Dear Allyson and Meg,
As you said in your last posting, Allyson, Laini Taylor has crafted a page turner, with lots of action and story questions that keep propelling us forward. Here we are now in the middle of Blackbringer.
The middle can be a daunting stretch to write, which Taylor acknowledged during a talk on plotting at the Western Washington SCBWI Conference. (The full text from the speech is available on Grow Wings, Laini Taylor’s blog.) The middle, Taylor said, is the “drafthorse” of the story. It does all the heavy pulling: it must build tension, send the protagonist deeper into conflict, develop themes, deepen relationships, and set up the climax.
So how does Taylor accomplish these goals in the middle of Blackbringer?
All of the action and suspense you described, Allyson, lead up to a big scene that takes place in Chapters 20 and 21, the scene where Magpie and her friends see the Blackbringer for the first time. This scene culminates in a battle that is sudden, fierce, and devastating. Magpie barely escapes—and she loses two friends to the darkness.
These chapters constitute the literal midpoint of the novel. They are the pivot point, the moment when everything changes. Robert Ray and Bret Noris say that the “Midpoint is the point of no return. From here, there is no going back” (The Weekend Novelist, p. 175).
Up until now, Magpie has only heard about the Blackbringer. Now she meets him face-to-face. Now she sees his power. Now she experiences his destruction. From a reader perspective, we’re hooked. We must know how Magpie will overcome such a tremendous foe.
All Roads Lead to the Midpoint
The midpoint can be a useful scene to identify when plotting where a novel might go. In The Weekend Novelist, Ray and Noris explain that the midpoint will “stabilize the structure of your novel” (p. 175). It gives you something to write toward.
The scene with the Blackbringer is the scene with the highest level of action and tension so far in the novel. The key players are present for the battle. And Magpie experiences what happens inside the darkness, for just a moment.
If you know the midpoint, then you can plot backwards to identify the steps that lead to that moment, as well as information or details that could be foreshadowed earlier. (By the way, go back through the earlier chapters to see how Taylor plants clues about important details like the Blackbringer’s tongue. She does a great job of foreshadowing.)
Likewise, the midpoint provides a pathway to the scenes that must follow. “Midpoint anchors two chains of events: one leading up to the midpoint action; the other leading away from it” (The Weekend Novelist, p. 180). Before the battle, Mapgie was a brash character who charged after her quarry without regard for danger. She had no sense of limitations. After the battle, Magpie changes. She is injured, emotionally and physically. She must deal with the loss of her two friends as well as the reality that the Blackbringer is fiercer than she imagined.
The Action Ebbs
Taylor uses the sequence of scenes in Chapters 22 through 28 to show Magpie’s emotional reaction to the battle. Magpie is in shock, and she has lost her confidence. The pacing slows way down. Just as Magpie needs to recuperate, so do we, the readers. As Taylor explained during her plotting session at the conference, pacing is a critical craft element to consider. Pacing that is too slow results in a plot that lags. Too fast, and the reader grows desensitized to action.
At this point in the novel, Taylor has hooked us as readers. There’s no turning back for us. She’s accomplished her first goals (building tension and sending the protagonist deeper into conflict). Now she has the opportunity to deepen character and develop theme while setting up for the climax.
The slower pace of Chapters 22 through 28 let Taylor reveal critical information to Magpie, which helps us to understand who she is and why she is the only person who can save her world. Ray and Noris say, “By midpoint, your reader is hooked into the story, and you can use the midpoint to reveal important details from the past” (p. 178). Taylor whisks Magpie off to the Moonlit Gardens where she meets her hero, Bellatrix, and learns critical information she will need for the next time she encounters the Blackbringer.
Although the action slows down in these chapters, Magpie becomes a deeper, wiser character. She learns what she needs to know about her foe and her mission. She is gathering the strength and intelligence she will need for the next battle. Like ebbing water that rises as it goes out, she will be caught up in the next wave, the big wave… the climax.
This section of Blackbringer provides a great example of how to build up to a critical scene and then slow the pace to show the protagonist rebuilding strength in preparation for the climax.
StorySleuths Tip #65: Identify a midpoint scene that you can use as an “anchor” to help in plotting through the middle section of the novel, providing opportunities for developing tension as well as deepening character.