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Monday, August 3

Story Structure: The Midpoint Reversal

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

For a while now, we’ve looked at the basic of the major turning points in the Three Act Structure. 

So far, we’ve discussed how the opening scene leads to the inciting event, which leads to the act one problem, and presents the protagonist with the act two choice

That choice throws the story into the middle of the novel, and will drive the protagonist to the midpoint reversal. 

The results of the midpoint reversal will drive the second half of the middle toward the end of act two and the beginning of the climax (see how this all builds upon each other? This is why structure works so well).

Today, let’s tackle the point that changed my writing life forever—the midpoint reversal.

Let's break down the basics:

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 him more to win, and will have serious consequences if he fails (sometimes even if he wins). This creates new momentum and drives the plot toward the ending.

In essence: It’s when you tell readers, “and you thought you had it all figured out,” and rock their world in some way.
  • In Stargate, the lead in to the midpoint begins when Daniel Jackson and the teams 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 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 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 the games, it’s about beating the people who run them.
  • 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 does it happen: The midpoint reversal occurs in the middle of the novel (roughly the 50% mark), and sends the plot into the second half of the middle (roughly 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, that beating the Capitol and showing the games are wrong is. Her views on Peeta and 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 Hart learns that the suspect is a woman. This opens up a whole new list of suspects within the pageant, and changes the focus of that investigation. There are also a few other details that 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's its function: 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 he has a problem and trying to solve it, and the second half is all about the protagonist realizing it won’t be so easy and he’ll have to go above and beyond to succeed. It’s also a solid turning point to write toward to avoid a sagging middle.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson 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, so the story needs something new 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 the 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, and the Capitol is the one standing in the way of that “survival.”
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart 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 he thought he knew won’t be true (or lies he believed won’t be lies after all). He’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 Jackson’s problems escalate. First, he discovers he can’t actually get everyone home (his act one disaster), 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” 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 with riches and dotted 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 get 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 what she’s really fighting for. Rue becomes key in directing Katniss’s character growth toward taking on the Capital, and her ability to inspire those outside her district.
  • In Miss Congeniality, Gracie Hart 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.”

Things to Remember When Crafting Your Midpoint Reversal

1. It reveals new information that changes how the protagonist views his 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 and throws the story for a loop.

The midpoint can also work as a fakeout, where the protagonist thinks he’s won, but the truth is the exact opposite. The protagonist gets everything he thought he wanted, but it turns out that’s the worst thing that ever could have happened to him. “Success” has terrible consequences he was completely unprepared for. Or “failure” is exactly what will lead him to victory in the end.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson is taken to the secret cache of writing and finds the symbol 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, but he hasn’t.
  • 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 Hart discovers 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 this is 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.

(Here’s more on revealing new information)

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 his own making, naturally), and after this point, the trouble gets piled on (often by the antagonist) and he must reap the consequences of everything he did wrong so far. The antagonist frequently gets the upper hand and things get darker and more hopeless for the protagonist, leading him toward the All is Lost and Dark Night of the Soul turning 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 Jackson 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 US Air Force and kicks everyone’s butts, then starts attacking the defenseless town 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 indeed 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 some other tributes and stop the games themselves, 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. Avenge Rue and punish those who would murder a little girl (the other tributes and the ones behind the games).
  • In Miss Congeniality, it's when Gracie Hart 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’ll be fired from the FBI if she stays, but she needs to protect the women at the pageant. 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.

(Here’s more on raising the stakes)

3. Starts stripping away the protagonist’s support system.

As the antagonist gets the upper hand and the stakes get higher, things and people the protagonist has relied on (and used as a crutch) are no longer there for him. Sometimes this is due to his own actions, but it can also be because he never truly knew the extent of the problem and now he does.

Characters who were willing to help him no longer can, or are no longer willing to. Assets are taken away. Access to necessary resources vanish.
  • In Stargate, it's when Daniel Jackson 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 Hart’s 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.

4. 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 him 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 you know…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 others’ 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 and who’s behind it. Whoever is crowned will die. And Gracie now cares about all those women.

(Here’s more on raising tensions)

The midpoint reversal is a major turning point in a novel, and 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.

Any questions or thoughts about the midpoint reversal? 

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.