Welcome back to my summer series of posts devoted to my favorite author, George R. R. Martin. Today’s post is about a key part of story structure, the midpoint. I hope you enjoy these, as I had a lot of fun writing them, and look forward to sharing them over the next few months.
Every story that is written well conforms to a certain structure, and though there are many ways to describe it, it is essentially the same. Knowing this structure, one can quickly spot where a writer has wandered away from the essence of their story. Even without knowing this, a poorly told tale rubs the reader the wrong way. Maybe the plot wanders too much, or it takes forever for the story to start. A well-told story, on the other hand, might still catch us off guard, but as long as, upon stepping back, we can quickly see why the author did it and agree that, for the work we’re reading, the technique works, then we will come forward again and keep reading.
Martin’s writing is exemplary of this. Even in Storm of Swords, a novel built upon the theme of wandering, of being an alien in a large, unforgiving world, he kept true to the essential structure of story. His opening sequence was long, his midpoint was hard to capture in one small section of the narrative, his inflections on either side were so slight they blended into the major turning points from the opening to the resolution, and his climax drew out one hundred pages. But it was perfectly matched for the theme – the seeming pointlessness of life’s many paths.
Dance with Dragons is another sort of beast, but Martin has tamed it well. It is the first book where each section of the story’s main structure is easy to pick out, even if it blends in organically to the whole – exactly how it should be in a tale that is about the synthesis of the pointless with the grandeur of the fantastic.
The midpoint is the tipping point of the story, where the circumstances the author has introduced us to change. In the sense of an arc, this is the apex. From this point forward the stakes are higher and the narrative rushes toward the resolution of the conflict(s) that move the plot. Martin’s machine in his books is like a complicated bunch of gears, turning in several increments, a little here, a little there, yet when the clock hand strikes twelve, we know it.
Take, for example, Areo Hotah. We meet him in Feast for Crows, a sort of window character who Martin introduces to show us what is happening behind the scenes in Dorne. Dance then developed the other side, showing us Quentyn and Prince Aegon. The conflict is changing, not just for this novel, but for the whole epic. Dragons are indeed dancing into view as an inevitable Targaryen contest waits to erupt.
Martin has done something else quite interesting with his Song of Ice and Fire. Rather than building his overarc toward a climax, he has built it downward, to an extreme low, so that here, in his midpoint – a midpoint of a midpoint – he begins a steady ascent upward. Fire stirs, and the ices come, but the climax anticipated is not so much a descent toward resolution, but an ascent from pent-up conflicts that have been waiting to spring from dormancy. It is brilliantly done, a story that is rooted in all the details of the present narrative, yet structured so that as a whole it moves like a planet on its set orbit, a path we can trust will take us to where it promises.
(Taken from a post at Following the Footsteps of the Masters, a blog devoted to the things that make epic fantasy great)