Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them

I recently read a Huff Post psychology piece on Turning Negative Emotions Into Your Greatest Advantage and immediately saw how this could also apply to our characters. Feel free to follow the link and read, but if you’re short on time, the rundown is this: negative emotions are not all bad. In fact, they are necessary to the human experience, and can spark a shift that leads to self growth.

And after reading James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between and attending a full day workshop with him a few weeks ago, I can also see how this idea of using negative emotions to fuel a positive changes fits oh-so-nicely with Jim’s concept of “the Mirror Moment.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s look at what a mirror moment is.

mirror 2Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

Jim actually describes the Mirror Moment so much better than I can HERE, but do your writing a BIG FAVOR and also snag a copy of this book. (It’s a short read and will absolutely help you strengthen the character’s arc in your story!)

To see how the two tie together, let’s explore what leads to this essential “mirror moment.” Your hero is taking stock of his situation, realizing he has two choices: stubbornly continue on unchanged and hope for the best, or move forward differently, becoming something more.

The big question: what is the catalyst? What causes him to take stock of the situation? What causes his self-reflection?

The answer is not surprising: EMOTION. Something the character FEELS causes him to stop, look within, and make a choice.

Let’s assume this isn’t a tragedy. If this moment had a math formula, it would look something like this:

Emotion + look within = change

So what type of emotions are the best fit to encourage this necessary shift toward change? And are they positive emotions, or negative ones? Let’s experiment!

Common positive emotions, taken right from The Emotion Thesaurus:

Happiness + look within

Happiness is contentment, a feeling of extreme well being. If one feels good about themselves and where they are at, it doesn’t encourage a strong desire for change, does it?

Gratitude + a look within

mirrorGratitude is thankfulness, an appreciation for others and what one has. Because again, gratitude creates contentment, feeling “full” and thankful, it doesn’t make the best catalyst for change. However, if you were to pair it with something like relief (such as being given a second chance), then  gratitude over being spared something negative could lead to resolving to change.

Excitement + a look within

Excitement is the feeling of being energized to the point one feels compelled to act. On the outside, this looks like a good candidate for change, but it depends on the type of excitement. Is the “high” a character feels something that distracts them from self reflection (such as being caught up in the experience of a rock concert) or does it inspire (such as the thrill of meeting one’s sports hero in person)? If one’s excitement propels one to want to become something better, then change can be achieved.

Satisfaction + a look within

Satisfaction is a feeling of contentment in a nutshell. It is feeling whole and complete. As such, looking within while satisfied likely won’t lead to a desire to change anything–in fact it might do just the opposite: encourage the character to remain the same.

Common negative emotions, again right from The Emotion Thesaurus:

Fear + a look within

Fear is the expectation of threat or danger. Feeling afraid is very uncomfortable, something almost all people wish to avoid. Some even try to make deals with the powers that be, so deep is their desperation: if I win this hand, I’ll give up gambling, I swear. So, combining this emotion with some self reflection could definitely create the desire to change.

Frustration + a look within

mirror 3Feeling stymied or hemmed in is something all people are familiar with and few can tolerate for long. By its very nature, frustration sends the brain on a search for change: how can I fix this? How can I become better/more skilled/adapt? How can I succeed?

Characters who are frustrated are eager to look within for answers.

Embarrassment + a look within

Embarrassment is another emotion that is very adept at making characters uncomfortable. Self-conscious discomfort is something all usually avoid because it triggers vulnerability. When one feels embarrassed, it is easy to look within and feel the desire to make a change so this experience is not repeated.

Shame + a look within

Disgrace isn’t pretty. When a person knows they have done something improper or dishonorable, it hurts. Shame creates the desire to rewind the clock so one can make a different choice or decision that does not lead to this same situation. It allows the character to focus on their shortcomings without rose-colored glasses, and fast tracks a deep need for change.

*  ~  *  ~  *

These are only a sampling of emotions, but the exercise above suggests it might be easier to bring about this mirror moment through negative emotions. But, does this mean all positive emotions don’t lead to change while all negative ones do? Not at all!

Love + a look within could create a desire to become more worthy in the eyes of loved ones. And emotions such as Denial or Contempt, while negative, both resist the idea of change. Denial + a look within, simply because one is not yet in a place where they can see truth. Contempt + a look within, because one is focused on the faults of others, not on one’s own possible shortcomings. Overall however, negative emotions seem to be the ones best suited to lead to that mirror moment and epiphany that one must change or become stronger and more skilled in order to succeed.

So there you have it–when you’re working on this critical moment in your story when your character realizes change is needed, think carefully about which emotion might best lead to this necessary internal reflection and change.

(And of course, we profile 130 emotions in The Emotion Thesaurus: a Writer’s Guide to Character Expression (now an expanded second edition), so that’s just one more way for you to use it!)


photo credit 1: Dhinal Chheda via photopin cc
photo credit 2: nowhere Zen New Jersey via photopin cc
photo credit 3: stephcarter via photopin cc


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, an online library packed with powerful tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Character Flaws, Character Wound, Characters, Editing Tips, Emotion, Emotion Thesaurus Guide, Experiments, Fear, Plotting, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Writing Craft. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them

  1. Pingback: Resiliency: How Characters Survive Our Torture - We Write Psych

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  3. Cathryn Cade says:


    You never know when lightning will strike. I’ve had this post bookmarked for 3 months, finally read it, and POW!

    I’ve been struggling to plot the final book of a 4 book SFR series, in which the over-arching series hero is brought down, tries to triumph using his usual arrogant alpha tools, does so for a time then crashes clear to the bottom. He finally realizes he needs other beings for many different reasons and that is okay, doesn’t mean he’s needy and helpless. Only then can he rise to final triumph.

    The villain is his mirror with same horrible beginnings, except that V became a criminal & gang leader ruling thru terror, murder & extortion while Hero became a leader of industry, a good man, if isolated.

    Thanks so much, love your books and love this blog! Also heading over to buy JS Bell’s book on middles. He is such a good teacher.

    Cathryn Cade

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  7. mark dark says:

    Great post. Thanks. Slightly different to John Truby teaches that a psychological / moral revelation (or both) should happen suddenly and powerfully in the Climax to give maximum emotional impact. Maybe both ways can work. Or at least, the ‘mirror’ moment can sow the seed for the revelation that comes in the climax where needs are realized and goals are met (or not).

  8. Li Boyang says:

    Great post. I’ve learnt a lot about writing. I’ll certainly bear your formulas in mind when I pen my first novel. I think sometimes we can combine two or more emotions, even. Rather than emotions at the critical moment, I would prefer to think of it as ’emotions at and after the critical moment’, though.

    Say, in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, Scrooge first felt frightened that he’s going to die lonely when the ghost showed him his future. Then he took action – to become more generous, and as a result felt happy. This way, the emotion doesn’t just exist in the critical moment, but also *after* it. I think this dual-layer structure may be more interesting. There’ll be even more spaces for character development too. What do you think?

    Thanks for sharing, BTW!

    • I actually think it’s a series of emotions that complete the process. A specific emotion leads to the realization one must change, then as you suggest, there is the satisfaction-related emotion at seeing change, but then at some point, a downturn emotion that comes with failure or partial failure, leading to recommitting “all in,” and finally success and the emotions tied to well being, satisfaction and knowing one has achieved the evolution to become someone better and living life fulfilled. 🙂

      Emotion really is the life line of any story. 🙂 So important for us to understand it well, and be able to convey it to readers, don’t you agree?

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  10. Mart Ramirez says:

    Love this! And love your math formula. Bookmarking this page for when I start my next project. Thank you for sharing James Scott Bell’s workshop with us. Can’t get enough of his books and teachings!

  11. Andrea says:

    This sound so interesting, I just ordered the book! It definitely sounds like an approach that might eliminate the problem of a weak middle.

  12. Julie Musil says:

    I love James Scott Bell’s advice. I haven’t picked up this book yet. I’ll download it. I just bought his book on dialogue.

    Thanks, Angela!

  13. :Donna Marie says:

    I need to ask something and figured I’d ask it in comments in case anyone else needs the same answer. I hope someone knows!

    Since I’m not an e-reader person, I’m sort of clueless. I DO have Calibre though, and was able to purchase an ebook a couple of years ago to read it there. James’s book is only available as an ebook, but I REALLY want it! Does anyone here know if I download it as a Kindle or Nook version, will it open in Calibre?

    Thanks for any help 🙂

  14. Johanna says:

    Emotion is such a huge piece of character development both negative and positive. But my favorite usage of it is when it’s done subtly so you’re experiencing some moment with the character that leads, sometimes much later on in the book, to some sort of emotional epiphany or realization.

  15. Brenda Johnson says:

    Great post. You are, as always, awesome!! Thanks for the writing advice.

  16. Jade champion says:

    Yes shame does cause a need to look inward, even in background characters. This is awesome, humilation and hurt can be an eye opener especially if the person has low self-esteem. Thanks for this!

    • Yes! Humiliation is another powerful emotion to use. I think a person has to be careful with it though because it can also lead to sort of a self destruct situation, if the person has lost hope that their lives can be good again, and that they deserve something better. It all just depends on the circumstances. Some rise, and others fall.

  17. :Donna Marie says:

    Angela, this is just fantastic. Really. The work you and Becca put into posts is amazing. I often wonder how you find time to do your own writing! Since you first mentioned James’ book, I put it on my wish list, but this post has me even more convinced. I own all your books, so I’m set with that 🙂 Plus I won Dorothy’s Writing Made Easy through your blog, and have quite a stash here of other great books. I’m going to be SO well-equipped with resources, I REALLY hope I utilize them well! 😀 Thank you!

  18. Excellent, useful post, as usual. Thanks!

  19. Great post!! Mirror moments are something I need to examine more, to dig deeper into in my story.

  20. Lori Schafer says:

    This post has actually tempted me to create mirror moments out of positive emotions. The negative ones seem more obvious – and generally more compelling – but also more commonly done. I’m also intrigued by the idea of mirror moments in which the character sees within and still does nothing to effect a change. Happens all the time in real life, but I wonder how well it would work in a story?

    • I think before a character finally understands change must happen, they tend to smack their head against the wall of denial many times. A gauntlet of failure pushes us to the point where that epiphany can occur, probably because as you say, it’s human nature to be stubborn and look outside ourselves for what needs to change, rather than looking within. So I think the emotion + look within = no change would happen in these moments, before full commitment to change happens. As well, if the story is a tragedy, you would see this formula as well.

      Another way this could be used is to look at the antagonist. If the hero is to defeat him, what happens in his own mirror moment? I think it would be this very formula of emotion + inner reflection = no change that causes his downfall!

      Great thoughts here Lori! Thanks so much for commenting.

  21. Great post – I already downloaded James Scott Bell’s book a while ago but haven’t read it all yet so this is a good reminder and I love the way you’ve paired emotions!

  22. Nice post. Something every writer can use.

  23. Great post, Angela. And thanks for reminding me I really want to read James Scott Bell’s book. I loved his book on plot. Awesome you got to go to a workshop with him.

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