Write Your Novel From the Middle - A New Way to Approach Story

Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between by James Scott Bell

This book is a lesson in not judging a book's worth by its page count (93, if you're interested). In fact, it could have been shorter because the stuff I'm excited about (aka the stuff I haven't seen elsewhere) is all in the first 60% of the book.

I think it helps if you're already somewhat familiar with story structure before you read this because story structure is like a lesson on anatomy, but Bell's idea is like microsurgery on the spine. Writing from the middle builds on the midpoint.(If you're not familiar with story structure, read Save the Cat! poste haste.) Once you understand the importance of the midpoint turning point, come back and read this book.

So we're all on the same page now, right?

Bell has a way of looking at the midpoint I've never seen before. What's so revolutionary for me is that he says the midpoint isn't a scene at all. It's a moment. The midpoint moment. What Bell calls the "look in the mirror" moment. This is the moment that tells you what the story is really about.

This is what he says about this moment:

...the character 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 II, how will he be different? ... 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."

This death aspect is an important part of midpoint moment, but it doesn't have to be physical 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 optimal level.

And bless him, he uses romance to illustrate this point:

Psychological death is the key to all romances, isn't it? If the two lovers don't get together, they will each miss out on their "soul mate." Their lives will be incurably damaged.

So this is all well and good, but how does it help with the story? Bell says that knowing your mirror moment helps you build the psychology for the first half of the story. Knowing the mirror moment also helps you identify what changes (or in the case of tragic stories, what doesn't change) at the end of the story.

One of the examples he uses to illustrate this point is the movie Lethal Weapon. Riggs' pre-mirror moment psychology is that of a suicidal loner, a point illustrated in the scene where Murtagh realizes his new partner isn't bucking for a psycho pension. He really is psycho. Riggs even shows him the hollow point bullet he's planning to use to blow his brains out.

The scene that proves a real change has occurred  in the character, which of course has to be an actual scene, is at the end of the movie when Riggs shows up on Christmas eve with the bow tied around the bullet. He's changed. He no longer needs the bullet.

So what's the mirror moment that defines these before and after pictures? It occurs in the middle of the movie (naturally) the first time Riggs comes to dinner at Murtagh's house. This is a pivotal scene where Riggs is welcomed by the family and he sees there's another way to live. The mirror moment? Just before he leaves, he tells Murtagh about a shot he made as a sniper in Viet Nam, observing that killing was the only thing he was ever good at. It's a quiet moment. Maybe the only one in this action packed movie, but it illustrates Bell's point. The character is looking at himself and saying this is who I've been. The unspoken question is: who will he become?

When you know that question, you know what your story is really about.

It's a simple concept, but like many simple things, it's not necessarily easy to put into practice. Bell provides a number of other examples as well as tips to help you get to the meat of the mirror moment that are specific to pantsers as well as plotters, so I've only scratched the surface. I still can't believe he did it in so few pages.

This is going to revolutionize the way I approach a new story.

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