Ciao, SEers. Last time I was here, I promised a discussion of beginnings, middles, and ends. We covered beginnings in the November 5 post. Today, it’s time to look at middles.
While you have to remember to start your story strong, it’s important to remember that a novel is a marathon, not a sprint. Beginnings come with a level of hope and enthusiasm; endings offer a feeling of accomplishment and excitement.
Middles don’t provide any of those things.
The middle of your story makes up the bulk of your work and has a lot to accomplish. But it’s not sexy. Not in the traditional sense, anyway. (Story geeks like me might get excited about them, though.) It’s the engine under the hood instead of the sleek sports car body. And that engine needs to operate on all cylinders to do its job. If something’s broken, you can’t get from Point A to Point B. In other words, if you have a messy middle, readers will never get from the beginning of your novel to the end.
Pantsers might find middles harder to navigate than plotters. No offense intended; it’s just the way it is. Even a scant outline will help a writer figure out what needs to happen when in order to get readers seamlessly from start to finish. Without a roadmap, it’s easy to get lost. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a good ride. It might be. But the trip will definitely be more difficult for the writer who doesn’t pre-plot a course.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re working on the middle of your story.
Scenes and Sequels
In Dwight Swain’s book, Techniques of the Selling Writer, he discusses scenes and sequels. A scene is proactive and consists of a goal, a conflict, and a disaster. A sequel is reactive and consists of a reaction, a dilemma, and a decision. Middles are comprised of actions followed by responses followed by actions, etc. Or, in other words, by a series of scenes then sequels.
This collection of alternating scenes and sequels is particularly important in the middle of your novel because the middle is all about progression. And progression is all about the characters’ actions and reactions.
- The conflicts need to get more difficult.
- The tension needs to increase.
- The antagonist has to seem harder and harder to beat.
All of these issues need to elevate in intensity until the climax of the story. We do that with scenes and sequels. Again, scenes are proactive. They start with a character’s goals, progress with conflicts, and end with a disastrous consequence. Then we move onto sequels, which are reactions to the scenes. They begin with the character’s reaction to the disaster, a new dilemma, and then a decision on how to proceed. This decision leads to a new goal in a new scene, and hence the cycle of crafting your story and amping up the stakes.
Assuming a three-act structure, you can divide your story into quarters:
- Act 1, the beginning. Status quo to inciting incident.
- Act 2A, the first half of the middle.
- Act 2B, the second half of the middle.
- Act 3, the ending. Climax and denouement.
We’re discussing middles today, so let’s look more closely at Acts 2A and 2B.
In Act 2A, the heroes have learned the core problem of the story and decided to act. This quarter of the book sees them (through a series of scenes and sequels) trying to solve the problem, failing, then trying again. Each attempt should present a new issue that’s even more difficult to solve. At the end of Act 2A, the heroes should experience a failure so profound, it shakes their belief in their ability to win. This is a dark moment in the novel where it looks like all hope is lost.
In Act 2B, the heroes have to adjust their attitudes. Where their journey before was optimistic, it’s now pessimistic. They doubt their ability to prevail, and the problems escalate in strength or duration. They will feel time constraints, perhaps suffer a betrayal. They’ll have to dig deep to find the will to continue, and at the end of the act, they will be forced to face their biggest, most insurmountable challenge. (It’s worth noting that this is the setup for the climax, but the climax itself doesn’t occur until the next—last—section.)
In conclusion, middles are often messy and last twice as long as your beginning or ending. If you prepare properly in Act 1, you’ll be primed to work through a series of escalating scenes and sequels taking you to the final act of your story.
Are you a plotter or pantser? Do you struggle with middles or surge through? Let’s talk about it.