Middles

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.

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:

  1. Act 1, the beginning. Status quo to inciting incident.
  2. Act 2A, the first half of the middle.
  3. Act 2B, the second half of the middle.
  4. 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.

Staci Troilo Bio

31 thoughts on “Middles

  1. Pingback: Author Inspiration and Last Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  2. I would say I am a mix between a pantser and plotter. I always have a good idea of how the story needs to go, but stay open to the characters leading me. I do find that the middle is often the place where a story can start to drag. I loved how you put it, Staci, about amping up the tension and making things increasingly difficult for the protagonist. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I’m so glad you found this useful, Jan. And it’s so nice to hear how you work. I let myself veer off the path a little, but never too far. I’m always afraid I’ll get lost and won’t find my way back! But I have to admit, I have found a few of my detours to be the best parts. If a character is desperate to turn off the road, I’d be a fool not to listen.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’m on a pendulum. I pantsed my way through a few things that were never published. Then I plotted the beginning and end for one and that worked well. The one novel I plotted in excruciating detail worked very well. Today, the pendulum has swung back. I make my storyboards, but deviate from them all the time. My biggest issue with middles was always word count. I didn’t want my planned novel to become a novella or an epic saga. On my soon to be published work, I simply had a lot more story. The middle was not a problem, because they were chasing after specific supplies that eluded them, but were necessary to the resolution.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This post is super informative, thanks!
    I’m a pantser and yes, the middle KILLS me. I spend days working through a scene almost pulling my hair out because I have NO idea where it’s going. But that’s part of the fun, lol. I will try to use your advice here and see where that takes me, maybe (if I’m lucky) over the hump and into the end zone 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I was a panster, tried to become a plotter, but with my current WIP, I’ve found regardless of plotting, my characters hijacked a bulk of the story. You’re right that the middle is particularly messy for those of us who don’t plot well. I’m at that point now, but I think I’ve also reached the peak, and am now heading down the other side. I see myself being able to stitch the unexpected elements I didn’t count on into those elements I DID plot. Whew!
    I’m starting to wonder if pantsing is just too ingrained into my blood. Either way, middles are rough for me!

    Liked by 3 people

    • If you’re a pantser, you might as well embrace it. That means you’ll be as surprised as anyone when you get to the end, which can be a blast! I also probably means you’ll take a little longer because you have to stitch all the pieces together and you don’t have a pattern to refer to. But that’s okay. You’ve been pantsing for how long now? You always finish with a designer gown instead of rags (which I would definitely have if I pantsed).

      Liked by 3 people

      • A designer gown. I like that 🙂
        I’m still going to plot as much as possible, because it definitely helps. It boggles my mind how you’re able to flesh out the plot of a whole book chapter to chapter. Someday I might figure out how to do that!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Don’t give me TOO much credit. My outlines are fairly sparse. And they’re fluid—I change them as I go if my characters start to rebel. But I do need them, or I’d be totally lost. I’d have… rags. Definitely useless, tattered rags.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m definitely a plotter. The conclusion scares me more than any other part of the writing. I live for the build up and have anxiety about the having the ending match the message I want to portray as the take away. I love posts like this, thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m going to venture a guess and say you’re in the minority on this one. I’m a plotter, but there are times I want to pull my hair out. Probably because this is the point where my characters grow a streak of independence and I have to decide to follow them into the unknown or try to reel them in. I’m glad to have “met” a writer who actually enjoys that part!

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m definitely with you on that. Like I just said in my reply to Jan, I need a roadmap. But if one of my characters is desperate to detour, I turn off the road. They usually know the best places to go.

        Like

  7. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter. For my current novel, it’s working for me to have five scenes planned ahead and nothing more. That gives me the pointer of where I plan to go, but also allows me the flexibility to change as I go along if that’s where my muse takes me. I’ve only written one novel with a full chapter by chapter outline. I haven’t published it. I hate it. Maybe one day, lol. Middles don’t pose a problem for me, or not yet … don’t want to put a jink on that! Thanks for a great post, Staci 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

      • We can add “jink” to our special language file. 😉

        You sound like most pantsers I know. You prefer the freedom to let things go where they may. I feel that way as I outline. I’d never want to attempt it writing a novel. I’d end up with George R. R. Martin-sized works that never came to a resolution. I definitely need a plan as I write, and even then, middles present a problem for me. I’m glad you don’t struggle with them.

        Liked by 1 person

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