If you analyze Hollywood movies, you’ll notice that half-way through most films something happens to shake up the story. In the movie The Sixth Sense we’re introduced to a psychologist who is treating a troubled boy. SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film, skip to the next paragraph. In the middle of The Sixth Sense, the boy confides his chilling secret, “I see dead people.” Instantly viewers are shocked to realize the story isn’t about what they’d thought.
At a mystery writers’ meeting, I learned about this classic story structure after I’d written the third draft of my novel, A Deadly Fall. The speaker pointed out that most successful novels employ an aspect of this formula, whether or not the author is consciously aware of it. At the midpoint of Pride and Prejudice, Darcy proposes to Elizabeth, shaking up the characters and readers. I realized I’d naturally written a reversal into my novel-in-progress, but it occurred late, at the 2/3 point. This explained why the story beginning dragged. I cut unimportant scenes to place the reversal earlier in the book.
The speaker added that novels should hit their darkest points three-quarters through the story. My novel-in-progress rushed from the reversal to the black moment and didn’t fully explore the reversal’s effects. I wrote two new chapters for the third quarter of the book. This was a lot of work, but it improved the novel’s pacing so much that I vowed to start my second book with this structure in mind.
My struggles with this structural revision made me think about the purpose of a novel reversal. Around the middle of a book, readers tend to feel they have a handle on the story and think it will be predictable. A reversal throws them a curve. It makes them say, “Hey, this book can surprise me,” and keeps them on their toes. A reversal that intrigues and raises the stakes hooks them to the end.
The reversal also gives the writer new material to work with in the story. I started my second novel, Ten Days in Summer, with a plan to have a reversal and black moment at the half and three quarters points, although I didn’t know what the events would be. While writing, I looked for reversal opportunities and had my sleuth discover something that threw a spotlight on a suspect. But the next chapters fell flat. It struck me this suspect was already high on the list and the spotlight didn’t significantly change the situation. I went back and switched the discovery focus to a character who’d previously been in the background. This raised numerous new story questions for me to deal with in subsequent chapters.
Before I began writing my third novel, To Catch a Fox, I knew what the reversal would be, but didn’t know how I’d get there. I wrote scenes with an eye toward the midpoint revelation and tried to pace them to arrive on time. Whenever it looked like it would take forever to reach the reversal, I cut the detour out. When the reversal loomed too close, I inserted quiet moments or developed the subplots.
The midpoint reversal is arguably my favourite part of a story, as a writer and often as a reader or movie-goer. The boy’s chilling words in The Sixth Sense is the most quoted line from the film. I remember sitting in a theatre with my son and gasping when I heard it. In mystery novels, the question of whodunit carries us to the end of the book. A great reversal makes the ride exciting.
Read more by Susan Calder:
My latest novel, Winter’s Rage takes place in January 2020, immediately before the coronavirus pandemic. This is book # 3 of my Paula Savard Mystery Series. When I started writing the next book in the series last fall, I knew it would be set in spring, but which year would it be?Keep reading
I write my novels using the Three Act Structure, with aspects of The Hero’s Journey. Since the middle act is twice as long as the others, I treat it as a four-act structure. As I finished Winter’s Rage, it struck me that the first three books in the series echoed the first three acts of each novel.Keep reading