Understanding Story Structure via Midpoints

This idea seems really simple, right?

The midpoint is, of course, the middle of a story.

What’s hard about understanding that, yeah?

Well, for me, it used to be incredibly hard—because it left me with the problem as to what a middle actually does for a story. What’s the point of a middle? Quick, tell me the answer, in one sentence, go, go, gogogogo—but you can’t, right? And if you can, it doesn’t feel like enough, does it?

We all know what a beginning and an ending both do. They start and conclude. Build and tear down. It’s the framework of a barn. The outline of a geometric figure. Two points that naturally connect. It’s payoff. It’s cost and outcome. It’s cause and effect. The midpoint doesn’t do any of that. In fact, the midpoint can sometimes feel as if it stands in the way of the barn framework and geometrical outline—and that’s where a lot of writers go wrong, I think, in that they view the midpoint as an obstacle. They want to get from point A-B rather than A-B-C.

And I think that’s a very natural thing, actually. And I think it relates to how we learn about stories as children, in part. As children, we’re told stories because they have universal, basic lessons that help us grow as human beings. They have morals. Ideas. Values. This is all very intangible stuff—and intangible stuff is clearest if you think of it as A=B, not A=B=C. Beginning and end. Payoff. No middle in sight.

In my opinion, two factors contribute to the “sagging middle syndrome”:

  1. A lot of writers (myself included) naturally understand stories via A=B payoff.
  2. A lot of writers (myself included) are inherently afraid of telling too much to the reader.

I already talked about the A=B payoff, so let me talk about the second factor.

A lot of writers make the mistake of keeping their cards too close to their chest, afraid that the mystery of their book will disappear if they don’t—but that only means they end up leaving the reader too confused, with too much mystery, and that leaves the reader frustrated.

Think of it like a carrot on a stick that you’re dangling in front of the reader, yeah?

You have to show that carrot, enough of that carrot, for the reader to keep running for it.

For me, what I tend to initially think of as the ending of my story… is actually my midpoint. This is because I’m inherently afraid of telling too much to the reader. I’m afraid of showing them too much of my carrot. And this is a mistake. It drags the pacing down. It undermines the full potential of my story. I always have to let go of that fear when I start a book. Always.

It amounts to this: “Don’t save the cool stuff for later, but trust that even cooler stuff will come if you don’t.”

A lot of agents will also tell you that this is a mistake writers make when they write trilogies. They save too much of the cool stuff for the later books. When the agents reject their books, the writers say that the really cool stuff happens on page fifty, so please keep on reading. These “laters” are red flags. If you save all the cool stuff for later, then what about now? We’ll never get to the cool stuff later because we’ll never get past the uncool stuff right now, you know?

I don’t claim to be an expert in story structure, but I will claim that story structure has been my greatest weakness, which has led me to study it in far greater depth than I’ve studied anything else insofar as storytelling goes.

And this is why I’ll confidently say that I never understood how story structure worked until I understood that the midpoint is what makes or breaks your book.

More specifically, it makes or breaks the pacing of your book.

And, honestly, pacing can make or break your book in turn.

Or, at least, the first draft of your book.

Focusing on the midpoint in a first draft will give you solid pacing from the get-go, meaning less developmental edits for your later drafts, and it will also allow for more freedom insofar as acts go.

If you have a solid midpoint, then it doesn’t really matter if you have a three-act structure, or a four-act structure, or a seventeen-act structure, you know? You have a middle. You have a focal point that can stretch in two directions, left and right, up and down, and then you can stretch it however much you want in both directions, yeah?

You can think of it like drawing a circle with your compass; the tip of the compass is your middle and the circle you draw is your story. Or the potential for your story, I should say, because starting with the middle as your focal point demands that you scrabble through a lot of potential beginnings and ends before you find the ones that fit together—but once you do, your structure will inherently be well-paced.

This is less of a linear way of thinking about structure.

If this “freehand compass method” clicks with your brain like it does with mine, then it assures that the middle of your book won’t sag, and I fully, absolutely, 200% recommend that you try thinking of structure like this.

And, because I’m a proud nerd, please have a very simple, conceptual visualization of what I mean by this method:

ESL Writers – How Our 1st Language Affects Our 2nd

This article starts with a re-tweet that I came across the other day.

This one, below here:

This tweet hit home for me.

I saw myself reflected in it.

It spurred me to consider whether there might be a link between my own underwriter nature in English and the fact that my mother tongue is Danish (ergo Germanic). Maybe my English writing is concise and abrupt because Danish as a language is more concise than English? Because it has a smaller vocabulary than English, and thus it’s hard to make it flowery/lengthy?

I know my conciseness in my English stories often is my weakness in that I say too little and leave reader confused, even though I personally think I say enough and that the rest can be inferred (spoiler: it often can’t, shucks). This past year, I’ve worked a lot on my prose, trying to explicitly be more lengthy. Both to improve my craft—to expand what I can do with my craft—but also because I want to get better at hitting the proper (read: market-friendly) word count in my first drafts.

All this rumination about myself made me want to see whether my ESL friends felt the same. Whether my friends, for whom English is a second language, can see threads of their own native language weaved into their English storytelling, and how these threads show themselves.

So, of course, I went and asked them on twitter.

I had an Italian and Spanish friend both say they’re overwriters in English, which would fit the theory that native romance languages foster descriptions and complex sentence structures for ESL writers.

I also had a Brazilian friend who said the same, namely that they’re an overwriter in English as a second language and that Portuguese as a native language has lush prose.

Then I had a Hungarian friend who also saw themselves reflected in this theory, saying that Hungarian can be quite rambling, and that this fits their own tendency to overwrite in English. 

Lastly, I had a Dutch friend who finds themselves an underwriter in English, fitting the idea that Germanic languages are very matter-of-fact compared to English. Just like Danish.

I think we can infer a lot from all of this, and I suppose this is where my fondness for cultural studies makes me go full nerd—because I think we’re looking at something that goes beyond language here.

First off, I think it’s fascinating that there is this difference between storytelling and writing when it comes to your second language, even if you’re perfectly fluent in that language. There’s something to be said for your formative years, here. I’ve read more English than Danish in my life at this point, yet it’s obvious that my rudimentary understanding of “How To Tell A Story” remains rooted in Danish, not English. This also shows that storytelling is more than written text. Even more than oral storytelling. We’re going beyond stories, grasping for culture itself as a concept.

This makes sense, doesn’t it?

Language is inevitably linked to culture, after all.

It reminds me of another tweet I saw recently, namely that the stories-within-stories concept is told best by non-western ESL writers. Based on my current knowledge of this, I agree. EMPRESS OF SALT AND FORTUNE, by the Viet-American Nghi Vo, comes to mind. The plot of that novella focuses on a cleric who listens to stories about the recently deceased empress. The cleric isn’t the actual story; the story that the cleric is being told is the actual story. CHRONICLES OF THE BITCH QUEEN also comes to mind, by the Filipino-Canadian K. S. Villoso, in which the narrative oscillates between past and present with the main character chronicling their own story to us, the readers.

The tweeter argued that non-western ESL writers are good at this type of narrative because their culture looks at storytelling differently in that they generally revere and preserve the past more, while being less focused on the future such as western culture traditionally is. I can see this being true, and I can see this making non-western ESL writers into masters of the story-within-story narrative.

To sum up, I find it so fascinating how writing and storytelling aren’t only two separate crafts, but also that you can essentially write in your second language, yet at the same time be storytelling in your native one.

I mean, not to toot my own horn and the horns of my ESL friends, but that’s massively cool, isn’t it?

Can you have fantasy without magic?

In my 20 years of reading and writing fantasy, I’ve never thought much about the part that magic plays in fantasy—until recent years. It started with one book for me. A book that, paradoxically, isn’t new in the slightest, but was written in 1926.

That book is LUD-IN-THE-MIST, by Hope Mirrlees.

I picked it up in a bookstore at random. Or, I say at random, but I really picked it up because the cover was pretty and it had a Neil Gaiman blurb calling it “the single most beautiful and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century.”

Like, how do you resist that?

Anyway, I read the book, loved it—and somehow, for some reason, realized that the magic within the book is solely contained to the land. The dirt. The soil. Meanwhile, the characters are all regular people, affected by this magical land, but they never contain any magic themselves. Neither are there any magical creatures (that are shown, not purely told).

Reading that book had a monumental impact on my own worldbuilding.

It affected every book that I wrote after it, honestly, with me moving all magic from my characters into the soil upon which they walk. Before this, worldbuilding was my weakness. But now? Once I realized I didn’t have to make magical people, but I could have magical soil instead? It changed everything for me. Magical people had always felt overdone to me, meaning I struggled finding a fresh spin on it that could keep me invested enough to write a whole book. But a magical land? Now, that was something different. For me, obviously. I can only speak for me.

This, in turn, made me think about the “classifications” or “locales” of magic in the fantasy genre.

As I see it, we can roughly bulk the magical presence into three categories:

  1. Magical people
  2. Magical creatures
  3. Magical land

I view these categories as a powerplay between outlets of magic (not to be confused with the fantastical/otherworldly, which can also exist in sci-fi etc.), and I’ll try to explain it below.

The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart

To give examples, recent fantasies that includes magical people as its primary outlet (aka, people controlling magic that is either their own or magic that is the land) could be DOWN COMES THE NIGHT by Saft, LAKESEDGE by Clipstone, JASMINE THRONE by Suri, WITHIN THESE WICKED WALLS by Blackwood, the ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES by Harrow, WITCHMARK by C.L. Polk, THE UNBROKEN by Clark, and THE BONE-SHARD DAUGHTER by Stewart.

This seemingly remains the most popular way of including magic. The important point here is that while the land and the creatures might also be magical in this narrative, they are often somehow controlled by the magical people around them. Tamed, you might say. And that’s different from my other two categories of magic that lists creatures and land as having independent magic that people cannot contain and control.

The Wolf of Oren-Yaro by K.S. Villoso

Then there’s the magical creatures. Sentient, independent magical beings. Recent fantasies that feature magical creatures as a primary outlet could be BLACK SUN by Roanhorse and WOLF OF OREN-YARO/THE IKESSAR FALCON/DRAGON OF JIN-SAYENG by Villoso. I’d also include Chakraborty’s DAEVABAD trilogy here as well, and maybe even Moreno-Garcia’s GODS OF JADE AND SHADOW. And Stiefwater’s THE SCORPIO RACES, of course.

You could also bring in Martin’s A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE here, although that’s not a recent release. Likewise, you could bring in Novik’s TEMERAIRE series, but it’s also not recent. It does seem to me that magical creatures aren’t as favored in traditional publishing as they used to be.

Drowned Country (The Greenhollow Duology, #2) by Emily Tesh

Then there’s the magical land. As with LUD-IN-THE MIST, the book that founded the entire basis for this article and my general view on magic in fantasy. Now, when there’s a magical land, there’s also often magical people. Novik’s UPROOTED comes to mind. And Solomon’s SORROWLAND. And Meyer’s INTO THE HEARTLESS WOOD. But there are also books where the magical land is the primary outlet. Tesh’s SILVER IN THE WOOD/DROWNED COUNTRY both fit that mark. As does THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING by Henderson, Sutherland’s HOUSE OF HOLLOW, Huang’s BURNING ROSES, and Ernshaw’s WINTERWOOD. You might say that in these books the magic of the land controls the magic of the people. And the land is often somehow hostile (in recent times). The antagonist to the protagonist. The reverse of the first category were the people controlled the magic of the land.

She Who Became the Sun by Shelley Parker-Chan

Then there are fantasies with very little magic in them, whether it be people or creatures or land.  SHE WHO BECAME THE SUN by Chan fits that mark for me. For books like SWBTS, it’s the secondary world that makes it fantasy while the magic is mostly absent. For other books, where magic is entirely absent, we’re talking non-magical fantasy which is a subgenre of its own.

A lot of this also depends on the POV of a book. 1st person POV lends itself well to (the inner struggles/goals of) magical people, I daresay, whereas 3rd person POV might lend itself better to magical creatures or magical land.

And then there’s also the age categories to keep in mind. Perhaps MG lends itself better to magical people because that’s what a younger audience needs most? A smaller-scale focus on family, friendship, etc.? And perhaps Adult fits magical land better because politics and military can play a bigger part (as in the case of SWBTS)?

And this is what I want to end with, I think.

The fact that, yes, we absolutely can have fantasy without magic, and these books often take the shape in secondary worlds that are fantastical rather than magical—but it’s perhaps more pertinent to look at the shape of the magic presented rather than the absence/presence of it.

Because, really, isn’t that what fantasy is about? Our attempt to define what magic can/can’t be? Our attempt to define the fantastical? With the caveat that the fantastical doesn’t have to be magical, but then this bodes the question, when is something fantasy (as a genre) and when is it science-fiction, for example? And when is it science fantasy? Or simply speculative?

Again, in my view, it’s all about the powerplay of the magical/fantastical.

And, more importantly, it’s also a matter of individual versus collective definitions of “magic” as a concept, which also necessitates that we consider reader expectation on top of that, meaning we’ll have to look into majority versus minority definitions of “magic” as a concept, and then also see where those definitions percolateit’s a lot, amirite?

I asked if you can have fantasy without magic, and yes, you absolutely can, but I also think it hinges a lot on personal/reader/industry definition and expectation of “magic” as a concept.

And that, folks, will be my ending note.

Thanks for listening!