Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fiona Harper on writing: The scary middle

This month, on her column on story structure and character arc, Fiona Harper is talking about that tricky middle bit, and why she’s discovered the midpoint of a story is not something to be dreaded but her absolute favourite bit.

When I first started writing novels the middle used to scare me. Beginnings were fun – finding out who my characters were, setting them up, seeing what situations they were in and wondering what they’d do about it. Endings were pretty cool too. There’d be a juicy, gut-wrenching black moment and then an emotional climax to the story and the soft sigh of a happy ever after. All good stuff.

The bit in between? Well, it  just seemed to stretch forever. Like one of the endless flat straight roads. But I’d have to travel down it, because it was the only way to join the beginning to the ending.  The urge to fill it up with stuff – any old stuff – just so it wasn’t a gaping hole in my story was overwhelming. How did I know if the stuff I was plugging the hole with was the right stuff? How could I make it exciting without just trundling episodically from one event to the next?

But I have loved to learn the middle. Especially that point right slap-bang in the centre of the story. And that’s because I’ve learned it’s not a flat, straight road; it’s a mountain. More than that, it’s often a turning point – the juiciest and most satisfying one in the whole of the book.

Screenwriting guru Michael Hauge calls this place The Point of No Return. It’s an aviation term. Basically, once an aircraft has gone more than halfway to its destination there’s no point it going back where it came from if it gets into trouble. Diminishing fuel supplies mean it would be better to carry on to the destination.

And so it is with our main characters.  Michael Hauge describes character arc as a journey from one’s identity (false self/emotional armour) to one’s essence (authentic self). The midpoint of the story is often the place where your character will reach a threshold. They have a decision to make: continue in this course of action and be changed for ever, or forsake the adventure and go back to who they were at the beginning of the story.

And this choice often comes about after a moment of realisation about their life, themselves or the predicament they are in. Stanley Williams, author of The Moral Premise, calls this point the Moment of Grace. Our protagonist may get a flash of insight into what they’re problem really is, or a glimpse of how amazing life could be if they have the courage to change or, conversely, how awful it will be if they don’t.

Sometimes this comes as a blinding flash of revelation, as it does for Rose in the film Titanic – she’s turned Jack away, but then she goes into the tea room and sees a little girl being ordered about, being told to sit just-so and do as she’s told, and she realises that is what her life is going to be like if she doesn’t do something to escape it.  She rushes out to find Jack and the iconic kissing scene at the bow of the boat occurs. From that point on, Rose decides she will not take the safe route and suffocate; she will be with Jack and seek adventure.

But sometimes our character will only start to realise what the problem is and how they need to change. The flash of wisdom will be incomplete and fuzzy. They may not realise what it will cost, but they see the truth of it and start to pursue their goal with greater conviction. At this point they start to truly shed that emotional armour they’ve worn for so long, even if it is tiny piece by tiny piece. This is true of Kate in French Kiss, who starts to let go of her neurotic need for control and security and starts to enjoy her unexpected and unwanted adventure.

I mentioned Dara Marks last time, and how she talks about a protagonise 'wearing out' old behaviour patterms and coping mechanisms during the first half of the second act. The mid-point of the story is the bit where our characters realise that what they've always done isn't working, that they're going to have to try something new, and by doing so they open to door to change. Not just for the situation they're in, but for themselves too. What lessons does your character need to learn? How do they need to change? Have them start this process of figuring it out from this point onwards.

In terms of the love story in a romance, this is the point that the hero and heroine will cross some new threshold with each other too. It’s the place for first kisses, first time to make love, declarations of love, or some more subtle clue that the relationship has moved into a new arena. And why wouldn’t it? With both your hero and heroine starting to become on the outside the person that the other one has been able to see underneath all along, there’s plenty of motivation for them to take a chance and commit further in some way, to the other person.

Having said that, it’s not necessarily a bump-free ride to the bottom of the mountain. But more on that next time!

Fiona's next book Always the Best Man will be out in North America in August: 
The best man...for the bridesmaid?  
Standing at the altar, Damien is breathless as the woman he loves walks toward him-to marry another man. Knowing bridesmaid Zoe's watching him makes it harder still. The opposite of the bride, Zoe's too loud, too vibrant, too...everything! 

Zoe can't resist provoking him-just once, she'd like to see "Mr. Perfect" lose his cool. She can tell there are fireworks smoldering behind those pale blue eyes. But before the wedding night is over, their unexpected connection will threaten to undermine everything they both believe about themselves and each other....


  1. Great post, and timely for me as I'm mulling over my sagging middle! Thank you.

  2. Love this post. And you've reminded me about the Moral Premise--must review my notes on that one. Thanks so much for sharing and happy writing :-)

  3. Thanks, Christine and Rebecca! I just need to remind myself of all of this when I get the 'saggy middle' blues next time around. Sigh.

  4. Fiona - I bow to you. You know your stuff and you also know how to articulate it so that it just CLICKS. I'm thinking about my current wip and realizing just how right you are. At some point my hero goes from denial to acceptance of the situation - and then there's no turning back. It's also the point where the heroine decides to change her plans at his request - also a no-turning-back moment.

    You are awesome, lady!

  5. It's so true! Sometimes the realisation for each character is slightly staggered, but there's often a major turning point in the plot, a major step forward in the relationship, and both hero and heroine have their own personal moment of enlightenment. They get to the point where, even if they tried to go back to being who they were at the beginning of the story, they wouldn't be able to - they've changed too much now. Their only choice is to go forward.

  6. Read this while looking for inspiration for a Crash Course on writing romance I'm teaching on Saturday - and I'm going to be referring all my students to you now! I've always thought of the moment of decision as coming earlier in the story - an active choice to embark on the adventure - but I love the idea of the 'moment of grace'. Lightbulbs popping here. Thank you for a really useful and interesting post.

  7. Fabulous post, Fiona! I'm nearing the end of my current WIP,and I'm going to take a hard look at my middle as I revise. Thank you so much for the insight.

  8. I think you're right, Pam. I often find a moment of decision earlier on to - a solidifying of plans, normally something to do with the outward plot of the story. I suppose this second decision often has more to do with character arc than it does plot, although there is often something significant happening there too.