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Can’t Finish Your Novel? The Problem May Be Your Midpoint

March 8, 2021

My son is a skilled storyteller. He has notebooks and online files bursting with magic and mystery. When he visits, I often sit like a child at his feet and beg him to read his latest chapter. He always indulges me, settling into his deep narrator voice. When he stops, I pry him for sneak peeks at what’s ahead because, like a soap opera, I long for the next part of the adventure.

 

I once asked him why he hasn’t tried to publish any of his manuscripts.

 

“Simple,” he replied. “I’ve never finished any of them.” He explained that he has great beginnings and knows how he wants to end his stories. But somewhere in the middle, he falls into a rut.

 

Perhaps you’re facing the same struggle. You craft powerful opening scenes and climaxes, but somehow you can’t connect the two in a way that engages readers. Welcome to the miry midpoint, the “dead” center where writers lose momentum and stories sink into oblivion.

 

You need to build a bridge over the muck so readers can continue exploring. But how can you do that when you feel like you’ve emptied your toolbox? And what’s the harm if readers get a little muddy?

 

Why the Midpoint Is Important

When I teach math, I define midpoint as the location on a line segment that divides it into two equal parts: what comes before and what comes after. To a student, this median has value. How they go forward from it determines the answer to the problem.

 

The midpoint of a novel has a similar function. It’s the moment when the story must progress and pull readers along, or else get bogged down and drown readers. Many authors recommend adding a plot twist, revealing a secret, or introducing an element that will shake the protagonist’s outlook. This makes readers invest in the outcome and forms the slats of the imaginary bridge.

 

Leslea Wahl, the award-winning author of several faith-based mysteries for teens, describes her experiences with the midpoint and the lessons she learned: “When I was working on my first novel, The Perfect Blindside, my writing mentor pointed out that the middle lagged. She said, ‘No matter how exciting the ending is, if you bore readers, they won’t stick around to discover it.’ Her words still ring through my head every time I write a new story. The middle needs to continue to grab readers’ attention, or they may just set the book aside.”

 

That’s the purpose of the midpoint—to be an energizing boost, a changeup, a high-stakes incident that compels readers to keep turning pages.

 

Consider Tolkien’s The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins embarks on a quest with a group of dwarves who see him as a useless burglar they brought along to give them a lucky number of travelers. But partway through the story, something remarkable happens. Giant spiders capture the dwarves, and Bilbo alone escapes. Using the one ring, he taunts the spiders and frees the dwarves. The rescue inspires a grudging and then growing appreciation for Bilbo, who begins to realize that he’s capable of heroic feats. From then on, the more amiable attitude in both parties drives the story forward.

 

Wahl further sums up the impact of the midpoint: “I’ve found that the middle of a story is an ideal place to add a twist to pique readers’ curiosity. It can also be the perfect spot for a sweet or playful scene where you show a character in a different light. These moments help readers become invested in the story and characters.”

 

An Acronym to Strengthen Your Midpoint

The simple solution to a sagging midpoint is to raise the stakes, multiply the opposition, and/or insert a twist. Look again at Tolkien’s example. Bilbo is the only one who can save the dwarves (twist), and escaping the spiders sends them into the hands of the wood elves (multiplying the opposition). Worse, since they must reach the Lonely Mountains before a certain time, diverting their course tightens that deadline (raising the stakes).

 

Recognizing the need for a disturbance is easier than creating one, however. How do you determine which scenario is right for your story? Try using the following acronym as a springboard. You shouldn’t expect to cram in all of the ideas, but browsing the list may help you identify a path forward.

 

M: Momentous Event

Weave in a battle, an argument, a loss, or other event that affects your protagonist’s goal or mindset. In my current WIP, the midpoint includes a locker room confrontation between the antagonist and protagonist that leads to the disclosure of a secret and a new quandary for the heroine.

 

I: Increase an Element

Make the destination farther away, the timeline shorter, the bully meaner, the magic darker, the complexities deeper. I just watched a movie where some thieves have a sure-fire plan—until they learn that they must expedite it due to the project being completed ahead of schedule. Talk about ratcheting up the pressure!

 

D: Direction

Change a protagonist’s position from reacting to taking charge. Fans of Stranger Things saw this happen when the older sister and brother stop thinking they’re imagining monsters and start combating them. In an instant, they transform from victims to hunters.

 

P: Pendulum Swing

Hold the tension at its highest peak and release it at the midpoint, forcing readers to adjust their perspective of the characters involved. For instance, in the movie Hoosiers, the residents are ready to run Coach Dale out of town. Then Jimmy, a former star member of the team, joins the town hall meeting and announces that he’ll play again, but only if Coach Dale remains. This alters the dissenters’ opinion of Dale and renews their hopes for a successful season. Viewers immediately feel the emotional shift.

 

O: Obstacles and Opposition

Set off a disaster that will either worsen your protagonist’s circumstances or cause him to fail. Remember the movie Saving Private Ryan? The crew has several obstacles to overcome, but at the midpoint, two Tiger tanks show up with devastating consequences that influence how the characters move forward.

 

I: Impersonal to Personal

Push the protagonist into action because she cares about the results. In the locker room scene from my novel that I mentioned above, I give readers a reason to empathize with the antagonist. Now her mission matters as much as the protagonist’s, which forges a connection between them.

 

N: New Evidence Comes to Light

Provide a piece of information that deepens a mystery or offers insight. Halfway through Toy Story 4, the audience discovers that Gabby Gabby isn’t the sweet, innocent doll they’ve been led to believe she is. She’s after Woody’s voice box, and that complicates his attempts to return Forky to Bonnie.

 

T: The Twist

Many readers enjoy being surprised. Although you may have foreshadowed issues that could occur in the future, it’s time to make a situation that’s already precarious or bad explode. Usually these kind of catastrophes belong at the end of a story. But placing one in the middle is a deliciously intriguing approach. Imagine a story where a woman becomes romantically involved with a bookseller. One day she stumbles upon a hidden room in his shop. Inside it, she finds evidence of a murder that casts suspicion on her love interest.

 

Finally Finishing Your Story

A well-crafted midpoint is the impetus that keeps the plot, protagonist, and readers in motion. Evaluating the events at your halfway mark with the MIDPOINT acronym may be just the trick that pulls you out of the muck and constructs a bridge between your captivating beginning and satisfying ending. And when you manage to link the two, you’ll at last hold a completed manuscript.

6 Comments

  1. Rachel L.

    Aah, I needed this so much! Midpoints are my hardest parts to write. Thank you so much!

    Reply
    • Joelle Stone

      This is for sure getting bookmarked, and that awesome acronym is probably going to be copied down and hung on my wall. Considering that this is something I’m struggling with, it is so perfect! 😀 Thank you, Ms. Scott, for another excellent article. 🙂

    • Lori Z. Scott

      Thank you for your kind words! You made my day!

  2. Evelyn

    Yes, the midpoint is always the hardest part! Thank you for writing this, I really needed it! <3

    Reply

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