Most writers can usually come up with a great beginning to a story and a cracking end, it’s all that muddy stuff in the middle that’s the problem. Yes, yes, I’d read all about three act structure, rising action blah-blah-blah, but I just wasn’t getting it. And then I happened to go to a workshop given by Michael Hauge. He described structure in a very particular way, and… Ping! ON went the lightbulb.
All of his information is on his website and in his books – but it was his description of the important mid-point of a story that really captured my attention. He describes the midpoint (50%) as The Point of No Return (PONR). In an airplane, the PONR is when the plane does not have enough fuel to return to its point of origin but must complete the journey or crash. (Assuming that it’s flying over ocean with no other places to land available.)
A story consists of two journeys: The Outer Journey (plot) and Inner Journey (hero’s transformation). Once you reach the PONR, neither the plot nor the hero can go backwards.
In Dante’s Peak, Pierce Brosnan and his team come to town to investigate a rumbling volcano. He tells the mayor (Linda Hamilton) that the volcano might blow or it might not – he’ll only know for sure if sulphur leaks into the water system. (Outer Journey/Plot.) In his personal life, his former girlfriend was killed in a volcanic eruption several years ago and he’s not had a relationship with a woman since. (Inner Journey.)
Close to halfway through the movie, Pierce takes Linda back to her house after a date. At 50%, they kiss in her kitchen. (Not a commitment, but this is the first time he’s kissed another woman since his girlfriend died.) They’re interrupted by her son, who wants a glass of water. When he turns on the tap, guess what he finds? That’s right, sulphur. The mountain is going to blow. In both outer and inner journey, they’ve reached the PONR. There is no going back for mountain or man.
But that’s what works in movies. What about books? Literature?
Jane Austen is one of the most accomplished and beloved authors of all time, and I doubt she ever read a How-to writing book in her life. Her most famous novel, Pride and Prejudice, is about a man who must overcome his pride, and a woman who must overcome her prejudice. Open the book halfway through (or check out the 6 part BBC TV series at the end of episode 3 and beginning of episode 4) and what do you find? Darcy proposes to Elizabeth – the most insulting proposal ever – and is shocked when she, quite rightly, refuses him. With what she knows about him, she vows he’s the last man she’d ever marry. His pride several dented, Darcy returns home to write Elizabeth a letter in which he acknowledges that some of the things she accused him of are true, but he also puts her right on some of her mistaken beliefs. On receiving the letter Elizabeth then begins to question her prejudices. This couple still have a long way to go before the story is over, but from this point on, neither is able to regard the other – or themselves – in the same light as before.
The PONR is a powerful tool in structuring your story. Now click on Michael Hauge’s website and check out what he has to say about Opportunity, Change of Plans, and Major Setback.