You did it.
Your concept is intriguing.
Your opening is strong.
You’ve hooked readers.
You’ve convinced them that your story is worth their money or their time (or both).
But now you’ve got to follow through.
You’ve got to deliver.
This is where things get tricky.
During the beginning (or Act One), of your screenplay or novel, you just had to set up the pieces. Line them up like dominoes, so that your hook (and your plot) would make sense to readers.
But now you’re moving on to the middle (or Act Two), where you have to develop your idea.
You must show your protagonist trying (and failing) to achieve his goal—repeatedly—until the end (or Act Three), where he finally achieves his goal or solves his problem.
Note: A protagonist’s failed attempts to achieve his goal or solve his problem are sometimes referred to as try-fail cycles.
Most writers have solid ideas for the try-fail cycles that occur during the first half of Act Two (a.k.a. Act 2A). But they run out of steam shortly thereafter. Either:
- They have no ideas at all.
- The try-fail cycles they come up with are exactly the same as the ones they’ve already related to readers.
- The try-fail cycles aren’t exactly the same, but nevertheless, feel the same in quality (i.e. they don’t escalate).
In short, it’s easy to come up with try-fail cycles for Act 2A.
It’s much more difficult to come up with try-fail cycles to fill up the second half of Act Two (a.k.a. Act 2B), which is why it has a notorious reputation for sagging.
Is there a way to stop the middle of a novel or screenplay from sagging?
Harness the power of the midpoint.
Halfway through your screenplay or novel, use the midpoint as a fulcrum to swing the middle of your story in a new direction. Due to this shift, your protagonist’s post-midpoint endeavors will feel different in some key way.
The sensation of monotony fades away.
There are many different fulcrums that can achieve the effect you want. In this story structure article, I’m going to share with you one of my favorites—something I like to call the manifest midpoint.
I’m a big fan of it because it enables you to preserve the momentum and escalation of your story—all while shaking things up at the middle.
So, what’s the manifest midpoint?
Traditionally, at the end of Act One, your hook goes into play, and your protagonist goes after his goal. (And as already mentioned, during Act One, the pieces necessary to set up both are put in place.)
With the manifest midpoint, protagonist still goes after his goal at the end of Act One. But here’s the trick: you delay the full manifestation of your hook until the midpoint.
During Act 2A, audiences experience the “shadow” version of your concept. It’s only after the midpoint, during Act 2B, when the shadow transforms into “substance,” and your hook manifests itself in full.
Here’s another way to think about it: if, post–manifest midpoint, a story had to have a motto, “this is not a drill” would be at the top of the list.
Universal’s 1999 remake of The Mummy is a good example. The central protagonists of the story are searching for the lost treasure of Hamunaptra. But the treasure isn’t the hook.
The hook is the mummy.
Audiences went to see this film at the theater in order to watch the protagonists grapple with the mummy, not to see the protagonists uncover the treasure.
If you came up with a concept like this, you’d probably awaken the mummy at the end of Act One. That would be my first inclination, too.
But that’s not what happens in the film.
Sure, the mummy’s there at the film’s beginning—but in human form, not in his mummified state. He’s only awakened at the midpoint, which is surprising, especially considering the film’s title…as well as its posters and trailers. Such marketing materials routinely showcase story hooks because they attract audiences, luring them in.
If the mummy is the hook, then why delay his awakening? Why delay giving audiences what they came to see?
By taking this tack, you can escalate your story very easily, primarily because you only have to develop the full manifestation of your concept—in this case, man vs. mummy—over two sectors of your story (Act 2B and Act Three), as opposed to three (Act 2A, Act 2B, and Act Three).
For instance, if you were writing The Mummy, you’d be tasked with creating increasingly more inventive ways for the mummy to wreak havoc for 60 pages.
That may seem like a long stretch until you compare it to the manifest-free alternative—where you’d have to come up with 90 pages worth instead.
60 pages vs. 90.
I know which one I like better.
With the former, you’re less likely to run out of ideas.
You’re less likely to repeat yourself because you can get away with fewer try-fail cycles that specifically pertain to stopping the mummy.
Oh yeah, the manifest midpoint is a great little trick to use.
But there’s a catch.
Without the manifest midpoint, you have to make sure Act 2A is strong enough to get readers to stick around for everything that follows.
With it, your Act 2A has to be even stronger.
It has to compensate for the fact that you’re delaying the hook, the very thing that compelled readers to pick up your story in the first place.
If it doesn’t compensate, then audiences will feel like your novel or screenplay is taking too long to make good on its promises. Naturally, a negative reaction like that will kill your story’s chances of success.
In The Mummy, audiences are given plenty of excitement before the mummy is awakened at the midpoint. This excitement is primarily generated through multiple, varied, and humorous sources of conflict.
At any given moment during Act One or Act 2A, O’Connell is at odds with Evelyn, Beni, the Magi, or the rival treasure hunters.
Plus, hints that a mummy awakening is just around the corner are woven throughout the first half of the story:
- After O’Connell’s first skirmish with the Magi, the mummy’s face is seen in the sand, growling menacingly.
- O’Connell and Evelyn almost open a sarcophagus that could potentially contain the mummy—but then they get distracted.
- When they do open the sarcophagus, a gooey skeleton pops out…but it’s not the mummy.
- After Evelyn reads a spell from the Book of the Dead, a swarm of locusts emerges—presaging the awakening of the mummy.
- One of the rival treasure hunters is terrified of something, but audiences don’t see what it is…
Such hints generate anticipation for the mummy’s eventual appearance (which occurs 64 minutes into the movie). This is how, during Act 2A, the film sates audiences’ desire to see the mummy without actually showing the mummy himself.
Clever, effective—but make no mistake—risky too.
If not implemented well, the manifest midpoint can backfire, alienating your readers.
But with risk comes reward.
If you implement it successfully, your story could escalate better than most.
The middle of your story will not sag.
And, if you’re really lucky, the manifest midpoint might even help you launch a blockbuster franchise, just like it did for Universal…
Writing the middle of your novel or screenplay doesn’t have to be a nightmare
In this article, we covered the basics of the manifest midpoint. Take your knowledge further with my writing guide, Midpoint Magic.
You’ll learn the 5 concepts that lend themselves to the manifest midpoint…as well as 7 more ways to swing the middle of your novel or screenplay in a new direction.
Plus, you’ll discover:
- the linchpin of virtually any romance (or buddy-cop story)
- the plot device you absolutely need to know about if your characters are on the run
- the plotting trick adored by Jane Austen (which perhaps explains why her novels are still popular today)
- a foolproof system to help you map out the middle of your screenplay or novel
- 2 questions that can tell you whether your story is a slow starter
- why you SHOULDN’T keep your big plot twist up your sleeve for as long as possible
- 8 practical considerations that you should ponder to extract the most “anti-sag” capability from your midpoint
- 5 common pitfalls (and easy ways to sidestep them)
- the midpoint-boosting plot point that can take your story to the next level (hint: it makes sure you take care of your plot without sacrificing theme)
Download this writing guide today…and zap sagging middles like a pro!
Hooked by GollyGforce