Midpoint reversal: a mushy-middle solution
By Michelle Barker
Anyone who attempts to write a novel will have encountered the perils of the mushy middle. There are many ways to counter it, but one of the most effective is the midpoint reversal.
The mush part of the mushy middle usually means the story is dragging for some reason. It starts to feel long—so long that even you, its author, might be getting bored.
What you’re aiming for throughout a novel is drama, and the most effective way to achieve drama is through conflict. The midpoint reversal is a way to rev up the drama and conflict by providing a surprise turnaround that shakes up the story.
Something big happens. Or perhaps your protagonist has an important epiphany. There is a change of direction, a change of heart. It’s a turning point. Often it’s the moment when your protagonist realizes that their goal is going to be harder to achieve than they had first realized. They’ve learned something new and disheartening. The stakes go up. The chances of success go down.
To take an example nearly everyone will be familiar with, think of the first Harry Potter novel. I would argue that the midpoint reversal comes when Harry nearly dies in a Quidditch match and Hermione sees Snape casting some kind of spell. Suddenly the stakes have become personal. This isn’t just about a three-headed dog guarding something mysterious; Harry realizes he is the target. His life is in danger.
Chuck Wendig sees the midpoint of a novel as a knife stuck into a dinner table. I like this analogy because of its dramatic power. It expresses the full impact that the midpoint reversal needs to have. It needs to hit hard.
He also sees the midpoint reversal as a catapult. It is the moment, the event, the realization, that launches the characters into the second half of the book. Again, looking at the first Harry Potter novel, Harry, Hermione, and Ron now focus their suspicions on Snape. This is not just a matter of being curious about the philosopher’s stone. If they don’t get some answers, Harry might not live through the school year.
I like to think of a midpoint reversal happening on two levels: external and internal. Externally perhaps an event happens that makes the protagonist’s problem far worse. Internally, it’s the moment when the protagonist understands what they’re going to have to do in order to solve it. Who they’re going to have to become. It’s a look-in-the-mirror moment, a this-is-going-to-cost-you moment. Is your protagonist willing to do what it takes? It forces a change in tactics, and it might mark a shift in agency from reacting to acting.
A successful midpoint reversal will take the mush out of the middle of your novel and keep your readers up late wanting to find out what happens next.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.