Post 1 in this series on story structures summarized the 3-act structure introduced by Aristotle. Post 2 described a modification that divided Act 2 – the middle – into two parts.
Another key aspect I discussed in Post 2 was the midpoint. As you will see in future posts, the midpoint of the story is a key component of several story structure models. In this post I’ll share some take-aways from Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell.
Until the late nineteenth century we have scant evidence of authors creating a plot map or outline of their works. If Herman Melville (Mobydick), Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice) or Arthur Conan Doyle (Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) planned their stories on paper, the evidence no longer exists. Yet, their stories fit structural patterns. Charles Dickens started writing “mems” – short for memoranda – for his novel Dombey and Son and for subsequent novels.
I believe that this is because previous generations did not have electronic media like we do, so they had to rely more on traditional storytelling for entertainment. Growing up in an environment where many stories are told provides an advantage in natural storytelling abilities.
In his book, Bell provided the best explanation I’ve seen of why structure is needed.
Structure is translation software for your imagination. You, the writer, have a story you want to tell. You feel it, see it, populate it with characters. You start to put it on paper, or onscreen. This is your material, and you have to “translate” it into a form that readers can relate to.
Life and Death Stakes
A great novel is the record of how a character fights with death. There are three kinds of death: physical, professional, psychological. One or more of these must be present in your novel if it’s going to work at the optimum level.
Doorways of No Return (Two Pillars)
- The feeling that your lead character, once she passes through, cannot go home again until the major problem of the plot is solved.
- The lead passes through this door which makes possible or inevitable the final battle and resolution.
The Magical MidPoint Moment
Where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him. What will he do to overcome his inner challenges?
The Golden Triangle
The key event in a story is the midpoint. Bell described this as “a moment in the middle … that pulls together the entire narrative.”
The three corners of the golden triangle are …
- Top – midpoint
- Left – pre-story psychology
- Right – transformation
Once you determine the midpoint, you can work backwards to the beginning of the story or forward to the end, where transformation occurs. The two pillars simply function as gateways to move towards the middle and then to the transformation. The transformation is sense of awareness or realization that the lead can solve the challenges at hand.
For the story of Peter Rabbit, I selected these plot points:
- Midpoint – “Peter gave himself up for lost, and shed big tears.
- Beginning – Peter Rabbit was a naughty rabbit who did not appreciate home.
- Transformation – “Beyond [Peter] was the gate!” The rest of the story is about Peter’s largely uneventful journey home.
Having made the case for starting with the midpoint, Bell concluded his book with a few chapters on general writing tips, including his own story structure model.
- Become an idea factory – brainstorming new ideas and evaluating them using the Golden Triangle.
- Daily writing on steroids – The author’s technique to maximum writing productivity every day.
- The key to voice – Finding the joy of writing.
- Showing and telling – How to write like watching scenes in a movie.
- Secrets of a page turner – Based on Bell’s insights from the book “Big Red’s Daughter.”