Tag Archives: midpoint

How to Merge Story Strands

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Merging Journeys

In seeking to find an effective way to highlight the unity that exists between the outer and inner journey in a story, both in my own writing, as well as in my teaching, it struck me that the structural pivots in a tale (the inciting incident, the turning points, the midpoint) precisely provide for such an opportunity. They are the knots that tie the outer and inner strands of the tale together.

The outer journey, we are reminded, recounts the beat-by-beat occurrence of external events as the Hero struggles against mounting obstacles to achieve the visible goal of the story—preventing the bomb from going off, winning the girl, or the boxing championship, rescuing the kidnapped victim, and so on.

The inner journey, by contrast, is the internal path the Hero takes to enlightenment or obfuscation, depending on the genre of the story, as he initiates or reacts to the outer journey’s challenges, surprises, achievements and setbacks.

The structural pivots combine an outer and inner event into a single motivated action. Lagos Egri, one of the most lucid teachers on the craft of dramatic writing explains that the inner journey is the “why” to the outer journey’s “what”. In short, ensure that your turning points, including your midpoint, describe external events of sufficient magnitude that cause the Hero to react in a way that is in keeping with his current/evolving inner state.

Is it preferable, then, to let the inner state, or, journey, trigger the outer event, or should it be the other way around? I don’t think there is a definitive answer to that question—either will do, just as long as both through-lines end up being tightly interwoven.

In Rob Roy, Liam Neeson’s character accepts his wife’s unborn child—a result of her being raped by an Englishman, because of who he is: a man of immense conviction and inner strength, just as he fights and wins a sword fight against the fop, the expert English swordsman, despite being outplayed at the end, again, because of this inner strength and conviction.

In Braveheart, William Wallace accepts knighthood at the midpoint of the story. This motivates him to move from being an isolationist who merely wants to be left alone to farm with his family, to a national leader who takes the fight to the English. The knighthood ceremony is a perfect fusion of an outer and inner event—as a knight he now has a moral obligation to fight for those who fall under his protection.

Summary

The major pivot points are the perfect place for the writer to ensure that the “why” merges with the “what” in her story. Such pivot points offer the perfect place for the inner and outer journeys to merge and support each other.

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How to Improve your Outline

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Improving Your Outline:

So, you’ve come up with a logline for your story and proceeded to generate an outline from it (see earlier posts). How do you go about improving your outline, prior to commencing the actual writing of your script or novel? Here are some suggestions, chosen for their effectiveness from a myriad of others, to help you with this very important step:

Improving your Logline

Consider your logline carefully:

Is it as unique and intriguing as it can be?
Does it contain a set-up and pay-off that is the best as it can be?

If not, seek to improve it by brainstorming the ideas behind it.

Getting the Story Structure Right

Examine the basic structure of your story. Consider whether you can improve any of the events and actions that occur specifically at the main structural junctions:

The opening
The inciting incident
Do we know what the story is about by the first third of the Act I
The first turning point at the end of Act I
The mid-point
The second turning point at the end of Act II
The crisis
The climax
The resolution

Identify Weaknesses in your Story

Search for sections that seem weak, flat, or uninteresting. Specifically, consider:

Is your setup and payoff sharp and unique enough?
Are there enough twists and surprises in between the main structural beats to hold our attention?
Is the mislead and reveal as surprising and fitting as it can be?

Focusing on specific structural and pivotal junctions allows you to target your improvements where they counts the most.

Summary

Seek to better your outline by lifting the overall standard of your logline and the actions and events that occur at the main structural junction points of your story. Also improve the quality of your setup and payoff, the various story twists, and your mislead and reveal.

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How to Write Your Story’s Midpoint

A halfway line on a playing field

Halfway Line

Although much has been written about the midpoint, not least of all in this blog, it is a crucial structural element in a story that deserves revisiting.

Midpoint/Moment of Illumination/Point of No Return

The middle of a story is the point in which the Hero makes an important decision: She can choose to turn back from the path she has been following, or, choose to press on, but with renewed insight and illumination stemming from an event that causes her to reassess her situation and her inner approach to it.

Unlike the first or second turning point, the midpoint does not necessarily involve a huge climax or intense action scene. What it does do is: cause the Hero to reassess the quest, have the Hero consider giving up, lead the Hero to realize that she must continue, have her formulate a new or more specific plan of action, have her commit to this new goal in a way that she can not back out of, have her learn something new about her innermost self.

Film Examples

In Field of Dreams, the midpoint occurs at the baseball game with Terence Mann, when Ray notices the sign about Archibald ‘Doc’ Graham, then hears, once more, the voice saying ‘Go the distance’. In The Crying Game, the midpoint occurs when Fergus uncovers Dill’s physical secret. In both cases, there is a strong inner, or, psychological aspect to the midpoint.

Typically, the midpoint changes a crucial aspect in the Hero’s inner life that impacts on her outer life: if she was not in control, she seizes control, if she was uncommitted, she becomes committed, if she was a victim, she decides to hit back, if she was hunted, she becomes the hunter, if she was delusional, she starts to deal with reality, if she was defeated by the goal, she begins a new struggle to achieve it. In this sense, then, the midpoint brings the inner and outer journeys together by fusing self-illumination to a plan of action, which leads to her achieving the story goal.

Summary

The midpoint is not only the half-way point of the story in terms of length, it is also the moment in which the Hero reassesses her situation, regathers her strengthen and resources, and presses on with renewed insight and wisdom.

How to Avoid the Blank Page

The Blank Page

The Blank Page

In his book,The Screenwriter’s Workbook, Syd Field mentions that the great Irish writer, James Joyce, once said that writing is like climbing a mountain. When ascending the rock-face, all you can see is the surface directly in front and behind you. You can’t see where you’re going or where you’ve come from. Writing is a little like that. All you can see is the page you’re immediately working on.

Pantser or Plotter?

When we sit down to write a screenplay, novel, or short story we are faced with the daunting challenge of having to fill a blank page. Having a story roadmap helps us orientate ourselves and get us to our destination sooner — page by page.

Some writers like to plan the story meticulously before writing down a single word of the actual screenplay or manuscript. Others like to write from the seat of their pants — pantsers in colloquial speech. But even pantsers ought to have some idea of story direction prior to commencing the journey. Having a sense of the overall story’s structure, knowing how our story ends, for example, allows us to to begin charting the protagonist’s journey from page one.

Even more helpful is knowing what the midpoint or turning points are. This allows us even more freedom — the freedom to drop into at any point in the story and write from there. If we are feeling sensitive and soppy today, we might write up the love scenes of our tale; if, on the other hand, we are in the mood for action, the confrontational scene between the Hero and the antagonist might be more appropriate.

Left or Right Brain?

Sitting down to write a story from a structural roadmap, however, often changes the roadmap. Turning points, the midpoint, pinches, even endings, shift, breathe. The structure (essentially a left-brain activity) that we outline in the cool light of day mutates when we massage it back to our right brain and finally onto the screen or paper. Indeed, this is the most common reason pantsers give against pre-planingning story structure.

Yet, a changing structure need not be an argument for not having one at all. There is absolutely nothing wrong with going back and adjusting/rewriting our midpoint, or second turning point, or pinch, according to the new direction that may result from the actual writing of our tale. Indeed, this to and fro movement between our left and right brain hemispheres may help to integrate the writing process and make us more accomplished writers — with only proviso: when letting the muse go, let her go. Don’t put her on the leash of structure. But when she pauses to rest, by all means, look over her shoulder and let the left brain take over for a while. Ideally, this occurs after the first draft has been written, as I have mentioned in a previous post. But there is no reason to assume that we shouldn’t pause to catch our breath from the creative hurly-burly and ponder on the direction of our stories, at any time.

Summary

Having a roadmap for our stories, no matter how scant or vague, helps us to drop in at any point of our protagonist’s journey and write from there. When the muse changes our roadmap in the act of writing itself, simply go back and adjust the map rather than assume it had no value in the first place.

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Exploring the Story Network II

Network Connections

Network Connections

The main structural hoists between the 1st and 2nd turning points are: the 1st pinch, the midpoint, and the 2nd pinch. In this post, we explore the dynamic relationship that exists between these structures.

1st Pinch, 1st Turning Point, & Midpoint

The 1st pinch is a scene or scene sequence that occurs about halfway through the first part of act ii and the midpoint. It helps to keep things moving by propelling events toward the midpoint and the moment of illumination that occurs there. The 1st pinch feeds off the 1st turning point, reminding us of what is at stake. Its relationship to the 1st turning point, therefore, is not of one of surprise or deviation, but of reiteration. This is because the 1st turning point has already changed the story’s direction and the task of the 1st pinch is to keep the story on track by subtly and adroitly reminding us of this fact, not to surprise us by introducing yet another change in direction.

2nd Pinch & 2nd Turning Point

The 2nd pinch is a scene or scene sequence that occurs halfway between the midpoint and the end of act ii. As with the 1st pinch, the 2nd pinch keeps the story on track by revisiting, through a single scene, or scene sequence, the (changed) concerns of the story and propels it towards the 2nd turning point. The relationship between the 2nd pinch and the 2nd turning point, however, is now one of deviation and surprise, since the task of the 2nd turning point is to spin the story around in a different direction by introducing a new challenge, or by deepening the existing one in a game of rising stakes.

1st & 2nd Pinch Symmetry

Sometimes a strong symmetry obtains between the 1st and 2nd pinch. In his book, The Screenwriters Workbook, Syd Field points to an example of such symmetry in the film, Thelma and Louise. The 1st pinch occurs when the two girls pick up J.D. (Brad Pitt) who then proceeds to steal their money (at the Midpoint). The 2nd pinch occurs when J.D. is picked up by the police and rats on the two women by telling the cops that the women are headed for Mexico, thus sealing their fate.

Summary

Pinches 1 & 2 are scenes or scene sequences that keep the story on track by reminding the reader or audience of the central concerns of the story initiated by the 1st turning point. The relationship of the 1st pinch to the 1st turning point is one of reiteration; that of the 2nd pinch to the 2nd turning point is one of surprise and deviation.

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The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure II

This is the second and final installment of The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure.

Must-Have Scenes

Must-Have Scenes

Second Pinch

As mentioned previously, pinches are scenes located within act II that remind us of the major concerns of the story. Their main propose is to keep the story on track. If the first pinch in The Matrix has Neo fail to leap successfully to the adjacent building, the second has him reel in a helicopter via an attached cable. The second pinch is related to the first, then, in that it revisits and develops the concerns posed by the first.

The Second Turning Point

As with the first turning point, this structural device turns the story around in an unexpected way. Up to now, the Hero has accepted a challenge or opportunity, acquired a goal, grown through moral insight, and pressed forward towards achieving that goal, despite mounting obstacles. Now, a new situation arises – usually prompted by antagonistic forces – that ups the stakes, forcing a reassessment of, and adjustment to, the original goal. The second turning point in Unforgiven occurs when William Munny learns that Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), his best friend, has died at the hands of the sheriff; Munny, who has already fulfilled his contract, has no choice but to expand his goal and seek revenge on all those who participated in Ned’s death.

The Climactic Scene

This scene, also known as the must-have confrontational scene, pits the Hero and antagonist against each other in a fight to the finish (either literally, or metaphorically). Its outcome establishes the theme of the story – for example, that good triumphs over evil. In The Matrix Neo is resurrected through the power of love and faith, symbolised by a kiss.

The Resolution or Denouement Scene

In a typical conventional story with an up-ending, the Denouement Scene ties up loose ends, answers earlier questions, and unites the Hero with his community and love-interest. In a down-ending, the Hero is defeated in some important way – he may, for example, win the battle but lose the war, lose some moral or spiritual aspect of himself, fail to win the girl, leave questions unanswered and issues unresolved. Here, the theme may well be that evil triumphs over good, or that good guys finish last.

The Realisation Scene

I’ve left the mention of the Realisation Scene (see past post) till last, not because it necessarily occurs at the end of the story, but because it is a scene that injects new information about the plot – it allows the Hero to get at the truth. Most typically, the Realisation Scene (and its decision/action consequences) occurs at the first turning point, or the midpoint, or even as late as the second turning point, although this is less common, since it places the engaging and dynamic realisation-decision-action cluster towards the end of the story.

Summary

Story structure comprises of certain must-have, or master scenes, which form the undercarriage of the entire tale. Additionally, linking and transitional scenes abound. Other important scenes include the realisation-decision-action cluster, which can occupy any one of several points in the story, depending on the individual needs of the story itself.

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The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure

Nuts & Bolts

Nuts & Bolts

For sometime now, I’ve been posting articles about such narrative elements as the introduction scene, the inciting incident, the first and second turning points, the first and second pinches, the midpoint, realisation, decision, action, obligatory, and denouement scenes – in short, about the structural underpinnings of most stories. Of course, other linking and transitional scenes are dispersed in between these larger ones, but together, they coalesce to form a solid template for an entire tale. In this two-part post, I want to bring these elements together in order to present a snapshot of the overall shape of a typical story. What follows, then, is a simple, but useful summation of story structure:

Introduction Scene

With the exception of a medias res beginning (see past post), a typical story often starts with an introduction to the ordinary world of the Hero – this is the world before the initial disturbance. Here we learn about the Hero’s life and environment as it has existed for some time. This is our opportunity to get to know and empathise with the Hero in his or her natural habitat. In Unforgiven, for example, we see retired gunslinger and now struggling pig-farmer and widower, William Munny (Clint Eastwood), fighting to make ends meet in order to feed his two young children, and we begin to empathise with his plight.

Inciting Incident

Now, into this world, comes an unexpected opportunity, challenge, or threat, which disturbs the status-quo. The Hero may at first choose to ignore this event, or he/she may respond to it immediately. This is the inciting incident and is the event that kick-starts the story. In Unforgiven, the inciting incident occurs when the Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) asks William Munny to help hunt down and kill the men who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, an offer which Munny originally rejects, then decides to accept.

First Turning Point

The first turning point is a powerful structural event that spins the story around in a different direction; it avoids predictability and injects freshness into the tale. In The Matrix, the first turning point occurs when Neo (Keano Reeves) learns that the world he thought was real is actually a computer simulation, and that his body (and most other bodies) is slumbering inside a machine-constructed cocoon which continuously siphons energy from it. This new information necessarily changes the course of Neo’s life.

First Pinch

The first pinch typically occurs in the first half of act II, between the start of the act and the story’s midpoint. The pinch is a scene which reminds us of what’s at stake, thus helping to keep the longer act II on track. In The Matrix, a pinch occurs when Neo fails to leap successfully to an adjacent building and plummets to the ground. This reminds us that his training is not yet complete, but it also prompts us to ask whether Neo is indeed The One – the underlying question of the entire act and the story as a whole.

The Midpoint

The midpoint, also referred to as the moment of (moral) illumination (not to be confused with the realisation scene), occurs about halfway through act II, in effect, splitting this longest of the three acts into two units; in Braveheart, William Wallace (Mel Gibson), spends the initial part of the story avoiding involvement in the politics and troubles of his country. But at the midpoint, he receives a knighthood. This event, which is an outer manifestation of his acceptance of a moral duty to involve himself in the plight of his country – to help lead it to freedom from England – demarcates a change of attitude in Wallace. Henceforth, his actions, and the entire course of the story, will be informed by this moment of moral illumination.

The Nuts and Bolts of Story Structure concludes next week.

Summary

Story structure comprises of a set of must-have scenes that are interlinked by smaller transitional ones to form an overarching structure. Understanding the function and purpose of each scene provides the writer with a formal template for crafting a unique story at the level of content.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.