Posted On September 9, 2015 by Print This Post

Why You Should Write Your Novel From The Middle with James Scott Bell

Welcome back to James Scott Bell! James is here to tell us a new way to think about writing our novel – from the middle!

Some time ago I decided to do an in-depth study on what many writing teachers call the “midpoint.” If you do a search about midpoint on the Internet you’ll find all sorts of ideas about what is supposed to happen here. Some people talk about “raising the stakes.” Others talk about this being the point of commitment. Still others say it’s a change in the direction of the story, or the gathering of new information, or the start of time pressure.

Amidst this confusion I took some favorite novels and movies and rooted around in their midsections.

What I found blew me away. Even though the writers may not have been conscious of it, they were creating something in the middle of their stories that pulled together the entire narrative. It was not a scene—it was a moment within the scene.

I call it a “mirror moment.”

At this point in the story, the character figuratively looks at himself. He takes stock of where he is in the conflict and, depending on the type of story, has either of two basic thoughts. In a character-driven story, he looks at himself and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming? If he continues the fight of Act 2, how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome himself? Or how will he have to change in order to battle successfully?

The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. It’s where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him. At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way to go on and not face certain death. That death can be professional, physical, or psychological.

In Casablanca, at the exact midpoint of the film, Ilsa comes to Rick’s saloon after closing. Rick has been getting drunk, remembering with bitterness what happened with him and Ilsa in Paris. Ilsa comes to him to try to explain why she left him in Paris, that she found out her husband Viktor Lazlo was still alive. She pleads with him to understand. But Rick is so bitter he basically calls her a whore. She weeps and leaves. And Rick, full of self disgust, puts his head in his hands. He is thinking, “What have I become?”

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The rest of the film will determine whether he stays a selfish drunk, or regains his humanity. That, in fact, is what Casablanca is truly about, in both narrative and theme.

In The Fugitive, an action film, at the very center point of the movie Dr. Kimble is awakened in the basement room he’s renting, by cops swarming all over the place. He thinks they are after him, but it turns out they are actually after the son of the landlord. But the damage is done. Kimble breaks down. He is looking at the odds, thinking there’s no way he can win this fight. There are too many resources arrayed against him.

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Then I went looking for the midpoint of Gone With The Wind, the novel. I opened to the middle of the book and started hunting. And there it was. At the end of Chapter 15, Scarlett looks inside herself, realizing that no one else but she can save Tara.

The trampled acres of Tara were all that was left to her, now that Mother and Ashley were gone, now that Gerald was senile from shock . . . security and position had vanished overnight. As from another world she remembered a conversation with her father about the land and wondered how she could have been so young, so ignorant, as not to understand what he meant when he said that the land was the one thing in the world worth fighting for.

Scarlett wonders what kind of person she has to become in order to save Tara. And the decision is made in the last paragraph:

 

Yes, Tara was worth fighting for, and she accepted simply and without question the fight. No one was going to get Tara away from her. No one was going to send her and her people adrift on the charity of relatives. She would hold Tara, if she had to break the back of every person on it.

 

And that is the essence of GWTW. It’s the story of a young Southern belle who is forced (via a doorway of no return called The Civil War) to save her family home.

 

Middle cover w-borderI opened to the middle of The Hunger Games, and found the “I’m going to die” type moment right there where it should be:

 

I know the end is coming. My legs are shaking and my heart is too quick . . . . My fingers stroke the smooth ground, sliding easily across the top. This is an okay place to die, I think.

 

Just for fun, I tried this out on a Lee Child book. Jack Reacher is not what you would call an introspective type, but look at page 169 of Bad Luck and Trouble:

 

“So like I said, what are you running from?”
(Reacher) “From being like people, I guess.” …
“From what? Being like me?”
“From being different than we used to be.”
“We’re all different than we used to be.”
“We don’t all have to like it.”
“I don’t like it,” O’Donnell said. “But I deal with it.”
Reacher nodded. “You’re doing great, Dave. I mean it. It’s me that I worry about. I’ve been looking at you and Neagley and Karla and feeling like a loser.”
“Really?”
“Look at me.”

Great storytellers who are instinctive about their work hit on this point by instinct. What I want to do is “pop the hood” so all writers can see this moment and use it to their advantage.

Since I incorporated “look in the mirror moment” into my workshops, students have reported it has been invaluable in deepening their stories and taking them a whole other level. The nice thing is you can explore this moment at any time in your writing process. If you like to outline, it can tell you what your story is really about, so all your outlined scenes are organic and unified.

If you’re a pantser, you can pause in your pantsing anytime you choose and get illumination on your whole project just by brainstorming the mirror moment.

I personally use this at the very beginning of my planning. When I have a main character and a basic concept, I go to the mirror moment and play around until something clicks. And it always does.

Then the lights go on.

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Got questions? Fire away!

Join us on Friday for Vanessa Knight!

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James Scott Bell Writing the Knock Out EndingBio: James Scott Bell is an award-winning thriller author and bestselling writing coach. He served as fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest and has taught workshops around the world. Visit his website www.jamesscottbell.com. This post is based on his #1 Amazon bestselling writing book, Write Your Novel From the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.
His website is www.JamesScottBell.com.
You can follow him at Twitter.com/jamesscottbell and on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/pages/James-Scott-Bell/108765742543789

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9 Responses to “Why You Should Write Your Novel From The Middle with James Scott Bell”

  1. I’ve been a fan of your books on the craft of writing for years (especially the one on self-editing – BRILLIANT!) and recommend them to all my writer friends. The idea of ‘writing from the middle’ is another inspired notion – and one I’ve been working into my novels since I first read about it last year. I smile now whenever I find it in the books I read (and notice the ‘lack’ of such moments in books I don’t enjoy very much). Great advice, as always. Thanks for sharing it on RU.

    Posted by Margo Karolyi | September 9, 2015, 10:11 am
  2. Oh, this book! 84 pages of romping, stomping dynamite!

    The idea of writing from the middle changed the way I look at my work. Just this morning I came to the middle of my first draft of a manuscript and wrote the “mirror moment” scene. Great fun!

    Thanks so much for your terrific books!

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 9, 2015, 10:49 am
  3. We received this via email this morning from Jane Inglis..

    Very interesting! I taught my students that the middle of a story was the climax (using the graphic “story mountain”) –where the story could go either way. I do think we have this.
    Now if I could just get my brain to work…

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 9, 2015, 1:56 pm
  4. I hadn’t thought of it quite like that but now that I think about my own novels, yes, there is that place in the middle that defines the quest.

    Posted by Wendy Dewar Hughes | September 9, 2015, 4:34 pm
  5. Evening James!

    I love your books as well, and of course this one is in my shopping cart at amazon. =) they are all fascinating reading!

    I’ll definitely be digging back into my just finished SEP novel to see what happens mid point. =)

    Thanks so much for posting with us!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Spencer | September 9, 2015, 10:37 pm
  6. Hi James,

    I’m somewhere in between a pantster and a plotter, but I have to establish a mirror moment before I start writing the story. Without it, I waste a lot of time and words.

    Thanks for a terrific post.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | September 10, 2015, 12:22 am
  7. James – This is fascinating! I can easily spend a day or two searching for these mid-point mirror moments in my favorite books. I’m going to do the same thing with my own waiting-to-be-revised stories to see which stories nailed it and which didn’t. (Hopefully at least one got it right, but I’m not betting money on it.)

    This is a really helpful concept – thank you!!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 10, 2015, 12:38 am
  8. I am a short story writer from Malawi and very much fascinated by this idea of writing from the middle. It’s new to me, but I feel it enhances focus of what a writer would like his/her story to come out like. The climax is very significant to the flow and interpretation of the whole epsode. Therefore, it needs to be given first and good treatment since it carries the story itself. I have liked and adopted the idea! Good luck.

    Posted by Benson Masambah | September 13, 2015, 6:39 am

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