We’ve covered two plot points so far in Developing Themes In Your Stories: the inciting incident, which thrusts the protagonist into a story’s external conflict; and the Act I choice, where the protagonist takes the first step to achieving his goal. Now he’s in the thick of that goal pursuit, but not everything has been going according to plan. It’s no surprise then that the story’s halfway point finds him rethinking his plans – and this scene often teems with literary themes.
So, today’s installment of Developing Themes In Your Stories concentrates on nurturing themes in the story’s midpoint. We’ll also continue following Bilbo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Veronika from Paulo Coelho’s Veronika Decides to Die, and use brainstorming and writing activities to help us develop the scene further and identify possible themes.
What is a Story’s Midpoint?
Along with occurring around the story’s halfway (50%) mark, the midpoint accomplishes the following:
- It throws an unexpected event at the protagonist and shakes up his story-goal pursuit.
- As a result of this event, it compels the protagonist to make another choice and amend his plan for achieving his goal. It raises the stakes even further and reinforces his personal investment in his goal.
Many writers also call the midpoint the story’s “mirror moment.” Before the unexpected event, the protagonist has been struggling toward his story goal. The event gives him the opportunity to reflect on his journey so far (thus the “mirroring”), and realize what he should do differently. It’s not an “all is lost” moment like the Dark Night of the Soul, which we’ll cover in Part 10, but it shows the protagonist finally moving in the right direction – and that in itself is significant.
For this “thematic” study, we’ll break down the midpoint into three parts: before, during, and after.
Before The Midpoint: Why is the Protagonist Struggling?
Since the midpoint signals a change in plans, it also implies that life has been rocky for the protagonist since the Act I choice. Perhaps he’s butted heads with other characters, failed to finish tasks or get information he needs, or felt inadequate about his shortcomings. These moments offer important lessons that will help the protagonist later on. But right now he’s struggling, and he doesn’t grasp why yet.
Before examining the story’s midpoint, look back on the protagonist’s journey and find examples of his struggles. What problems (either major or minor) has he confronted since the end of Act I? Has he made any mistakes or poor decisions? Are any of his flaws or weaknesses to blame? Have supporting characters or plot- / setting-related obstacles caused others? The answers to these questions can provide insights on the sources of the protagonist’s struggles and which sources are within – or out of – his control to change.
Here’s how Bilbo and Veronika have been struggling since their Act I choices:
The Hobbit: Bilbo spends the first part of his quest to Erebor miserable and insecure. He botches his first robbery attempt and almost gets the company roasted for dinner by trolls, and is picked on by the Dwarves for being the smallest or “weakest” in the group. He also misses his home and feels embarrassed by his naivety about the world outside the Shire.
Veronika Decides to Die: Veronika struggles with her choice to live her final days more fully. She resists befriending her fellow patients, acts disrespectfully to the mental institution’s staff, and refuses to see her mother when she visits. Veronika also criticizes herself for questioning her decisions and frequently reminds herself that she’ll die soon anyways. The one positive during this time is that Veronika rediscovers her love of playing the piano.
Activity #1: Review the chapters between your WIP’s Act I choice and the midpoint, or consider possible scenes that could happen between both plot points. What struggles has the protagonist faced while working toward his story goal? Which ones is he responsible for (mistakes, failures, flare-ups of flaws / weaknesses, etc.)? Which ones are outside his control (plot or setting obstacles, actions / failures / decisions by other characters, etc.)? How does he think or feel during these scenes?
During the Midpoint: Which Scene Acts as the “Mirror Moment”?
As stated earlier, the midpoint compels the protagonist to change his approach to his story-goal pursuit through an unanticipated event. Sometimes this event presents him with a choice. Other times it alters his worldview. Either way, it’s a split-second wake-up call that shows the protagonist his original plan isn’t viable anymore, and that he needs to change course soon – if not immediately – to get back on track.
With this in mind, consider the event that could act as your story’s “mirror moment.” How does it raise the stakes and rock the protagonist to the core? What mistakes or misjudgments does he realize he has made up to that point? Don’t worry about the event’s aftermath yet. For now, focus on the scene itself and the protagonist’s immediate actions or thoughts as it unfolds.
Which scenes serve as the midpoints of Bilbo’s and Veronika’s stories? Let’s see:
The Hobbit: After getting separated from the rest of the company in Mirkwood Forest, Bilbo fends off an attack by a giant spider (169 – 170). He finds his Dwarf companions shortly afterward – and discovers that they’ve been captured by the same spiders, and that the spiders plan on eating them. Bilbo then realizes “that the moment had come where he must do something” to save the Dwarves (172).
Veronika Decides to Die: One night, Veronika unwittingly walks into a lecture led by a local Sufi master at the mental institution. She considers leaving before the Sufi master begins a group meditation exercise, but stays after fellow patient Mari convinces her to try it. Veronika does; and during her meditation, she examines the intense emotions she’s experienced during her hospital stay and “saw who she was, liked what she saw, and felt only regret that she had been so hasty” by trying to commit suicide. (103)
Activity #2: Using your answers from Activity #1, develop a midpoint that alerts the protagonist to a necessary change in plans. What unexpected event prompts this “mirror moment”? What immediate conclusions does the protagonist draw about his previous struggles and why his plan wasn’t working? What will he need to do in order to regain control of his story-goal pursuit? What other thoughts or emotions does he experience at this time?
After the Midpoint: The Protagonist’s Response and New Path Forward
Here’s why the midpoint is so important: It marks the protagonist’s shift from a state of reaction to a state of action. His response to the “mirror moment” will therefore be unique compared to his reactions to the inciting incident and the Act I choice. It won’t resolve the main conflict, but it will be the character’s most proactive step in the right direction.
In order to move from “reaction” to “action,” the protagonist often makes a decision that involves him taking (what else?) an action that solves the problem at hand. This action will reinforce the character’s commitment to his story goal and end with a small victory or a temporary defeat. What that action will be depends on the plot, the character, his goal, and the “mirror moment” scenario you’ve created for him.
So, how do Bilbo and Veronika act in response to their “mirror moments”?
- The Hobbit: Bilbo decides to rescue his Dwarf companions. He throws stones at the spiders, sings to get their attention, and attacks them with his sword before cutting the Dwarves loose. Once the company escapes, the Dwarves praise Bilbo for his help and ask for his input on their plans going forward (180) – something they hadn’t done before. Thus, Bilbo’s success with saving the Dwarves changes their opinion about him and gives Bilbo the confidence he’ll need later in the story.
- Veronika Decides to Die: Veronika renews her choice to live more fully, starting with playing the piano “with heart and soul, for as long as she wanted and whenever the mood took her.” (113) After the meditation, she returns to the piano in the institution’s living room and begins playing for Eduard, a schizophrenic patient who rarely speaks. She doesn’t mind that he is her only audience. Rather, she finds her playing worthwhile because Eduard “seemed to understand the music, and that was what mattered.” (113)
Activity #3: Brainstorm the choice prompted by the protagonist’s “mirror moment.” What does the character decide, and why? What action does he immediately take, and what are its results? How does the success of this action inspire the protagonist and renew his story-goal pursuit? Most importantly, how does this action differ from the protagonist’s reactions to the inciting incident and the Act I choice?
What Literary Themes Emerge from the Midpoint?
Have you noticed a pattern yet in this series? Just like with the inciting incident and the Act I choice, the elements that make up the midpoint – goals, actions / reactions, reasons for decisions, the main conflict’s impact on the character – tie in with our working definition of “theme”. Now that you’ve identified those elements, you can look at the themes emerging from this central moment.
So, based on the activities you’ve completed, what high-level concepts arise from the midpoint? How are they illustrated in the “mirror moment” and in the protagonist’s response action? Review the struggles that the protagonist experienced leading up to the midpoint as well. Do any of them occur for the same reason, or end in similar ways? You’ll know you’ve found a likely theme if the idea appears in multiple answers and are intrinsic with the protagonist’s internal journey through the story.
Here are the themes I found in our midpoint examples. Do you have others to add to either list?
- The Hobbit: Courage, home, loyalty, adventure / exploration
- Veronika Decides to Die: Death / mortality, happiness, choices / personal power, mental illness / sanity
Activity #4: Review your answers in Activities #1 through #3, and list any themes you identify during the midpoint. How do the “mirror moment,” the protagonist’s preceding struggles, and his resulting action highlight these themes?
BONUS: If you’ve also completed the brainstorming activities for the inciting incident and the Act I choice, compare your Activity #4 answers to those and see if any themes reappear.
What are some topics you’d like to see featured at Theme: A Story’s Soul? Share your thoughts by commenting below or tweeting me at @SaraL_Writer with the hashtag #DIYMFA.
Sara Letourneau is a fantasy writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks too much tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she is a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers and is hard at work on a YA fantasy novel. She also freelanced as a tea reviewer and music journalist in the past. Her poetry has appeared in The Curry Arts Journal, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and two print anthologies. Visit Sara at her personal blog, Twitter, and Goodreads.