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In my exploration of story structure, I have encountered some conflicting advice.

In some instances, it has been suggested that the midpoint of a story represents the moment that the protagonist shifts from being a reactive character, simply reacting to whatever the story throws at them, to being a proactive one, choosing their own course from here on out.

However, I have also seen it suggested that the midpoint is simply the event that precipitates choice, a choice that the protagonist doesn't actually embrace until they've faced the crisis that follows, their 'darkest hour'.

In the story that I'm working on, I have been treating the midpoint as more the later, where a catastrophe strikes and the protagonist is left in a dire place that seems insurmountable. The second half of act 2 being the tale of how he faces his situation and decides he isn't going to take it lying down.

Does this approach make sense? Or should the protagonist really be making his decision at the midpoint as some suggest?

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    There's no right or wrong here because we know nothing about what kind of character this is. Does he go out and create trouble? He's active. Does he stay at home and trouble finds him despite doing nothing to deserve it? He's passive…. Generally readers prefer an active character – doesn't mean they are making the right decisions, but they are actively making the story happen rather than the story happening to them. – wetcircuit Jul 15 at 21:23
  • I guess perhaps it could be better worded as a change from reactive to proactive? From what I've read, usually a character spends the first part of the narrative being carried along by events, and then once they make a choice to do so, they change to being a proactive actor in their own destiny. Perhaps this is an oversimplification? @wetcircuit – Arkenstein XII Jul 15 at 21:26
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    Reasonably sure the writing formula is suggesting "a decision" to meet the conflict head-on… Before that they maybe resisting direct confrontation, or there may be other reasons they can't enter the "fight". Formulas are a like guides. It should help you, not confuse you. If it's unclear, it might not be enough formula, or maybe work on the character's motives and arc, it will maybe suggest opportunity why he makes this change. (He is active if he decides to change, if change happens to him, he's passive). Might be this word choice of "active passive"? but really it is up to you. – wetcircuit Jul 15 at 21:32
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    @wetcircuit I certainly know how I feel I want it to go. The second half of act two centres around the protagonist realising that he has had a hero within the whole time and chooses to live up to it. I guess I may be allowing formula to convince me I might be 'doing it wrong'. – Arkenstein XII Jul 15 at 21:40
  • @wetcircuit He could also actively do all he can to avoid trouble only for it to find him anyway. Rincewind for example, he's very active, when it comes to fleeing for his life. – Ash Jul 16 at 12:41
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Formulaic writing is a crutch.

I can't tell you what works better, because that depends on the story you're trying to tell. But make no mistake, I don't follow those formulas to tell my stories.

So let's look at this from two perspectives, and hopefully that will show what I mean.

Let's take an Indiana Jones approach. Your protagonist is an archaeologist, a dungeon delver of a sorts. They can't be proactive all the time, because they NEED to react to the traps. But, they can be proactive in the sense that they try to predict the traps and come up with ways in advance, or on the fly, to get around the traps.

It depends on the story you're trying to tell. Do you want a cerebral rogue who shows off their intellect by doing research and using that research to be as prepared as possible? The your character is, by definition, proactive. Do you want them to grow into the cerebral rogue? Let them do research and make mistakes, but take notes to actively learn from said mistakes. Again, proactive.

But if you have a character that is so smug about their skill, about their research, that they 'just can't be wrong', then they'll be reactive when they inevitably trigger every trap in there, and have a lot of shenanigans to stay alive or get the sweet, sweet treasure they're going through all this trouble for.

All three stories could be interesting to tell. One is not necessarily superior to the other. It depends on the story you're telling.


But. What (I believe) you're really talking about is character agency. That is to say, is the plot happening to the character, or is the character deciding the plot--so to speak.

And this can be changed, tweaked, after the fact so that they are far better agents in the world, as opposed to pawns being jerked around for the sake of plot.

For example. If your plot demands the protag to be in Egypt, when they live in England? Give them a logical reason to want to go to Egypt. The character therefore chooses the plot, not the plot choosing the character. Maybe they find a clue in a dusty old tome. Maybe they overhear a colleague talking about some legend and it sets them on a path of discovery. They choose the plot.

Another way, and perhaps an interesting way, is to have them start off being 'led'. So they're an intern helping at an archaeological site in Egypt. They don't know much other than the general knowledge, and they're learning from their mentor about things as they go. Maybe the hieroglyphs hint there's a deeper secret than they were led to believe. Maybe their mentor points out clues to teach them to look past the sand-covered stones to find the living history splayed out before them.

Then you get your point of no return (inciting incident, or what have you). Maybe the mentor is killed (poor mentors tend to get deep-sixed a lot). Maybe they (protag, mentor, some idiot that doesn't know what they're doing) activate a curse. Whatever happens, your protagonist now needs to become agents in the plot, to take charge. If they fail, they die--that's the 'fate' handed to them. They don't want to die, so they, by necessity, must reclaim their agency in the plot or they die.

The key to remember: is the character a pawn to the plot, or are they the agent that pushes the plot along. That's the difference between 'active' and 'reactive'. So even if you give them a 'choice', it doesn't make them active if the only choice they have is the plot. Only if they choose the plot, and that choice makes sense to their character, then, and I'd argue only then, are they 'real people' that move the plot forward.

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For me, the midpoint is indeed when I shift from a reactive phase to a proactive phase, but I still need a scene, a dramatic event, that triggers this change of perspective for the MC (Main Character, or Main Crew if you have several MC).

So in a way it is both, but the midpoint shift can be subtle, it can be more of a change in attitude -- resisting the reactive fear response, for example. Not running from the ghost, but bravely trying to talk to it.

Instead of reactive-proactive, you can think of this as "quick fixes, that don't work, thoughtful fixes". This reflects human nature. Most of us, presented with a problem, will try some quick fix.

But eventually, if our quick fixes keep working for only a few hours before failing, we look for a more permanent solution. Your MC can do something similar.

Let's work backward to find out why: It makes sense for first responses, when the MC doesn't know very much about the problem or threat, to be whatever the MC can think of at the moment.

But it doesn't make sense for this to be their operating method all the way to the climax. Near the climax, readers want the MC to intentionally defeat the villain (or their dilemma, if there is no sentient villain, like in The Martian). The MC should know what they are doing and act with a strategy or expertise or knowledge. We don't want the MC to win because they caught a lucky break (aka deus ex machina). We want them to win on purpose by being better than the villain (or by beating their dilemma).

That shift from amateur->master is what we are talking about. It can be a shift from student->graduate, or incompetence->mastery, apprentice->master, novice->student, even child->adult (in most coming of age stories). It begins at the end of ACT I, about 25% of the way through the story, and the transition ends about the end of Act II, about 75% of the way through the story. (These aren't exact percentages, just a rule of thumb).

But we are working backward, and at some point in this range, we must reach a tipping point. That is usually done in the center (midpoint of Act II). First the instinctive reactive approach has not been solving the problem. But second, and importantly, you need to ensure your MC is learning something about the problem so they are already transitioning from raw amateur to actually knowing something.

At the midpoint scene is where we see this learning come into play, the MC encounters a scene where they do something deliberately and that works. Obviously it can't be the whole solution, but it signals they are now thinking about the problem.

That transition point has to be in there somewhere. Then we can see the MC increasingly doing and planning things deliberately, even if they fail (and some of them should) they should teach the MC something so they work the next time.

The accumulation of these learning experiences, both in Act IIa and more so in Act IIb, are what lead the MC into their final confrontation, the beginning of Act III, where they will risk it all.

Often you will see the midpoint listed as the "darkest hour" for the MC, you can write it that way. the Reactive phase in Act IIa screws things up so bad that they are forced to think and understand the problem better and take some deliberate last-chance that pays off.

But I feel you don't have to write it that way, the important thing is to reflect the human life experience of some sort of maturation, going from a know-nothing kid to an experienced adult. There are several of these in life, from high-school graduate to college graduate, from single adult to married with children adult, from college student to practicing lawyer, etc.

Act II is a metaphor for getting through one of these bumpy maturation processes, the MC going through trials and tribulations to become the hero they need to be to defeat the villain. But even though there are ups and downs, defeats and screw ups, a maturation process implies an underlying ever-increasing level of understanding, each failure or success teaches the MC something new about their problem (or villain, or themselves).

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Readers typically prefer active characters, because one of the reasons we read is to learn, and one of the ways we learn is by seeing the decisions that characters make, and their consequences, dramatized. There's less to learn from a passive character who only reacts.

Given that, and all other things being equal, I would prefer to give your character consequential decisions early. However, it sounds like your character's story arc is going from passive to active, in which case that's a transition that might not happen until your character is absolutely forced to take control.

It's important to keep in mind that there's a difference between being "active" and being "effective." A character who is making choices that don't work out or that don't have an effect is not being passive.

  • One of the key themes in my story is the idea that the common folk are just pawns in the game being played by the aristocracy. The protagonist begins his arc not believing this, but he is unknowingly being swept along in those very machinations. It's not until he hits absolute rock bottom that he realises it's true. However, armed with that knowledge, he finds a way to break out of that cycle and become the master of his own destiny. – Arkenstein XII Jul 16 at 21:44
  • I guess the real crux of my question is perhaps more a matter of pacing? It feels to me like if his realisation occurs at the mid point, that is too soon. The catastrophe that precipitates his understanding feels like it should be later, so his transformation occurs immediately thereafter as the climax of the narrative. Does that make sense? – Arkenstein XII Jul 16 at 21:46
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    I edited my answer a bit. I think you're confusing being active with being effective. Your character isn't passive just because his decisions aren't having an impact. – Chris Sunami Jul 16 at 22:12

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