They want it, they can’t get it, and time is running out; this is the Mid-Point Plot-Knot.
This is the basis of every thriller plot ever written. It also underpins many more plots of novels, movies and TV. It’s the Gordian Knot of plot.
Think of it as a formula.
The main character wants [an objective] badly. They can’t get it because [obstacles]. And time is running out because [opposition].
The Gordian Knot presented a test of intelligence and wisdom in the ancient world. Supposedly only the wisest and most patient could undo it.
This is the knot that leaves the character bound and impotent somewhere near the middle of the plot. Can they untie it?
For example, the grizzled detective wants to solve the murder but can’t because of his: a) alcoholism, b) his ex-partner is a suspect c) his superiors want it hushed up… and so on.
And time is running out because: the prime suspect is a) getting on a plane to a non-extraditable country b) they’re doing a deal with the government c) the key witness is a hostage…
You get the idea.
Get a Complex
In Daniel’s version, this gets more problematic.
The character wants objectives X and Y, but the two are incompatible. They can’t resolve it as is time running out because of opposition Z.
In Pride and Prejudice (yes, collect a sticker), Lizzie wants her independence (X) and financial security for her family (Y); but that means an advantageous marriage. Meanwhile, Mr Bennett isn’t getting any younger and if he dies without male heirs (Z), the modest family fortune is lost…
Now that’s the just her opening knot. Austen ties another knot for the crisis point.
The Bennett’s need to avoid a scandal by marrying Lydia to wholly the undesirable rogue George Wickham, but they don’t have any money to pay him off. And time is running out before the family reputation is ruined and none of the daughters can be married. Which assures the financial ruin of the opening knot…
Jane Austen: plot genius.
In order to fully realise the Mid-Point Knot, the author has to:
- Show each component clearly and distinctly
- Show the character actively trying to achieve it
- Describe the stakes or consequences if they fail
The most famous tale of the Gordian Knot concerns one Alexander ‘The Great’; warrior, conqueror, narcissist, ego-at-large. His solution? Take a sharp sword and cut the knot. A military solution. Not to mention cheating.
Cheating this way in a novel is akin to the Deus Ex Machina ending where an act of God or sufficiently higher power resolves the plot without the protagonist fighting through it themselves.
What’s the point of following the protagonist through two, three, four hundred pages if Hyperion descends on a cloud and fixes the whole mess for them?
When Frodo gets to the gates of Mordor, the Eagles don’t turn up and fly him over to Mount Doom. They only come to the rescue after the One Ring is destroyed. Frodo and Sam have to carry the ring to the very end.
It’s another great plot-knot. Frodo wants a quiet life. He also wants to save the free world from Sauron. These are incompatible wants. And time is running out because Sauron, the Nazgul, the Orcs and Saruman are closing in. And sooner or later, one of Frodo’s allies will be corrupted and take the ring from him.
This is where Jane Austen cheats more than a little; Darcy is the white knight who pays off Wickham, hushes it up and saves the Bennett’s for Lizzie’s sake. This act of swallowed pride is part of Darcy’s character arc and a revelation of his true selfless nature. But… Lizzie herself doesn’t untie the knot. This is the man she’s rejected riding to the rescue. Since it’s Darcy, we forgive Austen’s cheat, as Lizzie forgives Darcy’s pride.
All Tied Up
Does it work? Here’s what I put into my November Challenge project, The Sixth Messenger.
Priestess Aeryn Parr wants to find the Messenger and uphold her lifelong oath to her Order. She also wants out of the Order to live her own life. Those are her incompatible wants.
Time is running out as the Brotherhood and the Hand close in to snatch the candidates from her.
That’s my opening knot.
The stakes escalate with each violent incident.
The crisis event breaking into Act Three comes with the incursion at the Abbey. Here’s my Mid-point Knot.
Aeryn must choose; either stay and defend her friends and the Sisters, or escape with the children. And time is running out because the Brotherhood, the Hand, and the mercenaries have the place surrounded. And it’s on fire.
Just to make it harder, stay or go, she has no defence against the Brotherhood’s magical powers. It’s a lose-lose scenario.
I plotted The Sixth Messenger using the familiar wants/obstacles/opposition formula. Daniel’s masterclass came as I drafted the story and added an extra dimension. Aeryn faces an impossible knot to untie. Adding two incompatible wants internalises the obstacles and makes the dilemma even more knotty.
For our next post, we continue our metaphorical musing with ‘how long is a piece of string?’