the fog came down on the rolling sea,
And covered the ships with English mist.
The diving planes were baffled and blind.

For Nelson was there in the Victory,
With his one good eye, and his sullen twist,
And guns were out on The Golden Hind,
Their shot flashed over the Sarah P.
He could hear them cheer as he came about.

By burning wharves, by battered slips,
Galleon, frigate, and brigantine,
The old dead Captains fought their ships,
And the great dead Admirals led the line.
it was England’s night, it was England’s sea.

The fog rolled over the harbor key.
Bess held to the stays, and conned him out.

And all through the dark, while the Sarah’s wake
Hissed behind him, and vanished in foam,
There at his side sat Francis Drake,
And held him true, and steered him home.  

If you’re interested in learning more about Dunkirk, there are some great movies that tell the story.  Mrs Miniver. Dunkirk. Atonement. 

And, at the risk of promoting myself, I have also written a short memoir of retracing my father’s experiences at Dunkirk in, In My Father’s Footsteps.

 

In The Park

I attended a workshop given by Donald Maass some time back, where he talked about the different sensory factors you need in a scene to give it depth and ensure it comes to life. For example, don’t just describe the light coming into a room, he said. Describe the quality of the light.

A few weeks ago I was walking along the river-path with my grandson.  He’d fallen asleep in his stroller, so I sat down on a bench, pulled out my notebook and decided to apply Donald Maass’ advice to the scene around me.  If I was describing this in a book, what particular elements could I find to make my scene unique.

park

Here’s a selection

A businessman, dressed in smart suit, and man-bun, chatting on his phone.
A very pregnant woman jogging – very slowly.
The soft slap of running shoes of the serious joggers on the river-path versus the staccato clack of ‘smart’ shoes belonging to business men and women out for a noon stroll.
The gentle ‘ping’ of a bike’s bell as it overtook walkers.
Hearing snatches of music from people’s ipods as they jogged by.
A man in an adapted wheelchair zipping along the path.
The warm colours of the autumnal day.
Snatches of conversations: A girl breaking up with her boyfriend.  “Move your shit out my place before I get back.”  A young man meeting a friend. “These are the last two days here.  I’m done with this city!”  An older man saying to his friend, “Problem is, you get to my age and I think I can still play.”
A man on the phone, trying to solve a problem for his father.
A young girl munching on a burger as she walked and chatted on her phone.
The heavy breathing of runners as they talked to each other in half-sentences.
Three retired couples walking together, the women in front talking about families, the men talking about baseball.
Serious cyclists, head down, weaving their way through the walkers.
Fun cyclists, in ‘sit-up-and-beg’ bikes, meandering along the path.
A guy pressing down one nostril and snorting into the grass.  Yuck!
An elderly couple strolling along hand in hand.
A plane soaring into the air in the distance.
Kids from a daycare, walking along in crocodile fashion, singing, ‘If you’re happy and you know it…”
Dogs prancing along, tails wagging.
Young women jogging, their ponytails swinging from side to side.
A cacophony of different languages.
The siren from a firetruck in the distance, honking as it went through an intersection.
A running group… they’d been walking for a bit, resting hands on waists.  “Okay guys, lets try this again and pick up the pace.”
Leaves falling onto the pathway.
A squirrel with a black body and red tail darting between the trees.
A crow cawing, high in a branch.
The breeze rustling the leaves in the trees.

The above took me about ten minutes.  Try this in a cafe, in a bookstore, in the bank, at the movies, in church, on the bus, on a plane… anywhere.  Really notice what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what you’re smelling.  Take notes, and when you want to add a unique detail to a scene set in one of those places, you’ll have it at your fingertips.

Meditation on Writing

Every morning, after I’ve been for my walk, I sit with a cup of tea and read my meditation for that day from a book I bought over 20 years ago – 365 Daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao .  The one I read today seems very apt for those of us who love the process of writing, so I’d like to share it with you.

WRITER

She withdrew into herself,
First writing just for one,
Then touching thousands.
She incarnated ghosts, hurt and joy
Into paper-and-ink stories of wonder.

One author said, “I can get rid of anything by writing about it,” meaning that the process of exernalizaton could liberate the pain in his soul. That realization produced a delicious dichotomy: to free himself, or to hold on to both joys and tortures by remaining silent about them.

Writers write because they must: They need to express something from deep within themselves. They hear voices that others do not. They listen urgently, and they must communicate what they hear.

Mary Edith Huggins

My mum was born 100 years ago,  March 15th, 1916, in Dudley Drive, Glasgow, the eldest daughter of Percy Huggins and Harriet Davenport.

Mum left school when she was 14 and went to work as a shop assistant.  She also loved playing tennis, and it was at a ‘tennis dance’ that she met my dad.

They were married on August 15th, 1938 and moved down to Coventry where my dad had a job in Britain’s burgeoning motor industry.

But it wasn’t long until she returned to Scotland. Sensing war was on the horizon, my dad had joined the army reserves in November 1938 and was called up at the beginning of September 1939. Alone in Coventry with no family nearby, my dad drove my very – very – pregnant mother up to Glasgow, where she gave birth to my brother a few weeks later on September 16th.  Apparently it was touch and go for a while, the doctor not sure if he could save both my mother and my brother… but he did.

And then my mum became one of the quiet, unsung heroines of the war; one of the millions of women who didn’t earn any medals, who was never feted in the mess, but who just ‘got on with it’, coping alone for four years when her husband was overseas, queueing up to buy her weekly rations, carrying pails of cold water up three flights of stairs to wash her baby’s dirty nappies, waiting alone by my brother’s bedside as he fought meningitis, then as now a killer disease, in the days before antibiotics.

I still miss mum a lot. Having suffered rheumatic fever twice, her heartbeat might have wildly erratic (irregularly irregular might have been the medical description!) but she was strong and courageous with just a touch of whimsy in how she viewed life.  I remember dancing with her around the kitchen, her waking me up to look at the moon, standing beside me one dark stormy winter’s morning watching my brother cycle off to work and telling me that the rain running down the windows was heaven’s tears because he had to go out to work in such weather.  I remember getting up at seven in the morning to drive down to Dumbarton Road to buy rolls fresh out of the baker’s oven for breakfast before going to school.

I remember, too, taking mum on a holiday to Hawaii, watching her lie back on the sand as she enjoyed the sun. Remember her courage when, in her eighties, on a very turbulent flight from Glasgow to London, she helped the people seated next to her by handing out sick bags and making sure they were okay.

But one memory sticks out really clearly which to me, exemplified her willingness to have a go at life.  My mum was one of those people who had a talent for looking after people and for making her surroundings really lovely. Whether it was the way she served the food on a plate or adjusted a piece of furniture, she had one of those eyes (my sister has it too) of making something/anything look really good.  Widowed in her early 60s, she took in a lodger for a while, but when they left she decided she would get herself a job – her first real job since she’d been married.  Dressed up in her ocelot fur coat and knocking ten years off her 76 years, she interviewed for a job as a housekeeper/driver in London.  A few weeks later found her driving around London in her employer’s jag on roads even I would be scared to drive on.  But she took it all in her stride.  That generation of women, the quiet unsung heroines of the war, they had gumption.

I miss you mum. Every day. You’re never far from my thoughts.  On this special day I will, as I do every on anniversary of your birthday, light a candle for you and thank you for being my mum.

Ross Ainslie

As an emigrant from Scotland, and with Burns Night almost upon us (January 25th), it can be all too easy to get caught up in twee images of Scotland and its music.  You know what I mean – pipers marching through the glens, kilts a-swinging, belting out Scotland the Brave.

And while there is definitely a place for all that, my visit back to Scotland for The Perthshire Amber Festival last October, really opened my eyes to the vibrant contemporary Folk Scene that currently exists in Scotland. Especially in the world of piping, where I was introduced to the music of Ross Ainslie.

What can I say apart from – What a musician! With his tattoos, long hair and ripped jeans, he is definitely not your traditional image of a piper.

Unfortunately, none on the photos I took at his concert turned out, but here’s a wonderful clip of him performing from Youtube. Check it out. The energy of the music is intoxicating and exciting.

But Ainslie can also play beautiful, mellow and traditional.  Below, you can hear him playing on my most favourite song, Caledonia.  (at 2mins 46secs and 4 mins 22secs.)

 

Swimming Cows

Visiting a museum in Dunkeld, Scotland, a few months ago, I came across the term ‘swimming cows’ for the first time.

Back in the day, droving cattle from the Highlands down to the markets in Crieff and Falkirk was huge business and the major source of income in the Highlands. From Crieff, the cattle were herded south to England, where their meat was in great demand.  At the peak of the industry, 100,000 cattle left the Highlands every year. The droving way of life only fell into decline with the arrival of the railroads in the mid-19th Century.

But what has this to do with ‘swimming cows’?  In the days before bridges were available – or their tolls affordable – the cattle had to be swum across rivers. If the lead cow could be persuaded into the water, the herd would follow. But occasionally, if his herd balked at crossing a particular river, the drover might hire a local ‘swimming cow’ to lead the cattle safely across. This ‘swimming cow’ would then be returned home to await being called on by another herd.

Even in this day and age, cattle are still swum across rivers or seas to fresh pastures. I came across this article about a farmer in Skye who swims his herd across the water to fresh pastures every year.  Now in his 80s, he used to swim alongside them, but now accompanies the herd in a row-boat.

And if you’re wondering what happened to the drovers when their industry collapsed, many travelled to America and became cowboys on the famous Cowboy Trails.

If you’re interested in learning more, please check out this documentary of a modern-day recreation of a drove from the Isle of Skye to Crieff.