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.)

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The Mirror Moment – James Scott Bell

My first introduction to the importance of the midpoint of a story was in a workshop given by Michael HaugeHe described it as The Point of No Return, both in the external plot and the internal development of the character.  Internally, it’s the moment when the character realises he’s closer – fractionally – to the person s/he will be at the end of the story than s/he was at the beginning. Externally, it’s the moment when the story has to go forward in a particular direction. There’s no going back.

For example, in the movie Dante’s Peak, the midpoint combines both these moments in a very clever scene. In the external plot, we’re told that the sign the volcano will definitely blow is when sulphur gets into the water system. In the internal plot, since his girlfriend was killed several years ago, the Pierce Brosnan character has been unable – or unwilling – to become involved in another relationship. At the exact midpoint of the movie, Pierce Brosnan returns from a date with the Linda Hamilton character. It’s his first date since his girlfriend died, showing that he’s finally willing to take a second chance on love. They’re about to share a kiss when her young son comes downstairs and asks for a glass of water. When they turn on the tap, the water is tainted by sulphur.  We now know the volcano must blow.

Open Pride and Prejudice about half-way through and you’ll find the scene where Darcy proposes to Elizabeth in the most pompous fashion. Of course she turns him down and tells him exactly why she’s rejecting him, particularly for his treatment of Mr. Wickham. The next day, having taken her comments to heart, Darcy returns and gives Elizabeth a letter, acknowledging his pride and putting her right on Wickham.  Reflecting on the letter and her own prejudice in the next chapter, she admits, ‘Till this moment, I never knew myself.’  (In fact, when I opened my copy of P&P from my university days, I discovered I had underlined those lines and written – moral climax of book.)

James Scott Bell calls this Midpoint in the internal story The Mirror Moment. The moment (not a scene) when: The character is forced to look at himself. As if in a mirror, only it’s a reflection of who he is at that moment in time. Who am I? What have I become? What do I have to do to regain my humanity? Sometimes, it’s the character looking at the odds. How can I possibly win? It looks like I’m going to die—physically or spiritually. Now what am I supposed to do?

Sometimes, James Scott Bell says, it can be a moment when he actually looks in a mirror and sees – really sees – himself.

This mirror moment can also been illustrated in movies – sometimes literally. I’ve just been watching a great 3 part series on movie music called Sound of Cinema: The Music That Made The Movies.  In it, composer David Arnold talks about the challenge of writing the music for the reboot of the James Bond movies starring Daniel Craig. He describes the first in the series, Casino Royale, as an ‘origin’ tale of how Bond becomes the spy we know and love.  Because of that, he decided he couldn’t use the famous John Barry theme in full until the final scene, but would use snippets throughout to show Bond’s development into the character we have come to know.

And one of these scenes was when Bond, in his first tailored tux, looks at himself in the mirror. I mentioned this to some of my writing friends and wondered if there was any chance the scene happened in the middle of the film. My friend, screenwriter Carol Mulholland, pulled the script off the internet. Taking into consideration scenes that were never shown, the mirror scene happens… at the midpoint of the script.

So, there you have it.  In a book or in a movie, the mirror moment can, literally, be the moment when the character sees himself as who he is – or is becoming – in a mirror.

 

Longbourn – Jo Baker

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsI’m putting my cards on the table here; I’m a Jane Austen fan. My three favourite books of her are – in order – Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

Because I love her characters so much I’ve read a few Pride and Prejudice spin-offs, but most of them have left me rather underwhelmed.

Until now.

Maybe that’s because most writers have tried to re-imagine Jane Austen’s beloved characters whereas in Jo Baker’s book Longbourn, she observes them. They impact the story only as their actions affect her main characters – the servants.

When I was studying Pride and Prejudice at university, my tutor complained that although Jane Austen was writing during the Napoleonic wars, she never discussed the conflict or its impact on society.

Then, as now, I found that comment very unfair. Austen frequently talks about the presence of the militia and she was writing to an audience who was well aware what was going on in Europe.

Unless one is personally involved in a conflict, war remains an abstract concept. Following the end of English Civil War in the mid-17th century until the first air-raids during World War One, England did not experience war first hand on its soil.

My tutor also complained that we only got glimpses of the servants in her books. But Jane Austen was not writing about the lives of the servants.  For me the fact that she doesn’t mention them reveals a huge amount about Jane’s class and society – and my tutor’s prejudices. (‘scuse the pun.)

All his reservations are addressed in Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Told from the servants’ POV, this is a delightfully fresh approach to a very familiar story allowing us to see the Bennet family, and others, in a completely new light.

I loved this story and particularly loved Jo Baker’s voice.  I look forward to reading more by this excellent writer.

 

Everything I know about writing… Part Two

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.

Happy writing.