The midpoint complication is the game-changing moment of revelation that upends your protagonist’s plans and causes a shift in goals.
The insights from cognitive psychology can help us understand the effects and usefulness of story structures, and this is what I break down in this series. In these articles on story structure elements, I dive into the effects of story on readers and how these structures play a part in that. I also offer suggestions for what writers can do to have the best of both worlds — both the joy of just writing and creating a tale readers will want to read.
Your protagonist is fully involved in her new world — exploring and navigating her new situation, facing obstacles, and realizing how far she’s come from her old world. She’s well on her journey and working toward her immediate goals…until something flips all her plans upside down. Your protagonist has hit the novel’s midpoint.
The midpoint — which I often refer to as the “midpoint complication” — is a structural beat that occurs at (you guessed it) the halfway mark of your novel. Similar to the inciting incident, something once again happens that will change everything, raise the stakes, and present a new decision.
The midpoint complication is the game-changing moment of revelation that upends your protagonist’s plans and causes a shift in goals. This moment might even directly threaten that goal.
Think of it like the big plot twist where the protagonist finds out everything is a setup or she was wrong all along — the Wizard of Oz is a fake, they’re all living in a reality TV show, one of the fake-relationship parties realizes she is in love with the other for real.
This beat is all about reversals. We love when the midpoint leaves the character reeling (we’re so evil like that). It’s a twist, a turn, a game-changer. Usually, the midpoint comes about through some revelation of new information.
But most importantly, it forces the protagonist to make a decision — usually to start taking matters into her own hands, fighting instead or running, or fully engaging in the main conflict. Defense has turned into offense. Everything that comes after the midpoint is generally more intense and focused.
The midpoint is all about changing plans and shifting goals. So if you’re a bit stuck on what can happen smack dab in the middle of your story to up the ante, let’s go straight to the heart of this beat.
Ask yourself what could directly challenge your protagonist’s goal. What could be the most disruptive to everything she’s been working toward?
Tie the event, revelation, or realization to your protagonist’s fear or inner demons. What are they? Knowing that, use them to do your authorial worst to your protagonist. Make it matter to her. Deeply.
Consider your climax and the protagonist’s final transformation. What does she still need to get there? That act three moment requires change. What major point along the way there does she need to all but force her to defeat her inner demons’ lies? She won’t fully change yet, but this midpoint event can still cause a major shift.
Any of these questions or prompts likely needs some kind of outward manifestation in your plot. The meaning and significance will be primarily internal. So think of ways to mirror that meaning and significance metaphorically in some kind of external action, event, or situation. The most obvious way to do this is to translate an internal battle to an external one. But the metaphor doesn’t have to be nearly so allegorical. Often, simple, little things in the outer plot can highlight the internal significance or reinforce the key ideas.
If this still all sounds a bit too abstract for you to understand how it might apply to your novel, let’s look at how the midpoint beat has been handled in other stories. Keep in mind the prompts from the previous section. These midpoints reveal something and shift goals. The implicit decision is what to do about this new information. The action taken from the midpoint becomes the second plot point — but we’ll discuss that piece in the next post.
In The Hobbit, Bilbo is left on his own and finds a magic ring to turn himself invisible. Why is this the midpoint? It changes the game for him. Separated from his company (something that can really test him and leave him vulnerable) and under the threat of goblins (and Gollum), Bilbo starts to own his “burglar” status and shows how clever and resourceful he can be. He earns his place and respect among the adventurers.
In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo is invited to the Council of Elrond. Many stories and ideas are brought to light, painting a fuller picture of the status of the world and those already falling to Sauron’s corruption (information is revealed). When the aging Bilbo suggests he should take the Ring, the themes of selflessness and sacrifice reassert themselves with Frodo feeling compelled to take the Ring himself, as if it’s his burden to bear. His goals to give up the Ring and return to the Shire completely shift as he realizes he must be the one to destroy the Ring. It also directly prods his unease at the thought of being corrupted by the ring, as he has just been reminded of with Bilbo’s sudden change with his continued lust for the Ring himself. This decision leads to the action — the second plot point — of the formation of the Fellowship, and they set off on their journey.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry makes the connection that Hagrid’s mysterious business with the package for Dumbledore is the item being guarded by the three-headed dog on the forbidden third-floor corridor. Escalating events with Malfoy push him to stumble on this revelation (with help from Hermione), but after this point, he’s committed to solving the mystery since he firmly (if wrongly) believes that Snape is trying to steal it for evil purposes. He embarks on his hero path to prevent that from happening himself when no one else will listen to his fears.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss is cornered by the Careers and barely escapes (with Peeta’s help). Realizing she can no longer run and hide, Katniss goes on the offensive and decides to fight.
These examples each show events that prompt a realization or discovery. This new information necessitates a new direction. Goals shift and so does character growth. We see Bilbo finding his own resourcefulness, which gains him respect in the eyes of the dwarves. Frodo faces his fears, in a way, when he understands that no one else is quite suitable to bear the burden of the ring. He risks his own safety and faces potential corruption. Harry becomes active sleuth-hero for a cause he believes in. Katniss isn’t invulnerable and faces the conflicted choice of giving into the Gamemakers and Capitol by playing the game and truly playing the game to win to pursue her original desire to make it back alive to Prim.
The midpoint serves to hurl the momentum forward so the plot doesn’t get sticky in the middle. It’s a necessary turning point to shove the protagonist into her own. It’s also a large clash of plot and internal character conflict. While it’s further along in the story and already part of the main conflict, it’s considerably like the function of the inciting incident. It ends in a decision that launches the action of the next plot point.
The decision piece of the midpoint is one that sometimes seems to be overlooked or at least overshadowed by the Big Twist component. So it’s worth noting for the purposes of crafting a strong midpoint because the decision is the true piece that launches the rest of the novel’s action. The decision is the character-centered driving force of the story.
Bilbo decides to use the ring to make his escape and rejoin his company. From there, he is more confident, clever, and active in his role with them. He also chooses to conceal his possession of the ring.
Frodo’s decision to continue to bear the ring and destroy it even though he doesn’t know the way necessitates the formation of the Fellowship and sets him on the ultimate quest.
Harry decides to use the secret information he now knows to try to stop evil/Snape. He takes the initiative to go after Snape, leading him to defeat the troll on Halloween and driving the story forward, acting as hero.
Katniss’s decision to go after the Careers shows her adapting to her situation and surviving by fighting. It also makes her a threat to be dealt with, hurling toward the climax.
Remember the objectives of your story: your protagonist needs to have her inner demon (the corrupted version of the truth that she needs to learn plus her deepest fear) continually challenged until those challenges all but break her and ultimately force the change with nowhere else for her to turn. Then the protagonist can finally let go of her inner demon in the third act. These objectives help to dictate the midpoint by providing the gap to fill between the rising action and the climactic third act. What is the final bit of information that will shift your character from adapting to a new world/situation and leveling up some skills to taking clearer initiative and going after the goal? What will tip the scales? While your character won’t have everything figured out yet, it will get the character closer to that final track. But don’t forget to make sure the way your character handles the midpoint is still primarily driven by the inner demon.
Your character will have a chance to eventually get it right, but that’s a discussion for another time! For now, keep taut your story’s middle and especially the rising action prior to the midpoint by setting into motion the components that your protagonist will need to make her transformation in the final act.
Categories: story structure
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