In every story, whether you’re aware of it or not, there is a midpoint. Whether it’s a 3000-page fantasy trilogy or a 15-second TV commercial, chances are it has a midpoint. By the most obvious definition, a midpoint is the spot right in the middle. By the story structure definition, it’s much more complicated than that.
Depending on which structuring technique you use, the midpoint will have a different definition. The Hollywood Formula says the midpoint is when the story moves from asking questions to answering them. Dan Wells’ 7-point plot system says the midpoint is when the main character moves from reaction to action. Emma Coats says the midpoint is the point at which you know there’s no turning back.
If you really think about it, all these definitions say the same thing. The first half of the story is always still uncertain– the main character is committed to his goal, but he still doesn’t know what he’s up against. Questions are still being asked, and until some get answered, all he can do is react. But then, after the midpoint, there’s no turning back; questions begin being answered and he can act for himself.
But can you possibly keep every scrap of information away from the main character until halfway through the story? I already mentioned trilogies– what do you do for the first book’s midpoint if you have to wait for the trilogy’s midpoint instead? And how does the main character do anything if he’s only reacting? That seems like a pretty pathetic way to start off a story. And then, after the midpoint, how could the main character possibly get into a low point when he’s acting so much, and so many questions are being answered?
I prefer to think of the midpoint as an enormous revelation, where something happens on such a large scale that the story takes a turn. Little things happen before then, but nothing as startling as this. The villain makes a move so daring that they can’t go back, but they’ve realized where he’s hiding. That’s when questions get answered, reaction turns to action, and nothing will ever be the same again.
In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the midpoint is the White Council, where Gandalf, Galadriel, Saruman, and Elrond meet to discuss the growing power in Mirkwood as well as the dwarves’ quest. Before that section, the dwarves didn’t quite know where they were going– they were just heading east in hopes of finding a dragon and following it. After that section, they know they’re heading for the hidden gate in the Lonely Mountain. They also know that Dol Guldur is possessed by the spirit of the Witch King of Angmar, but that doesn’t come up until the second movie (I presume– it hasn’t been released yet). Also, the orcs have spotted the group– if Bilbo tries to return home now, he’ll surely be caught. There’s no turning back.
That’s a good example of questions being answered, but what about reaction to action? In Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows, there’s a good idea of that.
The midpoint occurs on a train, wherein a firefight has just occurred and the back half of the train has been blown off. Watson asks where they’re going, and Holmes replies: “Paris.” That begins the answering of questions. Before that, however, they were in a firefight. Surely that’s a lot of action by the main characters, right? Wrong. The only reason they were in a firefight was because they had been shot at– it wasn’t because they had shot anyone. The whole time, they were reacting.
As you can see, it’s pretty flimsy until you look at the massive reversal after that firefight. Suddenly they’re taking the battle to the enemy instead of letting the enemy take the battle to them. There are little spikes of action along the way, but it’s usually buried in reaction. The same with questions. Before the midpoint, a few answers are given, but each of them sparks two more questions. After the midpoint, there’s more action than reaction, more answers than questions, and more main character awesomeness than before because they know they’ve got nothing else to do.
But what about trilogies and things, again? This is all well and good for individual stories, but trilogies? Do midpoints work for those too?
Of course. The midpoint of the second book will always be the most striking midpoint of the three books, because it’s the turning point of the entire trilogy. There will still be a midpoint for the third book, but the midpoint of the second is the biggest. I can’t think of any good examples right now.
And commercials? 15-minute TV shows? They have midpoints too, you know. Commercials have a tiny change from reaction to action, asking questions to answering them. (“Is your floor messy? Is it cluttered and littered with stuff? We have just the thing for you– the Stuff-Vaporizer!”) 15-minute TV shows have the same sorts of things, but it’s usually a change from one style of story to another. I could give you an example, but you can probably figure it out yourself.
Really, the easiest way to find the midpoints of movies or books is to know the length of the story and divide by two. Once you’ve gotten familiar with that, you can figure it out without arithmetic. You’ll begin to recognize midpoints everywhere.