Friday, March 05, 2021

Story Structure: How the Midpoint Reversal Works in a Novel

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The midpoint reversal is the glue that holds the first and second halves of the novel together.

Like many writers, I used to hate middles. My novels always bogged down halfway through, the plot hit a wall, or I realized it had gone so far off track I was writing a different novel. I can’t tell you how many times I just chucked the whole draft and started over.

Until I discovered the midpoint reversal, and it changed my writing life.

After that, middles weren’t a problem anymore, and plotting became a whole lot easier. I didn’t bog down or fizzle out, and I always knew where my plot was headed.

A strong midpoint reversal just flat out makes a novel easier to write.

We typically know the beginnings and endings of our novels, but the middle is a frequent problem. It’s where all the hard work takes place, because not only does it make up 50% of the novel, it’s where you have to actually come up with everything the protagonist does to resolve the novel’s conflict. Vague plot points that seemed so solid before suddenly aren’t helping you write any scenes. Or maybe the path from opening scene to climax isn’t nearly as long and winding as you thought. Often, you realize you have no idea how the protagonist manages to solve the problem.

But a midpoint reversal gives you a beacon to write toward.

Let's break down the basics:

Quick note: I’m using movie examples here because the turning points are more clearly defined, and they’re easier to watch and study than novels. But the same principles apply.

What it is: The midpoint reversal often throws the entire plot sideways. The plan or worldview the protagonist had all along no longer works or is no longer viable, and things have to change.

The midpoint reversal has made the protagonist's goal harder to accomplish, will cost them more to win, and will have serious consequences if they fail (sometimes even if they win). This creates new momentum and drives the plot toward the ending.
  • In Stargate, the lead in to the midpoint begins when Daniel Jackson and the team discovers the people on the new planet, and ends with him finally finding the writing he’ll need to get the team home (but there’s a catch of course). Daniel is vindicated—someone else did indeed build the pyramids—but now they have to deal with those people. On a grander scale, the universe is changed for mankind forever, and we now know for sure we are not alone. Dealing with this new threat and knowledge is what drives the second half of the story.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss Everdeen gets stung by a tracker jacker and is disoriented, and thinks she has lost the Games and is about to die. She sees Peeta and thinks he is going to kill her, but instead he saves her life yet again. Her view of him and her thoughts on survival in the Games changes and now there's no way she can kill him. But she still wants to win, and her trying to beat the Games is what pushes the story forward. It’s no longer about winning; it’s about beating the people who run the Games.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when DNA evidence reveals the suspect is a woman, not a man, which changes the scope of the investigation. For Gracie Hart, the “it’s a woman” reveal has double meaning, as it’s a turning point for her character arc as well. From a revelation standpoint, they learn the threat might be from within the pageant, not without. This change affects what Gracie (and the FBI) does next.

When it happens: The midpoint reversal occurs in the middle of the novel (roughly the 50% mark), and launches the plot into the second half of the middle (from 50% to 75% of the novel).
  • In Stargate, the actual midpoint at the 50% mark is when the “aliens” appear and we see them for the first time. Ra has landed on the planet (right on top of where the stargate is), and it’s not good for anyone. Dealing with Ra will become the major problem of the second half and make getting home more difficult for the heroes, as well as raise the stakes for everyone involved. Things have changed drastically—it’s no longer a fun adventure about meeting new people on a distant world, it’s about survival for both civilizations (Earth and this new world). It also adds a new story question—who (or what) is Ra?
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss starts thinking that survival is not the end goal, beating the Capitol and showing the Games are wrong is. Her views on Peeta, the Games, and her entire world get knocked sideways, and she’s no longer sure what to think. Her plan—to survive even if that means killing Peeta—is no longer valid.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie learns that the suspect is a woman. This opens up a whole new list of suspects within the pageant, and changes the focus of the investigation. Details also surface about other members of the pageant, so it starts to look like an inside job. “Who inside the pageant wants to hurt it?” is the question that moves the plot forward.

What its function is: The midpoint reversal creates the center point for the story arc, and connects the beginning with the ending. The first half of the novel is all about the protagonist discovering they have a problem and trying to solve it, and the second half is all about the protagonist realizing it won’t be so easy and they’ll have to go above and beyond to succeed. From reacting to what happened to actively working to resolve the problem. It’s also a solid turning point to write toward to avoid a sagging middle.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel has his theories validated, solves the act one problem (decipher the stargate writings) and meets the culture he’s studied. That plot problem has been resolved, and while he still needs to find a way home, the story needs a new threat to push it forward. Enter Ra—now they have to get past him to get home, and he’s not a good guy at all. It also dangles a new problem for Daniel personally—the truth about the pyramids and the stargate. He knows he was right about who didn’t build them, now he can finally discover who did.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss realizes she can’t kill Peeta and that survival isn’t the only option. This starts her down a path that will eventually lead her to fight the Capitol and trigger a growing rebellion. There’s more to life than simply existing, and she’s deserving of more. They all are. “Survival” applies to everyone inside and outside of the Games now, and the Capitol is the one standing in the way of that “survival.”
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie realizes she is a woman, yet she’s ignoring that side of her and now she starts to consider what that means to her. She must face who she is and why she’s like that, which makes her want to quit the assignment. The tomboy from the beginning is growing into the woman she’ll be by the end, and it’s not easy.

Why it's important: The midpoint reversal shakes up the plot and causes the protagonist’s world to be turned upside down—things they thought they knew won’t be true (or lies they believed won’t be lies after all). They’ll start looking for help as this problem gets bigger and bigger, and the stakes get higher and higher. Dealing with this problem creates the goal for the second half of the middle and eventually transitions to the ending (act three).
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel’s problems escalate. First, he discovers he can’t actually get everyone home (his act one problem), then he finds a village where he thinks he can find the answer, but writing is forbidden (strike two), and then Ra shows up. He’s also “gifted” with the woman he’ll eventually fall in love with (since these people think he’s a god or sent by Ra), which gives him a personal stake in what happens to these people. It also becomes more personal for the other characters as well, as they grow to like and care for their new friends. Over the first half of the middle, the story shifts from “find out what’s there and is it a threat?” to “we know what’s here, they’re not a threat, but this Ra dude certainly is, and to both civilizations.”
  • In The Hunger Games, it starts when Katniss enters the world of the Games and goes from poor girl to district tribute. She’s lavished in riches and doted on, making the difference between the rich and poor clear. Her life is merely surviving while these people live. She vows to win the Games, do what she has to do, and this vow keeps her alive through the first half of the Games (and story). But then everything changes when Peeta A) looks like he will actually kill her if he has to, then B) doesn’t do it when he gets the perfect opportunity. Now she doesn’t know what to think, but she knows she can’t kill him anymore. This is also right after Katniss meets Rue, another tribute who reminds her of her sister and who she’s really fighting for. Rue becomes key in directing Katniss’s character growth toward taking on the Capitol, and her ability to inspire those outside her District.
  • In Miss Congeniality, Gracie faces a challenge she isn’t sure she can handle. She doesn’t know how to be a woman in a man’s world and thinks she must be someone other than herself to succeed. The more she fights being her, the more she fails. We know she has to embrace both sides of herself to save the day and the pageant. Over the first half of the middle, the story shifts from “find the bomber and survive this undercover nonsense” to “the only way to succeed and find the bomber is to embrace both sides of who you are.”

In essence, the midpoint reversal is when you tell readers, “you thought you had it all figured out, huh?” and rock their world in some way.

(Here’s more with Is Your Novel Stuck in the Mud? What Makes a Good Middle)

Things to Remember When Crafting Your Midpoint Reversal

1. It reveals new information that changes how the protagonist views their world and problem.

Odds are your novel has a secret you’ve been keeping from readers, and the midpoint is a great place to reveal that secret. It’s also common to see a “gotcha” here—a surprise that’s been hinted at that throws the story for a loop.

The midpoint can also work as a fakeout, where the protagonist thinks they’ve won, but the truth is the exact opposite. The protagonist gets everything they thought they wanted, but it turns out that’s the worst thing for them. “Success” has terrible consequences they were completely unprepared for. Or “failure” is exactly what will lead them to victory in the end.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel is taken to the secret cache of writing and finds the symbols he needs to get them home. But surprise! The one symbol he needs isn’t there. And then he goes and get himself captured and killed by Ra (don’t worry, he gets better). He thinks he’s won when he found the writings, but he hasn’t (yet he’s created the situation that allows him to do so).
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss gets stung by the tracker jacker and is sure she’s about to die at Peeta’s hand. She thinks she’s lost, but he helps her and lets her go, triggering the first steps of her realization that surviving the Games isn’t enough.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie discovers that the sweet friend she’s made just might be the bad guy. In order to find out the truth, she needs to get girly and use girl talk—she must “be a woman” to solve the case. She goes out and has fun, thus “belongs” even though it’s all fake. It’s a double fake out, one for plot, and one to make Gracie feel like she’s doing well when the world is about to fall apart.

This change in perception is critical to a good midpoint. Things are not what the protagonist thought, their world view shifts, and they get a strong opportunity to rise to meet that challenge. Some do, some don’t.

(Here’s more with Tah-Dah! The Best Place to Reveal Your Story Secrets)

2. It takes the story to a new level by raising the stakes and piling on the pressure.

The first half of the novel gets the protagonist into trouble (of their own making, naturally), and after this point, the trouble gets piled on (often by the antagonist) and they must reap the consequences of everything they did wrong so far.

In the second half of the middle, the antagonist frequently gets the upper hand and things get darker and more hopeless for the protagonist, leading them toward the All is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul plot points at the end of act two. The midpoint is the beginning of everything about to go horribly, horribly wrong for the poor protagonist.
  • In Stargate, the personal moment is when Daniel meets and falls for Sha’uri (the “gift”). Ra piles on the pressure by taking control and proving that he’s technologically superior to the U.S. Air Force and kicks everyone’s butts, then starts attacking the defenseless village as punishment for helping the strangers. And oh, Daniel dies. This is all leading to the Dark Moment at the end of act two, and dark it gets.
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss realizes she can’t kill Peeta or Rue, and she can’t win unless she does. All of her goals conflict with her needs, and she must embrace a new way of thinking to survive. She goes from being a “family first” kind of girl to the path of wanting to help other tributes and stop the Games themselves, thus saving all. This is illustrated when Rue falls at the end of act two, a symbol of “innocence” dying—Katniss is no longer the innocent who just wants to live. She now wants to save those who need saving. She wants to avenge Rue and punish those who would murder a little girl (the actual tributes who did it, and the ones behind the Games).
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie learns information on who the actual bomber is, right before she’s pulled off the case. The person the FBI thinks is threatening the pageant isn’t the one who’s actually doing it. Gracie wants to stay and follow through on her leads, but if she does, she’ll lose her job. Even worse, without the FBI there, she’ll have to make it into the final round of the pageant all on her own—she’s no longer guaranteed to make it into the top five. She needs to protect the women at the pageant, and she’s not sure she can. On one level, she’s protecting the “woman” she’s becoming as well. We know she’s right, and now she has nothing to help her stop the bad guy and save the pageant but her own wits.

“Things get real” is a good way of looking at the middle. It’s a moment that forces the protagonist to evaluate what matters to them and how far they’re willing to go to resolve the issue. Little do they know, that the story will likely push them past that line in act three. Bwahaha.

(Here’s more with 3 Rules to Raising Story Stakes)

3. It starts stripping away the protagonist’s support system.

As the antagonist gets the upper hand and the stakes get higher in the second half of act two, things and people the protagonist has relied on (and used as a crutch) are no longer there for them. Sometimes this is due to their own actions, but it can also be because they never truly knew the extent of the problem and now, they do.

Characters who were willing to help them no longer can, or are no longer willing to. Assets are taken away. Access to necessary resources vanish. It’s all about stripping the protagonist down to bare bones for that Dark Moment.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel and the military team are taken by Ra. Daniel also learns about the nuclear bomb, shattering his trust of O’Neill. They meet Ra and finally see what they’re truly up against—a merciless “god.”
  • In The Hunger Games, it's when Katniss loses Rue, her ally in the games. She’s still a little unsure about which side Peeta is really on, and she isn’t sure who can she trust. She’s also up against a group of nasty tributes working together.
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie’s FBI team leaves and she’s forced to compete in the pageant for real, and find the bomber all on her own. No one believes her, no one supports her. But her mentor leaves her one last gift to help, a sign that he believes in her.

There’s often a question asked in the midpoint—can the protagonist accomplish the task ahead? Can Daniel handle the truth he sought? Can Katniss destroy the Games? Can Gracie do the job that means so much to her on her own? It’s a reminder of what the story is about.

(Here’s more with All Is Lost: Four Kinds of Death in Fiction)

4. It starts a ticking clock.

It’s not uncommon for a hard deadline to be introduced during the midpoint to help raise the stakes and make things harder on the protagonist. The full extent of the problem is often revealed here, and now the protagonist knows what’s barreling down on them at high speeds.
  • In Stargate, it's when Ra arrives, because they only have so much time to get home before he kills them all. There’s also the added problem of the nuclear bomb O’Neill brought for…secret subplot reasons.
  • In The Hunger Games, Katniss is on a ticking clock the entire story—the end of the Games—so there’s nothing new that kicks in here. But the stakes get higher, and the Game makers start changing the rules to put the tributes in each other’s paths more frequently, which has a similar effect.
  • In Miss Congeniality, is when the truth about the bomber is revealed and we see the crown is the bomb. Whoever is crowned will die. And Gracie now cares about all those women.

Tensions rise and the stakes get higher, which re-hooks readers and gets them re-invested in the story and its outcome.

(Here’s more with How a Ticking Clock Reveals Character and Propels Your Plot)

The midpoint reversal is a major turning point in a novel, because it welds the front and back half together. Everything that came before it has led to what occurs after it, and it’s all in jeopardy.

It’s also an incredibly useful device to avoid a boggy middle, since you have something vital to write toward in the first half, and something devastating to write away from in the second half. It breaks the novel up and provides solid, plot-driving goals and drive, and reminds you and your readers what’s at stake, and why it all matters.

The midpoint reversal changes how your characters and your readers see the novel.

It’s both a preview and a promise of what’s to come in the end, and causes readers to dig in and eagerly anticipate the rest of the novel. A great midpoint can reinvigorate a lagging story, throw twists and turns into a predictable plot, and send the story in an entirely unexpected direction.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine your midpoint reversal. Does something critical happen? Is it a world view-changing turning point or just “something happening?”

Here's the entire story structure series:
Is your middle one of the best moments of your novel?

*Originally published August 2015. Last updated March 2021.
For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The ShifterBlue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I'm in the middle of some plotting for a story so this is very helpful. Thanks as always for the great tips!

  2. Excellent points, Janice! I really need to look and see if I have a strong midpoint reversal in my current WIP, and now I'll have some tests to measure it up against.

    1. Even if it's just something big happening. The whole point is to provide enough action/conflict/reveal to keep the story moving.

  3. Ah! I love Stargate (movie and series... and spinoff series). More people should use it for reference. Great post, Janice! Very informative.

    1. I watched the movie again to brush up on this post series, and of course had to go and watch the series pilot :)

  4. Unfortunately, I have not seen Stargate movie, not seen or read Hunger Games (despite a main actress attractive enough) and have no idea (except your words will give one when I read this) of Miss Congeniality.

    1. That's why I often use movies as examples instead of books. It's easy to rent and spend two hours with a movie and study what I talk about. Hopefully you still got something of value from the article.

    2. Yes, but for a homeless guy (yes, I know this is exceptional and shouldn't stop you from your usual ways) renting a movie is a no no.

    3. Ah. Well, then I suppose you can study what books or movies you have access to, and apply the same principles. Once you know what to look for, you can usually spot them without a lot of trouble.

  5. Janice, when can we look forward to your post on Act Three? This whole series is amazing! I copied the whole thing and put in scenes from my WIP after your examples.

    1. Aw, thanks! I didn't realize I hadn't done it yet (my bad). Let me toss that into the "to write" file and try to get it up for next week.

  6. This is extremely helpful! You put into words the problem I'm struggling w/ as I embark on my second draft of my novel. I realize (now that I read your article) that I do have a midpoint reversal, but need to let it shake things up and cause more problems. Thanks so much for your well-expressed insights into this crucial piece of a novel.

  7. Great addition to your latest series on plot points. And better yet, it confirms I've listened well to you in the past. My midpoint is dead on and won't need much revision in the draft!

    1. Thanks! That's awesome :) Nice to have the verification.