Archive for May, 2022


Cozy Fantasy

I’ve mentioned wishing for the fantasy equivalent of the cozy mystery, but I’m not sure exactly what that would look like. A “cozy mystery” is a defined subgenre with certain expectations. Usually, the gore and violence are offstage and not vividly described. Most often, it’s written in first-person and is entirely within the perspective of the (usually amateur) sleuth, so we don’t see the crime being committed and readers get to solve the case along with the sleuth. There’s some conflict and tension, since there has been a crime, usually a murder, and quite often there’s some jeopardy for the sleuth near the resolution, but the overall tone is light, not delving into the darker aspects of human nature. Even if the story doesn’t actually take place in a small town, it usually involves a somewhat closed community that functions like a small town, like a neighborhood in a big city, so that there are community members who serve as regular characters, and most of these characters are fairly likable. We might want to live in this community, in spite of the frequent murders. These are comforting, satisfying reads that leave you with the sense that justice has been done and all is right in the world.

So, what would the fantasy equivalent be? The short, quippy answer would be “the opposite of grimdark.” In other words, little violence, and whatever violence not vividly described. The subject matter wouldn’t be dark, so we aren’t worrying about the evil overlord raising a demon zombie army that will drag the world into the pits of hell. The main characters wouldn’t get tortured, either physically or psychologically. These aren’t “main character gets put through hell” stories. Probably likable characters, and it’s a magical world we’d want to visit. And, like the cozy mystery, it should leave you with a sense that all is well.

I’ve seen more discussion about the idea of cozy fantasy lately, and I recently read a book that’s coming up a lot in this discussion, Legends and Lattes, by Travis Baldree. The tag line for it is “a novel of high fantasy and low stakes.” It’s about an orc mercenary who’s retiring from being a sword for hire and using her savings to open a coffee shop. There is some conflict and danger from the local crime boss running a protection scheme and from a former colleague who’s sure she’s running some angle and wants whatever she’s got, but for the most part, the story’s about her gathering a team of people that become the community around the shop. I would call the stakes personal rather than low because to this character, making this coffee shop succeed is everything. If she fails or loses it, she loses everything. It’s just not a problem for the world as a whole. The people in her community would miss it if she lost it, though they might not actually be harmed.

It was definitely a read that gave me a “cozy” vibe. I don’t even like coffee and I found myself wanting to hang out in this shop. And now I want someone to open a fantasy-themed coffee/tea shop, something that feels like a tavern from a fantasy story, but with the focus on caffeine and baked goods instead of alcohol.

I’ve been trying to think of other examples that might fit. I’d probably put the Narnia books in this category. It’s a world I’d like to visit. There’s conflict, but I don’t think it’s overly dark or violent. You end up feeling like there’s been justice done and everything working out. Some of that comes from them being written for kids, but they still give me cozy vibes.

I think it might be difficult to sell a cozy fantasy to a major publisher these days. All the examples I can think of offhand were independently published or from a small press. The big publishers want lots of intensity and conflict. Think of the worst thing that could happen to your character and do it to them. The stakes must be high.

I don’t know if the book I’m working on now would count as cozy. There are cozy elements and I think a bit of a cozy vibe, but the stakes are more than personal. If things don’t work out, it could have worldwide implications. Not demons dragging the world into the pits of hell implications, but an evil power getting a bigger foothold. Still, it’s about needing to pull together and remember who we are so we can stand up against the evil power. And the evil is just greedy and power-hungry, not Ultimate Evil Sauron-type stuff. The earlier Enchanted, Inc. books are probably cozy fantasy, since I was unwittingly essentially writing cozy mysteries, but with magical skullduggery instead of murders. I think they got published because they were classified as chick lit at the time, which wasn’t focused on high-stakes conflict the way fantasy tends to be. I’m not sure a fantasy publisher would have been interested.

There’s a forum on Reddit about cozy fantasy that I’ll have to dig into and see what people are talking about. I can always use more book recommendations. Maybe I’ll even actually join Reddit and participate in the discussion.

Starting to Write

I said previously that although I’d been making up stories in my head my whole life, it didn’t occur to me to write them down until I was nearly thirteen. But I did start writing before that. The first time I recall writing something and thinking it was fun was in fourth grade. The teacher put a picture on the board and told us to write something about it. I don’t remember much about it, but there were kids sitting around a candle, and something about it really sparked my imagination. When the allotted time for the assignment was over, I had pages of the beginning of a real story. The teacher saw what I was doing and let me finish it at home and turn it in later. I think the idea was to just write a paragraph or two describing the scene, and I ended up writing a mystery or ghost story. I did my usual short story thing of it spiraling out of control, pacing it as though I was writing a novel, until I just ended it abruptly. I remember having to do some handwaving and one of those “and they solved the mystery” endings just so I could turn it in.

I also remember reading a non-fiction book from the library about starting a family newspaper, and I spent some time trying to write the news. I was writing for fun, but it still didn’t occur to me to write down the stories that were in my head. In sixth grade, we had journals we had to keep in class. When we got to class in the morning, we had to pick up our spiral notebook from a box (mine had The Muppet Show on the cover) and write a page from the prompt on the board. I loved this assignment and had a lot of fun with it. I liked writing assignments in school.

I finally had the “I could write my mental stories down and have a book” realization between sixth and seventh grades when a friend and I were playing Star Wars, running around in the woods, and I told her about the original character I’d made up and had been making up stories about all along. Something about telling her flipped a switch and made me realize that I was writing stories, and I could write them down and share them with people.

The problem was that what I had wasn’t actually stories. I had characters, a situation, and a bunch of moments involving my characters. I realized this once I started writing stuff down. I had all the backstory and worldbuilding, but no actual story. I managed to write a first chapter, but had no idea where to go with it next. Mostly, I ended up making a lot of drawings of the clothes the characters would wear and the floor plans for the place where the characters lived.

We moved soon after that, and when we got to the new place we got all the stuff that had been in storage while we were overseas. In that stuff was an old manual typewriter, and I taught myself to type on it. I got good at the letter characters, but I still come to a screeching halt when it comes to numbers and symbols because that was where I stopped with the how-to-type book I used. Once I could type words, I was off and running. I typed out a bunch of first chapters of potential books, from science fiction to spy thrillers, and they all had that same problem: they were a situation and characters, not a story. This was a problem I didn’t solve until I was out of college and got truly serious about writing. I made a few stabs at writing short stories and I did a lot of worldbuilding, but I didn’t have anything that was anywhere near close to complete.

I don’t think this was wasted time, though. I learned a lot about creating characters and worlds in all those spiral notebooks I filled with writing about the stories I wanted to write. I wrote scenes and got good at stringing words together. I worked on the school newspaper in high school and competed in journalism writing contests. I majored in journalism in college, and I was still scribbling story ideas and notes in spiral notebooks. I took courses that I thought would be useful for when I became a writer. But I still didn’t know how to write a book or even a short story. That would come later.


Bogging Down

I had a grand epiphany the other day about the problem with the book I’ve been working on: I’ve been getting bogged down in trying to add conflict to stuff that’s not critical to the story. I struggle with having enough conflict in stories, so I make a conscious effort to be sure there’s conflict in each scene and that nobody gets anything easily. But sometimes you just need to move your characters into a place where things can happen.

The best analogy for what I’ve been doing is the movie Legally Blonde — the one about the California sorority girl who applies to Harvard Law School when her law school-bound boyfriend dumps her because she’s not “serious” enough. The movie is a culture clash/fish out of water story about this bubbly blonde who dresses in pink at Harvard Law, where she shakes things up and applies her skills and knowledge to be a great lawyer while also realizing that she doesn’t actually need her boyfriend.

But what if the writers of that movie got sidetracked and bogged down in the process of her getting in to law school? In the actual movie, that’s handled in a montage that shows her studying, acing the LSAT, going through the interview process, and then getting in so the story can really get going. If they had written it like what I’ve been doing, they’d have thrown conflict into that part of the story, like having some of her sorority sisters be against this plan and trying to sabotage her and her parents not approving so that she had to prove to them she could do it. There would even be obstacles that aren’t even really conflict, like her not being able to find a parking space when she went to take the LSAT so that she ended up having to run in heels from a remote spot to get to the test on time. Then during the interview process we’d see that some of the admissions committee was against her, and the other applicants were sabotaging her. If they’d done that, she wouldn’t have made it to law school until an hour and a half into a two-hour movie.

It would be a perfectly valid story to show the challenges of a formerly shallow sorority girl overcoming stereotypes and getting in to law school, with the acceptance being the happy ending, but that’s not what this story was about, so they only needed to show enough of the process for it to look at all feasible (she already had good grades and lots of extracurriculars, so she just had to prep for the LSAT and nail the interviews) and hurry along to get her to the place where the story can happen. There doesn’t need to be conflict in that part. If the movie is called Legally Blonde, we know she’s going to get in to law school, so all the conflict and tension is just stalling.

And that’s what I’ve realized I was doing. I was trying to show the full process of how it all works and what the heroine was up against while also adding conflict when the story isn’t about her getting into a certain position. It’s about what happens after she does. There are some actual issues that have to be set up, and getting into the position isn’t easy, so this isn’t entirely stuff that can happen in one chapter, but I don’t have to delve too deeply into it. I’ve cut more than 20,000 words so far. Some words may get added to the earlier chapters because there’s a subplot I have to deal with that will merge with the main plot, but still, that gets things going a lot more quickly.

I’ll mostly have to deal with it next week, since this weekend is the Nebula Awards conference. I’ve got two panels, one early Saturday and one early Sunday, and then I’ll be attending a bunch of other stuff. It’s a virtual conference, so I’ll be attending from my desk. I’ve bought snacks so I can do a proper con suite for myself and replicate the conference experience.

writing life, memoir

A Lifetime of Stories

Here’s another installment in my writing career memoir. I mentioned before that I didn’t really start writing until I was almost twelve, but I’ve been a storyteller my entire life. That’s been my primary way of playing and of soothing myself.

I don’t think I’ve ever been a good sleeper. It takes me a long time to fall asleep. My parents say that as a baby and toddler I fought sleep, but I’m not sure if I fought it or if it just didn’t happen (or maybe the reason I have trouble is that I trained myself to fight sleep). I’ve never been someone who could fall asleep the moment my head hits the pillow, no matter how tired I am. I can do all the calming things before bed—dim lights, soft music, reading until I can’t keep my eyes open—and it still takes me about half an hour to actually fall asleep once I put the book down and turn out the light. And that’s story time. Ever since I can remember, I would make up stories in my head to try to settle down enough to sleep. That’s the only way to stop all the other stuff, like planning the next day, remembering the day that just passed, worrying about stuff, fretting over things I’ve said or done, etc., from swirling around in my brain and keeping me awake. The earliest story I can remember was when I was two and I made up stories about the bear in my room. There was a tree outside my window, and the streetlamp made it cast a shadow on the wall over my bed that looked like a bear standing up, upper legs poised for attack. If a car drove by, the headlights made the shadow move like the bear was rushing toward me. I made up stories about being lost in the woods and chased by the bear, or variations on Goldilocks, or sometimes I was the bear. I managed to psych myself out a few times so that I was convinced the bear was real and called out to my parents, who would have to tell me there was no bear, that it was just a shadow (and then they saw what passing headlights did to it and understood).

As I got older and was watching or reading more complex things with actual stories and characters than you find in toddler entertainment, my mental stories were often essentially fan fiction. I made up more stories for my favorite shows or books, or since a secondary character was usually my favorite, I’d make up stories in which that character was the hero. Since I was trying to get to sleep, the bedtime stories tended to be quieter, like the characters just hanging out and talking or even going to sleep.

It wasn’t just trying to fall asleep at night. I amused myself by making up stories whenever I didn’t have anything else to do. During car rides, I was on a pirate ship, spaceship, or covered wagon, or I was being kidnapped. I acted out stories as a way of playing. I had a drawer full of dress-up clothes, and I’d put on costumes and act out stories, or I’d have my toys act out the stories. I made up stories to string together the songs on cast albums from musicals if I hadn’t actually seen the shows and didn’t know the context for the songs. Or I’d make up new stories for the songs from musicals I knew.

When I was seven, we moved to a neighborhood that had a lot of kids around my age, so I had a big neighborhood gang to hang out with, and we mostly played “let’s pretend.” We never just rode our bikes around the neighborhood. We were riding horses or motorcycles or flying fighter planes. We acted out TV shows, playing things like Star Trek or M*A*S*H. Often, this required making up new characters because there usually weren’t enough female characters for all the girls to take part. We loved it when Charlie’s Angels came out because there were actually three girls, and it was the boys who had to make up new characters. I’d often continue the story from the day’s play as my bedtime story, or I’d make up new stuff for the characters I’d created.

Star Wars came out near the end of third grade for me, but I didn’t see it until I’d started fourth grade, and when everyone in the neighborhood had seen it, that became one of the main things to play. When we played in the swings or rode our bikes, we were flying X-Wings or TIE Fighters. We had lightsaber duels with whatever was handy. Again, I had to make up a new character to play since the girls fought over who got to be Leia, and I made up so many stories about that character that they soon branched out from the Star Wars universe to be their own thing.

Still, in all this time, it never occurred to me to write any of these stories down. I didn’t connect the stories I made up in my head with things like books I read or movies I watched, didn’t consider that all of these were stories someone else had made up and then written down.

I still make up stories in my head to entertain myself. Now, though, I write them down and sell them. My bedtime stories are prime writing time, when I figure out things that can happen in my books. I do still occasionally play with mental fan fiction. That’s a good way to test out plot or character ideas without actually putting them in the book I’m working on, or it gives me ideas for stories when the series my mental fan fiction is based on goes in a different direction from the story in my head and I like my version better.

Next: How the writing began.


Fantasy Language

One thing that gets tricky about writing secondary-world fantasy set in the past is figuring out what to do about language. Since the story takes place in another world, you know the characters aren’t speaking modern English, so the author can be seen as translating the whole story so that people in our world today can read it. But how strict should that translation be? Do you go all-in and truly translate it into modern English, or do you try to keep some flavor of the time period the secondary world is based on?

For instance, the word “okay.” It didn’t come into use in our world until the 1800s, and only came into really common use in the 20th century. When I read that word in a fantasy novel set in a pre-modern setting, it throws me out of the story. And yet, if we’re going by the “it’s all being translated, anyway” idea, why not translate their word of agreement to “okay”? I don’t have an answer for this. I just try to avoid using it unless I’m writing contemporary works set in our world. Katie and Lexie say “okay,” Verity does not, and the heroine I’m currently writing doesn’t.

Then there are the things where the truth sounds wrong. For instance, “hello” is more modern than “hi.” “Hello” didn’t come into use until the 1800s when it was introduced as the way to greet people on the telephone. “Hi” dates to the middle ages and comes from an Old English word, “hy.” The Norwegian word is “hei,” and since there’s a lot of crossover between old Norse and Old English, I’m sure they’re related. But if I wrote a character in the 1600s saying “hi,” it would sound wrong and “hello” may sound right. The way I understand it, “hy” was more about getting attention than it was a greeting the way we say “hi” now.

The other tricky thing is common words that come from proper names. Like “sandwich,” which is named for a person. Can you use that term in a world where there was no Earl of Sandwich? An ottoman is named for the Ottoman Empire, which doesn’t exist in a secondary world. Does that fall under the “it’s all a translation” rule, or do you have to find another word? It’s really hard to find something else to call a sandwich without it getting awkward. The Norwegian word is smørbrød, which seems to translate literally to “butter bread,” and that doesn’t really say “sandwich” to me. And then there’s the metaphorical use of it, saying something is “sandwiched” between two other things.

Or there are words that come from technologies that don’t exist in that world. I had to stop myself from using the term “sidetracked” when my character was distracted because if there are no railroads, there shouldn’t be any concept of being sidetracked. I did once read a book set in a pre-industrial secondary world in which a character who was hiding out talked about staying under the radar, and I can’t believe the editor let that one go because that concept would have been totally foreign to the characters and I don’t think even the “it’s all a translation” idea works there.

Another issue is keeping the flavor of the language. If you’re basing your secondary world on, say, the early 17th century, you wouldn’t want to write your whole book in the style of the King James Bible if you want modern readers to actually be able to get through it. But you also wouldn’t want to translate it into language that’s too modern and casual. Your scheming prince saying, “LOL!” when something bad happens to his enemies would break the spell.

I once read an essay by someone who was a grand master in the field of fantasy complaining about a new author’s book that she thought sounded too modern and mundane (this author went on to be in the grand master category, but she was a young first-time author at the time the essay was written, so I think singling her out like that was a tacky move on the part of the more established author). She took a scene from the book in which a pair of noblemen who’d just left a council meeting were discussing the events and showed how she could change them to politicians who’d left a committee meeting by only changing the specific references. At the time I read that essay, I hadn’t read the grand master and was a fan of the newer author, so it made me mad, but even now as a reasonably experienced author, I think the grandmaster was wrong.

If you’re taking the “translated from that secondary world language for modern readers” approach, you’d stick with language that would be appropriate for the modern equivalent of the people depicted in the story. In that case, members of the royal council would equate to members of Congress, and therefore the fact that you could change the character names and titles and change “palace steps” to “Capitol steps” would be a sign that the author did it right. Where you’d have problems would be if you could change them to student council members and palace steps to school steps and it still works. Then your language might be too casual for a high fantasy.

I don’t think you need a lot of “hark” and “prithee” type language, but I think you can go too far the other way. There’s an author I’ve read recently whose characters and stories are great, but his use of language keeps taking me out of the story because he’ll have a medieval-equivalent chieftain say something like, “Okay, guys, we’ve gotta pull together on this.” Then again, that would possibly be the equivalent of a CEO in our world, and some of them do talk like that.

I don’t really have any firm answers. I just have to go by what feels right for the story, something that gives the flavor of another time and place but that’s still readable. I try to have “invisible” writing, where you don’t really notice the words. The words inject the story into your head, and you experience it that way without feeling so much like you’re reading. Part of that is using language that doesn’t draw attention to itself and that feels like a natural part of the story. I think for the book I’m working on, that will mean finding something else to call a sandwich, not letting a character get sidetracked and nobody saying “hello” or “okay.” Another author might make different decisions.


A Lifetime of Reading

I’ve been reading a book that’s part how-to book about how to have a writing career and part author’s memoir, and since I’m planning to start doing more how-to stuff, I thought it might be fun to do a bit of a retrospective on how I came to be an author and some of the wacky things that have happened in my career. That way you’ll have a better sense of where I’m coming from when I give writing or career advice.

Like many (probably most) writers, I was a reader first. I don’t remember not knowing how to read. My parents are big readers and read to me pretty much since birth. I memorize things easily, so I quickly memorized my favorite books. In fact, my whole family can still recite my favorite book from when I was a toddler by memory. It was a cloth book called Doggy’s Day, and I have tried searching the Internet to find it and learn something about it, but I can’t find it. There are a lot of things that come up in the search, but none of them are the book that starts, “Doggy eats his breakfast, just like you. Then he plays the whole day through.” I was pretty young when I figured out that the words on the page matched the words you said when reading aloud, and from there I was able to read those same words when I saw them somewhere else.

This actually got me in a bit of trouble in kindergarten. Because I’m old, kindergarten was a fairly new thing when I was that age. That was the first year they offered it in public schools in Texas, and I’d already been enrolled in a church school. It was pretty much like preschool is now, just half a day, and we were still learning numbers and letters and things like that. The teacher refused to believe that I could read and told my parents I was lying about that. Then when my parents said that, actually, I could read, the teacher had me prove it. I was reading chapter books in first grade.

We belonged to the Dr. Seuss book club, so we got a new book every month, and that may have started my tilt toward reading fantasy because they were certainly fantastical. Even the ones that weren’t actually Seuss books still had fantasy elements, or at the very least involved talking animals. I don’t think I ever had the “but that can’t happen!” reaction that some people have to fantasy. I liked my stories a bit unrealistic.

I tended to read by theme. I’d get utterly fascinated by a particular topic and read everything I could find that looked like it was on that topic, both fiction and non. The post library at the place we lived when I was in second, third, and fourth grades had a children’s room that had the fiction around the perimeter and non-fiction in the middle, and I remember walking around the room, starting at A, and reading the spines to find the things I was looking for. I remember going through a dance phase, when I’d read anything with “dance” or “ballet” in the title. Then there was the horse phase. The girls in my neighborhood all watched syndicated reruns of Bewitched, so there was a witch phase. Then there was the Nancy Drew phase that got me into mysteries, in general — Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, Cherry Ames, and I think there were some others.

Fourth grade was a big turning point for me because several things happened that year. First, I saw Star Wars early in the school year and became obsessed. I don’t know how many times I reread the novelization. That started me reading other science fiction books and looking for stories with spaceships and robots. It also meant I started reading books published for adults because my parents began sharing their science fiction books with me. Meanwhile, I had a teacher who would read to us every day after recess as a way of getting us to calm down, and she tended to read us things like Roald Dahl and the Oz books. I’d get impatient with a chapter a day, check the book out of the library, and read the whole thing. That meant I read a lot of fantasy that year, including The Hobbit. The animated TV movie version came out that year, and our teacher read the book to us.

I don’t remember a particular phase in fifth grade. That was the year we moved to Germany. I guess I was still reading whatever science fiction I found. I do remember finding the Narnia books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy in sixth grade. Later in sixth grade and into seventh grade I was really into spy stories and books about World War II.

Oddly, I didn’t even start to think about writing books until after seventh grade. I just liked reading. I carried a novel with me to school every day to read whenever I had a chance. I read at bedtime. I read on weekends. Books were what got me through the “new kid” phase whenever we moved. One of the first things we did when we moved to a new place was find the library and get a library card, since that was a lifeline. But even if I wasn’t thinking in terms of being an author all that time, I was absorbing stories and characters, so I’m sure I was preparing myself that whole time.

Up next: Storytelling


Promo Push

Since I don’t know when I’ll be able to get another book published (I’m in the middle of writing), I need to boost the sales of my existing books, and that means doing promo.

I’m afraid I’ve become my own nightmare PR client. In my PR agency days, I used to gripe about the clients who didn’t want to do anything about publicity (in spite of them having hired a firm, but it was usually the company that hired the firm, while the people I actually had to deal with were opposed to publicity) because they thought their work should speak for itself. Or they were willing to try one thing once, but if they didn’t get immediate, obvious results they’d give up. Or they weren’t willing to do what needed to be done to have a good PR campaign. I’ve been doing all those things. I’m especially bad about trying something once or twice and giving up right away when it doesn’t seem to do any good.

So, I’m going to spend the next few months trying to be consistent about my marketing and publicity efforts. I have to do at least one promotional thing a day, and I’ve got a few tasks that I’m going to do consistently and regularly for these three months to see how it all adds up. I can’t just do it once and give up.

I’ve been trying to do some graphics for some of my blog posts, and I’m putting them on Pinterest. If you’re on Pinterest and want to pin or share them, or whatever you do on Pinterest, that would be lovely. I’m also going to get my newsletter going again. I’ve let it fall by the wayside because I couldn’t think of anything to say. I’m working to get my books up on the Google Play store (they’re taking forever to get that up and going). And I think I’m actually going to do that video project I’ve been musing about. I figure if I’m still thinking about it months later, that means it’s something I should do.

I even made a chart and a checklist to keep myself honest. The chart is for tracking those activities that I’m trying to be consistent about and doing at least once a week, and the checklist is all the tasks I need to get done to have my ducks in a row.

Now, will my enthusiasm for this last more than a couple of weeks?

writing, movies

Seeing the Structure

Over the past couple of years, I’ve developed a routine of Friday and Saturday movie nights. On other nights, I don’t just sit and watch stuff. When I’m “watching” TV, I’m usually also working crossword puzzles, reading, knitting, exercising, or doing embroidery. But for movie nights, I make some popcorn, turn out the lights, and just sit and watch. It’s an exercise for my attention span and almost like meditation in that I force myself to be in the moment and just watching what’s going on.

Of course, I can’t turn off my brain entirely. I can’t help but think about what I’m watching, and I’m usually analyzing the story structure. I make note of when I start the movie and how long it is so that I can find the various story milestones and see how closely it aligns to story structure.

If you don’t want to have the way you see movies changed, don’t read beyond this. Once you see this, you may not be able to unsee it whenever you watch a movie.

I recently read a book on story structure that said at the middle of a story, you’ll find what they call a “mirror moment.” That’s a moment of self-reflection in which the hero has to face the person he is and decide what person he’s going to be. This decision is critical because it affects the way he’ll deal with the final crisis in the story. Quite often, this moment of reflection involves a literal mirror or other reflective surface.

The Middle of the Story An ordeal that’s the mid-term exam for the hero May be: First attempt at achieving story goal that fails because the hero’s flaw still holds him back Part one of achieving the goal, but the hard part is still to come A stepping stone — a smaller-scale version of what the final battle will be A false victory — the hero thinks he’s achieved his goal, but either he’s wrong or he soon loses what he achieved

But I’ve generally found that the midpoint of a story is some kind of ordeal. It’s like the midterm exam of the story. The hero can’t reach his goal at this point or the story would be over, but he may make his first attempt at reaching his goal and fail because he hasn’t yet fixed the flaw that’s holding him back. Or he may achieve part of his goal but still has something else to do. This shows up in a lot of “get the thing to the place” plots. At the midpoint he gets the thing, but he still has to get it to the place. The ordeal could be a stepping stone, an initial test that somewhat reflects the ultimate challenge but that’s a bit easier than the final challenge will be. Or the hero may think he’s achieved the goal but then turns out to be wrong about that or loses what he achieved (like Indiana Jones getting the Ark away from the Nazis after an extended midpoint action sequence, only to lose it again). In general, something big and exciting or tense happens in the middle.

So, I started tracking this when I was watching movies, and I did start noticing the mirror moment. Something that would fit the idea of facing oneself is in just about everything I’ve watched recently. It very often does involve a mirror or other reflection. There’s a moment when the hero pauses and reflects on what’s happened or on his identity and has to be totally honest with himself or someone else. But this isn’t the midpoint. I’ve been finding it at the 3/4 or 2/3 point, right before the final “battle.” The exact point depends on how long and involved the final “battle” (literal or metaphorical) is. If it’s an extended sequence and there’s a long resolution, it will be at 2/3. If it’s a fairly quick bit of conflict and there’s not a lot of wrap-up, it will be at the 3/4 mark. I’m still finding an ordeal at the midpoint.

Usually the structure goes: Midpoint ordeal, celebration (we made it! There’s often a love scene here), realization that they still have to face the hard part, big setback, mirror moment, climactic “battle” scene (may be literal or figurative battle) that’s essentially the hero’s final exam.

It’s really easy to track this in a movie. I find it a bit harder in books because time gets wonky in books. Movies take place in real time. There may be gaps between scenes, so not every movie story happens within two hours, but once a scene starts, the amount of time it takes is the amount of time it happens. A two-minute dialogue scene takes the same amount of time as a two-minute action scene. In a book, that dialogue scene that would take two minutes on the screen may take five pages, while the two-minute action scene could take two paragraphs or ten pages, depending on how detailed the description of the action is, whether it’s “they fought” or a blow-by-blow telling with thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations described.

That makes it a little harder to open a book at the midway point and find the ordeal. Then there’s the issue of multiple viewpoints, so that one character’s ordeal may or may not happen at the same time as other characters’ ordeals, depending on whether or not there are subplots. A movie is closer to a short story in structure so is less likely to have multiple braided plots. There’s one ordeal and one final “battle.” A book may have this for each character, and each character may be on a different timeline. Usually the subplots wrap up before the protagonist has his final battle, since the resolution of the secondary characters’ plots may be what leads to the final battle.

Still, this kind of structure is helpful in planning a book. I’d originally plotted the book I’ve been working on with the idea of that mirror moment coming halfway through, which is part of why I’ve been feeling like I’m slow getting into the story, but if it’s at the 2/3 or 3/4 mark, then I’m closer to being on track. Now I just have to figure out what the ordeal really is.