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The Middle: Meddlesome or Mythical?

By Martha Alderson, M.A.

The toughest part of any writing project is crafting the middle. Why so daunting? The Middle of most projects makes up a whopping 1/2 of the entire page count or scene count. The moment the main character leaves the Beginning and enters the heart of the story world, a door slams shut. Nothing will ever be the same again. Any lingering thought the protagonist has of turning back vanishes.

Not so with the writer. When faced with the long, empty expanse of the Middle, many writers catch the "going back to the beginning" bug. That is, they continually go back to the beginning and start over again.

You know you are mired in the meddlesome middle when you hear yourself mutter: "I forgot to introduce this in the Beginning (the first 1/4). I'll just turn back and start over again. It's okay; I'll only do it this one time. Anyway, a fresh start will do me good."

Wrong.

No matter how you justify it, going back to the beginning and starting over again is an affliction that can add months and even years to the writing time of a project. In the advanced stages, interrupting the forward flow in the Middle and starting over again has killed many-a-worthy project. Rather than hide from the unknown, do what the pros do.

The Three Parts of a Story

The pros know that every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. The Beginning and the End each encompasses 1/4 of the scene count of the entire story. Twice that number of scenes spreads out over the Middle.

Within each of these three parts and interacting together in uniquely different ways are the Character Emotional Development plot line, the Dramatic Action plot line, and the Thematic Significance plot line.

At The Beginning

The role of the scenes in the first quarter of a movie or a book is to snag attention. Orientation to time and setting helps. Dramatic action centered on the protagonist's long-term goal works, as does the promise of tension, conflict and suspense. An introduction to the major characters with an idea of who they are, their emotional make-up, and the weight they carry in the story contributes to the allure, but the best bait is a protagonist with a passion who is worth knowing. This is especially true when the pursuit of the desire requires more of the character than she believes she is. High stakes capable of changing the character at depth over time makes the plunge worth it.

Jump to the End

In the final quarter of the story, the protagonist emerges from the heart of the story world - the middle--into the territory of the End. There the character development and the dramatic action start all over again. In rapid succession, scenes build in significance and relevance as the protagonist makes choices. Tension, conflict, and suspense rises until the Character Emotional Development and the Dramatic Action plotline collide head-on at the Climax.

After the dust of the cliffhanger settles, we learn whether the protagonist has been changed at depth, or not. This is when the Thematic Significance plot line is at its peak. A character fighting to gain what she desires is capable of producing an outcome of important consequence. With illumination, insight, or a tiny bit of wisdom, the story promise is kept.

What about the Middle?

Rather than viewing the Middle as a huge wasteland waiting to devour them, the pros think of the Middle as simply the place where the main action of the story takes place. In mythical middles, all three of the plotlines established in the Beginning develop incrementally scene by scene. The dramatic action intensifies. The risks facing the protagonist rise.

The simplest way the pros do this is by calling in the antagonists. Family, friends, co-workers, enemies, and lovers are always capable of finding the exact sort of folly certain to thwart the protagonist's progress toward achieving her long-term goal. A hurricane or earthquake, flood or a physical disability serves to ruin everything. The rules of religion, government, and customs act as detours. A car breaks down. A motorcycle skids. Fears and flaws and prejudice get in the way. Through it all, the most formidable antagonist ticks on--time.

7 Tricks for Mythical Middles

1.) Begin the Middle by introducing an overarching tension, conflict or suspense plot point. Each looming threat holds the readers attention and allows the author to slow down the story to create scenes of place and time and humanness without worry.

In the Beginning of The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje introduces the time and setting, both fraught with danger. The fears and flaws and secrets of the three main characters create more. By introducing the Sapper in the last sentence of the Beginning, Ondaatje promises change.

The Middle begins with Kip. The Sapper's presence makes real the threat of an uncut fuse wire, pencil mines, glass bombs and even bombs drilled into fruit trees. The risk to everyone in the story creates suspense, allowing Ondaatje to develop the story more slowly.

2.) Each scene in the Middle sheds light more deeply into the Character Emotional Development through Dramatic Action that carries Thematic Significance.

The first quarter of Grapes of Wrath ends with the Joad family and their possessions loaded in a "truck crawling through the dust toward the highway and the west."

The Middle begins when the Joad family faces the reality that the family is too big for the truck. Because that happens, after meeting some nice people on the road, they split up the family between their truck and the strangers' car. When Grandpa dies, Ma senses the further erosion of the family. Because of that, when the car breaks down, Ma stands up to the men and establishes the importance of family.

Steinbeck infuses the dramatic action in the Middle with the possibility that even broke and starving, a family that stays together can retain to the last its sense of hope and human dignity. The possibility of such a mighty theme results in significant character emotional development in Ma and, in turn, the entire family.

3.) Challenge the protagonist with obstacles and gatekeepers big and bad enough to stop the faint-hearted.

In just the first fifteen pages of the Middle of The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown throws in a demented Silas who triggers a call of distress. That is followed by a furious Fache who connects Sophie and Langdon, sounds the alarm, and closes all escape routes. A security warden with a grudge stops Langdon. Something goes terribly wrong for the Opus Dei. Throughout all the chaos, Brown quietly explores the idea that without balance between male and female all is lost.

4.) Plot involves the deliberate arrangement of scenes by cause and effect. After each scene you create, try asking yourself, "Because that happens, what happens next?"

The Middle of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird begins when Scout hears that her daddy defends blacks. Because that happens, Scout learns that she and her family will be in a fight against their friends. She must learn to keep her head high and her fists low. Because that happens, Scout walks away from a fight for the first time in her life. Because she is able to do that, she feels noble and begins to change at depth.

5.) Layer your scenes with foreshadowing. Pros don't tell everything that is coming. Just give a hint. The suspense of not quite knowing draws the reader deeper into the story world.

Sue Kidd Monk introduces early in the Middle of The Secret Life of Beesa behavior that makes no sense to the protagonist, setting up curiosity as to why June asks May to excuse herself for humming "the song again." Very quickly, Monk lets on that the song symbolizes May's personal way of warding off crying that sometimes gets so bad she rants and tears her hair. Now, on the alert for "the song," we cringe the next time it's heard. The intensity of May's self-destructive behavior builds, frightening the protagonist. And still, the suspense builds further.

6.) The middle is actually much easier to write if you add a great subplot. The idea is to take the main character and give them the "Out of left field" treatment. That is something unexpected interferes and pulls them out of the main plot for a spell. Once the subplot is resolved, they fight their way back to the main plot and finalize that.

Anne Tyler in the Accidental Tourist begins the Middle with the protagonist's urgent need to stop his dog from biting people.

7.) The energy of the Middle crescendos at the Crisis. Each scene in the middle portion of the story serves to march the protagonist closer and closer to the high point. From the linkage between each scene, the steady incline of difficulty in the Middle sets up the inevitability of the Crisis.

Right after the intensity of the Crisis, the energy of the story drops off for a bit to allow the protagonist to catch his or her breath.

In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden crafted the Crisis as an ego threatening and possibly even life-threatening challenge. Sayuri must decide whether to lie and gain the stature and a much longed for security, or not. The outcome forces Sayuri to see herself for who she truly is.

Before Sayuri enters the territory of the End of the story where she will be faced with a series of tests to determine whether her newfound faith in herself will survive, she is given the chance to prepare herself. The energy of the story slows down long enough to show more about the inner life of a geisha. Time passes. Sayuri turns eighteen. She passes from apprentice to a geisha. Readers pace themselves for the ultimate challenge to come.

In Conclusion

In the territory of the Middle of a novel or screenplay, the protagonist pushes toward something while internal and external forces delay her. Do like the pros do and drag out the suspense - will she or won't she achieve her goal? Prolong the tension (no longer than the relative payoff). Plot each of the antagonists on your Plot Planner. Filled with excitement and suspense, curiosity and trepidation, anticipation and intense longing, meddlesome middles switch to mythical.

Meet the Author: Martha Alderson, M.A.

Martha Alderson, aka the Plot Whisperer, is the author of the Plot Whisperer series of plot books for writers: The Plot Whisperer Book of Prompts: Easy Exercises to Get You Writing, The Plot Whisperer Workbook: Step-by-Step Exercises to Help You Create Compelling Stories – a companion workbook to The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master. She has also written Blockbuster Plots Pure & Simple (Illusion Press) and several ebooks on plot. As an international plot consultant for writers, Martha’s clients include best-selling authors, New York editors, and Hollywood movie directors. She teaches plot workshops to novelists, mem...