Writing Tip of the Week: Story Structure – The Middle, Part Two

Two weeks ago, we talked about what goes into the first half of the Middle of a story.  This week, we’ll explore what happens after the Mid-Point, what’s waiting for the main character, and other components as we make our way toward the End of the story.

Stronger, Harder, Faster

Your hero might have just achieved a big win, but that only means one thing: obstacles are only going to get more complicated from here.  They may be halfway through their journey to achieve their goal, but that only means that the opposition will be in full force as it seeks to destroy the hero by any means necessary.  This is where the hero really begins to be put to the test.  Do they have what it takes to overcome the challenges and obstacles that await to get where they need to go?

This Is Jeopardy!

The stakes for the hero and their goal are about to increase in magnitude, which means that they will find themselves and others in greater danger if they don’t reach their goal.  It’s time to throw some big-time problems and issues at the hero and see how they work to overcome them, how they fight to stay on track, and what they do when those around them are in peril.  There’s no point in letting up now.  Keeping the audience on the edge of their seat watching or reading as the hero traverses these challenges is important.  Will they make it out okay?  How will they change as a result of these new and heightened stakes?

The Antagonist Steps-Up Their Game

This is no time for the hero to become complacent.  The antagonist certainly won’t.  They know that their plans are now even closer to being thwarted and stopped, so they will be throwing everything they have at the hero to prevent them from reaching their goal.  Whether it’s an army, henchmen, or a field of poppies that put travelers to sleep, the antagonist will do what it takes to slow down and hopefully stop the hero.

All is Lost

Things are looking up.  Your hero has made great strides, overcome obstacles, made mincemeat out of the heightened stakes, and become a stronger person due to the problems they faced.  The goal is closer now than it’s ever been.  Time to celebrate?  Hardly.

The antagonist has one more trick up their sleeve, and this is the moment – the major turning point – when all comes crashing down on the hero.  They lose the deal.  An attack takes out their defenses.  The love interest discovers a truth they can’t handle and leaves.  This moment is a true gut punch to the hero.  A moment when everything they’ve worked toward seems to evaporate.  

This is Turning Point Two.  It’s the end of the Middle, and the beginning of the End.

Will the hero have what it takes to overcome and reach their goal?

In Legally Blonde, Elle is propositioned by Callahan, which is seen by Vivian who turns against Elle (they had become friends during the Middle phase of the story).  Everything Elle’s done up to this point seems to be stripped away from her.  Her confidence.  Her abilities.  Her relationships.  Her very reason for being in the intern program is thrown into doubt as well.  

Did Callahan pick her for the wrong reasons?  Was she encouraged by him because he thought she would sleep with him to get ahead?

In the aftermath of this moment, Elle has to make choices that will make or break her and her goals.

Check out the clip below:

In two weeks, we’ll see how the hero works through this new and devastating moment and how they use what they learn to get to the End of their story.

Happy writing, and I’ll see you in two weeks!

Check out Part One of The Middle below:

Writing Tip of the Week: Story Structure – The Middle, Part One

Over the past two articles, we discussed what goes into creating the opening of your story.

Today, we’ll start to look at the Middle of the story.  You can call it Act Two or even as some writers call it: The Muddle.  This is where your hero’s path toward their goal should become increasingly challenging, where they begin to grow and change as a character, and the story continues to create conflicts for the main character.

The Stage Is Set

The Who, What, Where, When, and Why have all been established and your main character and their helpers have been launched from their ordinary existence into a new and challenging adventure.  Your main character has a stated goal, and forces prevent them from quickly achieving what they want.

Once they cross over the threshold of Turning Point One, they have no entered a new phase of their journey. They may have to reassess how they are going about achieving their goal.  They may realize that they can’t do things on their own and need some help.  Maybe the antagonist has taken this moment to up the stakes just a little more, which only motivates the hero to keep going despite the odds.  

At this point, you as a writer should know your main character fairly well.  What they are willing to do and not do.  How far they will go to get what they want.  What decisions they will make – good or bad – that will impact them reaching their goal.  

And The Hits Keep on Comin’

Obstacles.  Lots of obstacles.  The Middle of the story needs to present challenges and problems that make the hero challenge who they are and make them work to reach their goal.  Think of this section of the story as the main obstacle course for your characters.  They have to do things that they may not want to do, may not like, and may have to go outside their comfort zone to get to the next level to get one step closer to their goal.

Reality shows like American Ninja WarriorWipeout, and Holey Moley are examples of individuals having to traverse seemingly impossible odds to reach the intended goal and get the prize.  Essentially, you are sending your characters through a similar maze filled with hazards, hits, and dangers that they must overcome in one way or another.

It’s okay for them to fail and have setbacks.  In fact, that makes your hero more human if they don’t always get what they need or want on the first try.  Creating a flawed character who doesn’t give up creates empathy and relatability between the character and the audience.  

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

The Middle is where the bulk of the character arc takes place, mainly since it’s also where the bulk of the story happens.  Your main character started out one way when we first met them at the beginning of the story, but now as they face new odds and problems, we should begin to see them develop and grow.  

A stagnant and unchanging character lacks relatability.  If your character experiences some traumatic event that launches them into the story and has zero effect on them, it’s hard to relate to that character.  Now, suppose they are repressing their anger, sadness, or despair, affecting their judgment and ability to problem-solve.  This creates an internal conflict that will eventually manifest itself since they will have to overcome those things in order to reach their goal by the end of the story.

Think of Mando’s arc in season one of The Mandalorian.  How does he change when he meets and interacts with The Child for the first time?  What choices does he make that affect his character arc throughout the season?  How do his choices and changes affect the story?

Think about how the events in Jurassic Park affect Alan Grant’s relationships with and views on children.  How do his interactions and perspectives change from the start of the film to the finale?

Keep Things in Motion

A story should be in constant motion.  Each scene or chapter leading into the next.  The protagonist should always be doing something.  They should always be active in what’s going on.  It is their story, after all.

As you develop the Middle, think about how to map out the story so events keep moving forward.  That goal is still out there.  The antagonist still exists to prevent the protagonist from reaching their goal.  How can you keep your hero moving toward their goal while hitting them with problems that prevent them from reaching it?

Each scene or chapter should give the audience a new piece of the puzzle.  Some new information that keeps them reading or watching.  The hero is handed a note and reads it.  What does it say?  We don’t find out until several chapters or scenes later, but our curiosity has been piqued.  

Keep the audience interested, and they’ll stay to find out what happens next.

Staying Focused

During this time in the story, it can be easy to slowly go off course and get knee-deep in subplots or tangents.  And while subplots are acceptable, it’s important not to lose sight of the real reason we’re in this story: to watch the hero go after their goal in the face of opposition.

Work through their story first.  If you want to go back and add a subplot that ties into the main story afterward, go for it.  Your main goal here is to develop the main character’s arc and their related story arc.  It can be very tempting to go and take a detour with the main character’s best friend and see what shenanigans they’ll get themselves into.  But unless that directly impacts the main story, hold off and see if that side trip is really necessary.

Think about movies you’ve seen where subplots pop up and then go nowhere, or they have no relation to the main story and just seem to be there to eat away screen time.  Avoid these types of subplots and make sure that all roads point back to the hero.

In The Middle of Things

As I said before, the Middle is the longest part of any story.  It can be almost an hour of what you see on the screen (and if it’s a long movie, even more).  At the halfway point, there’s something known as the Mid-Point Sequence.  The outcome affects what the hero does moving forward. 

This is a big moment for the hero. After everything they’ve been through and worked through, things seem to be going their way for the most part.  They still haven’t reached their goal, but now they are getting a better idea of how to get there.

This is also known as The Point of No Return.  Once we get past the Mid-Point of the Middle, it’s now only a matter of time before the protagonist has to confront their antagonist head-on (literally or figuratively). 

In Legally Blonde, the Mid-Point of the Middle comes when Elle gets chosen Callahan’s law internship.  This is a big moment for Elle since she has been working to prove herself a viable Harvard law school student and future lawyer.  Worth noting is that her antagonist, Warner, was also chosen along with his fiancée, Vivian (Selma Blair).  I mention Vivian since she is an extension of the antagonist, and therefore can cause problems and issues for Elle on his behalf.

The sequence then leads to Elle, Warner, and Vivian arriving at the internship and finding out about the case they will be assisting on.  

Elle is at the Point of No Return.  She can’t back out now, and she can’t allow herself to fail without a fight.  

Check out the clip below:

In two weeks, we’ll explore the second half of the Middle as we charge toward the End and the Climax of the story!  

Happy writing!

Check out the articles on The Beginning, here:

Make Every Character Count

When creating characters for a story, whether it’s a novel, short story, screenplay, play, etc., remember that every character you introduce must serve a purpose in the story.  It’s pointless and a waste of time for you and your audience to have to deal with characters that have no reason for existing within the context of the story being presented.

Yes, there are different types of characters in a story that serves a multitude of purposes.  But even Henchman #3 has a reason to be in the story. If he’s just there doing nothing and has no purpose in fighting the main character or helping to escalate the obstacles for the main character than they should be removed ASAP.

Your main character is surrounded by supporting characters.  Those characters exist to help the main character, to support the main character, to give exposition and context to the main character and their world. They, in essence, ground the main character in the reality of the story. 

The antagonist exists to upend the world of the main character, and the characters associated with them are there to cause chaos for the protagonist as well.  They serve a purpose in the story: to help drive the action and conflict of the narrative and create obstacles for the main character.

Utility characters are those that the main character interacts with that often help the main character in some basic way: a cab driver; a cop; a barista; a witness who heard something.  They help propel the story forward but they aren’t integral to the main character’s overall growth over the course of the narrative.  On TV shows, these are also usually the random characters that pop up in an episode only to be killed off so the main cast can stay in-tact.

If you are taking the time to create and write about a character, they must serve a purpose that serves the main character on their journey.  Don’t spend hours creating a random character who appears in one chapter who is fascinating and clever, only for them to never be seen again.  If this does happen when you’re writing, maybe save that character for another story or integrate them more into what you’ve written.

It’s okay to have crowd of people in a story, but don’t get too focused in on who they are as individuals unless the ones you select to describe more have a purpose later on.  For example, if you have a group of protesters, you can give us an idea of what they look like and what they are doing/protesting, but naming them and giving them backstories is only worth your time and the audience’s time if we will see those particular characters later.

The most important characters are your main character and the antagonist.  Everyone else exists to serve them or oppose them over the course of the story.

How do you make sure you are keeping your story focused and on track?  We’ll talk about that topic on Monday!

A Closer Look: Antagonists, Part Three

As writers, much like actors, we are given the unique opportunity to live as many different lives as we can imagine and create.  It’s a power that enables us to explore new lands, create jaw-dropping scenarios, and live vicariously through the senses of those whom we could never be in real life.

And that’s why as a writer you should embrace your antagonist 100%.

This is your chance to live in the skin of someone who can do and say things you wouldn’t do and say.  This is your chance to cause chaos and in a peaceful world.  This is your chance to disrupt your main character’s normal life and give them a reason to fight for their return to normalcy. 

Think about your favorite movie, TV, or book antagonists. Someone had to create them, and someone definitely had fun writing them.  This is your chance to have the same level of fun.  It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with or condone the character’s actions, but you can explore what it would be like to engage in those actions and see the resulting chaos that ensues.

This is why it’s important to enjoy what you write and enjoy the characters that you write. 

In that rough draft, don’t be afraid to “go there” with your characters.  You can make your antagonist as heartless, as nasty, as evil, and as morally reprehensible as you want.  Then, if you feel it’s too much, scale it back when you revise the story.  Never edit or second-guess yourself as you write a rough draft. 

Allow your creative mind to take that journey into darkness with your antagonist.

In doing this, you will help mold and shape a stronger force for your main character to challenge and battle as the climax of the story nears.  You want your audience to believe that the main character has truly met their match, and that there may be no way to defeat this opposing force no matter how strong the protagonist appears to be. 

Give us a reason to doubt that the protagonist will win in the end.  This creates a sense of tension and suspense in the audience’s mind, which draws them even deeper into the story.

Whether it’s a story about a pie baking contest or one with world-ending stakes, the main character needs a strong, dimensional, and intriguing antagonist to compete against in order to create strong conflict and dramatic tension. 

Embrace your antagonist as much as you do your protagonist and your story will be all the better for it.

A Closer Look: Antagonists, Part Two

Should you like your antagonist?  Short answer: Yes.  Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to agree with their actions, their ideas, or their lack of moral clarity, but as a writer you need to be able to live inside the character’s head and give their actions as much meaning and importance as the main character. 

Another reason to like your antagonist: you will be living with them for a while, especially if you are writing a script or novel, so you have to be able to “work with them” in order to create an effective story. If you have created a character that you find so morally repugnant and repulsive that you can’t write scenes or chapters with them, then maybe it’s time to change the character or scale back what you don’t like about them. 

If they are in your story, they deserve your time and attention. 

Also remember that the antagonist feels that they are in the right on their side of the story.  They feel that what they are doing is necessary and just as important as whatever the main character is up to.  If they didn’t feel this way they wouldn’t be so strongly opposed to the main character getting what they want. 

All stories are a matter of perspective.

And while you have created a compelling and dimensional main character for us to follow over the course of the story, your antagonist should also be compelling and dimensional.  When you begin to develop this character, ask yourself:

  • What was their life like before the story began? 
  • How did they get to this point in their life?
  • What motivates them?  What are their hopes, dreams, fears, likes and dislikes, etc.?
  • What do they want in the story, and why?
  • Why do they oppose the main character’s goal?
  • What happens if the antagonist doesn’t achieve their goal?

Using these questions as a starting point, you can start to create a more realized and fully formed antagonist for your main character to deal with.  There is always a story behind why a character has evolved into who they are at this point in time when your story begins.  It’s your job as a writer to understand that story and use it to create a stronger antagonist.

On Friday we will continue or exploration of antagonists.

A Closer Look: Antagonists, Part One

Antagonists.  At the very base level they are the character that prevents your main character from reaching their desired target, which results in the dramatic conflict the propels the protagonist – and in turn, the story – forward.  It is for this reason that this character needs to be given some attention by you, the writer, in order to make sure that your main character doesn’t have an easy time achieving their intended goal.

At the root of the word, “antagonist,” is the word “antagonize,” and the dictionary definition of this root word is: “to incur or provoke the hostility of,” or “to act in opposition to.”  Either one of these works in describing the main reason for his opposing character’s existence in your story.  They are there to initiate the change that turns your main character’s world upside down. 

This doesn’t mean that this character has to be some egomaniacal supervillain, especially if you are writing a real-world story.  It just means that this particular person’s actions must be contrary to your main character’s in order for there to be conflict throughout your narrative. 

When you begin to dig deeper into your antagonist, I would suggest using the basic formula presented a couple posts ago, but placing the antagonist in the “hero” spot.  What does your antagonist want?  What is their goal in the story?  Why does the main character oppose what they are doing and what their goal is? 

By giving depth and dimension to your antagonist, you can make them and their goals feel more real to the audience.  Yes, we are supposed to be rooting for the main character, but you as a writer need to get inside the opposition’s head and find out what makes them tick, makes them want what they want, and who they were before the story began.

I feel it’s a cop-out to spend tons of time on your main character and then just toss in an opposing force that is one-dimensional with no real development as a character.  Even if you don’t dig into the antagonist’s backstory in the narrative, you still need to know for yourself why they are how and they are and why they are doing what they are doing.

Wednesday, we will continue this conversation as we explore more about developing a strong antagonist for your story.

A Closer Look: Story Antagonists

Starting this Monday, we will explore the exciting and complex world of story antagonists.  No matter what you call them in your story, they are the primary character in opposition to your main character; the one ultimately preventing your protagonist from achieving their goal.  

Until then, who or what is your favorite fictional antagonist and why?  Leave a comment and let me know.  I look forward to your responses.  

Have a great weekend!

The Basic Story Formula: An Effective Template

Most commercial films, TV series, and novels can be boiled down to one simple formula:

Hero + Goal + Opposition = Conflict, which = Drama

Let’s break this down into its respective parts.

The HERO, Heroine, or Protagonist is the main character we follow over the course of the story. Their hopes, dreams, fears, wants, needs, and desires become ours as we vicariously follow them throughout the narrative.  They are the character with which the writer wants us to identify with, empathize or sympathize with.  They become our avatar, giving us a role within the story through their eyes and experiences.

Now, that main character wants something.  They need something.  They are after something.  And that something (the GOAL) is what sets things in motion for the character, and in turn creates a series of events that the character must experience and surpass in order to reach the intended goal.

What’s preventing the HERO from achieving their GOAL?  It’s an obstacle, a unyielding force, and foe, a villain, an antagonist…OPPOSITION. Someone or something is causing them problems on their way to reaching their intended goal.  And while there may be a main antagonist for the protagonist to face and defeat, the antagonist will definitely throw plenty of obstacles and other issues the protagonist’s way as they attempt to achieve their goal.

And if you and a protagonist after something and someone or something trying to prevent them from reaching said goal, you will create CONFLICT.  It is through conflict that stories create DRAMA.  All of these elements are important in order to drive the action and events forward in your story, to create suspense, to create tension, and to give your audience a desire to see what happens next.

Pick a mainstream film genre and this formula fits.  Superhero? Yep.  Action?  Definitely. Sci-fi?  You bet.  Romantic-Comedy?  Uh-huh. Western?  Yup. 

I’ll use a recent blockbuster as an example:  Avengers: Infinity War. (SPOILER ALERT!)

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely talked about in an article that Thanos was the true hero of the film. Having that information, and knowing the basic story of the film, we can plug in the following variables:

HERO (Thanos) + GOAL (retrieve all six Infinity Stones to implement final plan) + OPPOSITION (The Avengers and The Guardians of the Galaxy) = CONFLICT (plenty of teams of superheroes trying to stop Thanos from getting all the stones), which = DRAMA (plenty of dramatic and tragic moments befall everyone as Thanos moves toward his goal)

We are following Thanos on his journey.  It’s his character arc that is center stage, and therefore he is the main character of Avengers: Infinity War.  And, as the screenwriters state: “This is the hero’s journey for Thanos,” McFeely explained. “By the end of the hero’s journey, our main character, our protagonist — at least, in this case — gets what he wants.”

So, as you begin to construct your story, try and plug in these basic elements first as a foundation to build on.  Hey, if it works for a film that made $2,046,626,158 worldwide, it’s a safe bet it’s a tried and true formula for creating a strong story.