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The Bridge and the Tunnel

Mass [1]

There are two New York City subway lines I can take to work: The L train or the M train. The M climbs over the Williamsburg Bridge to Manhattan. The L travels beneath the East River.

Most days my first task is to take my son to school or summer camp. If we take the M train, we stand by the sliding door windows and gawk. As the train ascends the bridge approach our Brooklyn neighborhood, Williamsburg, grows smaller beneath us. Then we’re over the river, still rising, the flat gray expanse of the water below cut by V-shaped barge wakes.

Far off is Oz, towering Manhattan, dense and looming. But we’re not there yet. Nor are we at home. As the bridge’s apex nears, I try to identify the moment when we’re precisely at mid-span. It’s the high point, the apex, the flex point of the bow. For a split second we’re neither leaving nor going but simply suspended, breathless at the view in both directions. All that came before is falling behind. All that lies ahead still is indistinct.

If we should take the L train, we hop onto the last car of the train. This is so that we can look out the rear window. My son likes to watch for the headlights of following trains, but I like to watch the blue tunnel lights which describe a downward curve of the river approach. Then with a whoosh of pressure change, we’re under the river itself. The blue lights end and for a long, dark and dangerous minute we hurtle down the tunnel tracks, rattling and shaking, as alone as if we were speeding through outer space.

Again, I try to mark the mid-point that is the tunnel’s lowest, the nadir, the bottom of the frown. It’s a lonely spot. Most commuters distract themselves with iPods, Kindles, sudoku, newspapers or paperback classics. I want to dwell, for a bare second, in the blackest moment, when all that is safe is disappearing astern and everything to come is fraught with unknowns. It’s a long ride to the First Avenue station and a breath-exhaling relief when we get there.

And so we arrive at your novel’s mid-point, its epicenter and pivot. Do you know which moment this is in your manuscript? If not, it’s worth finding. Is it a rise to a hilltop of false promise, or is it a descent into black despair? Whatever it is, it’s a mirror moment: the moment when your protagonist is utterly alone with himself or herself, defined only by hope or dread. It’s a second when the story is suspended, unable to go backward and about to plunge forward into the unknown.

Here are so ways to find and use your mid-point:

• What’s the moment of no-going-back? Note the following: one detail of place, one ache of regret, one brand new fear, one impossible hope. Weave this into a paragraph that describes crossing the apex—or nadir—of the journey.

• Find the mid-point. Write down your protagonist’s view of himself or herself prior to this time. What about that view is no longer true? Who must your protagonist now become? What is he or she lacking—and utterly unable to get?

• At mid-point, what can your protagonist see (however far off) that was not visible before? What can he or she no longer see in the distance behind? What is coming? What is never again to be?

• At mid-point, is your protagonist lost or instead discerning a way onward? Is either condition welcome or unwelcome? What does it feel like to be suspended, lifted out of time, dwelling in a moment of pure being? Is this moment sublime or hellish—or both?

The impact of a story is created not only by the story’s events (plot, if you prefer) but by emotional moments that, for a second, make your reality the reader’s. The mid-point is one of those moments. It would be a shame to let it go unused.

What is your novel’s midpoint and how are you using it?

About Donald Maass [2]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [3]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [4], The Fire in Fiction [5], Writing the Breakout Novel [6]and The Career Novelist [7].

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