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:

Writing Tip of the Week: A Cinematic Writing Assignment

What’s your favorite movie?  What makes that particular film stand out from the rest of the millions that exist?  What is it about that story, its characters, or its themes that left an impression on you?

Time to do a little homework.

I know, I know.  Homework.  Booooooring!  I get it.  But, this is creative homework.  This is your chance to do a deep dive into your favorite film and get to the heart of why it affects you and why you enjoy it.  In turn, this exercise will help you as a writer by giving insight into how they create a compelling story, how they utilize storytelling structure, and how they create compelling characters.

What You Need

  • Grab a notepad or legal pad and a pen or pencil.
  • A copy of your favorite movie.
  • Your Analytical Cap.
  • Good Pause Button skills (you’ll be using this a lot).

Think of yourself as a story archaeologist.  Your mission is to unearth the storytelling secrets hidden beneath the surface of the film you chose.  

Viewing #1

I know it’s your favorite, but as you go through this first time, write down your favorite moments and note at what time or on what page number they occur.  Was it a plot point that intrigued you?  A clever line of dialogue?  A character moment?  Write it down and write down why you reacted the way you did to that element.

Do this for the whole movie, then read back through what you observed.

Viewing #2

This round is all about the story.  In one or two sentences, write down what happens in each scene that moves the story forward.  What’s the main conflict in each scene?  You can number the scenes or write a general location of where the scene takes place.

If scenes are revolving around a sub-plot, see how that smaller story is resolved or if it dovetails into the main story.

By the end, you should be able to go back through your notes and see the primary story arc evolve throughout the film.  Does each scene feed into the next?  Do you notice a pattern as to when the story has significant changes?  

All screenplays have a basic story structure.  There are dozens of ways to break down that structure, but for the purposes of this exercise, I’ll refer you to The Syd Field Paradigm below:

If the screenwriter did their job correctly, these elements should be crystal clear and easy to identify as you review your notes.  Highlight or underline what you feel these moments are.

Viewing #3

This final round is all about character.  Your job is to watch how the main character changes over the course of the story.  What traits do they have at the start of the story?  Do they become a better person or a worse person by the end?  

This is another scene-by-scene breakdown.  Write down in a couple sentences what the main character is doing, how they’re acting, what you feel their motivation or conflict is in the scene.  As you go through, you should be able to see their discernable character arc as they navigate their way through the ups and downs of the plot.  How does the story impact who they are as a character?  How do they impact the events of the story?  

Read back through and see if you can clearly identify when the writer began to make changes in the character and how those changes altered the main character by the end of the story.

So, What Did We Learn?

So, now you’ve watched your favorite film three more times and have done some digging into its inner workings.  By breaking the movie into its basic components, you have a clearer picture of how this screenwriter crafted a compelling story with an interesting main character.  You can see where the story beats are, where the direction of the story changes, and how those elements either impact the main character’s arc or how their arc impacts the story.

Keep this exercise in mind when you finish a draft of your screenplay, play, or novel.  If you were to sit down and do this exercise with your work, could you summarize what’s happening in each scene in a sentence or two?  Would those sentences be enough to show the main story’s arc throughout the narrative?  Does your main character evolve over the course of the story?  What happens to cause the change from start to finish?

Consider doing this exercise with your own work to help you strengthen your story and main character in your different drafts.

Extra Credit

Now, if you enjoyed that exercise, why not try it with a movie you strongly dislike?  I know it can be hard to stomach a film you can’t stand, but take the emotion out and look at it from an analytical perspective. 

The first time through, write down all the elements you dislike and why.  If anything does work for you, write it down.

The second and third viewings should be done similar to the ones stated above.  You may find that the story arc and/or main character arc are weak and lacking in a lot of ways.

How would you, as this film’s screenwriter, fix these weaknesses?  When you read back through, brainstorm what you would have done to make the story and character elements stronger and more effective.

You can learn a lot from both good and bad films by breaking their stories down into their component parts.  I highly recommend reading screenplays for films as well.  Screenplays give you the nuts and bolts of story and character without the distraction and spectacle so you can analyze things even more in-depth.  I recommend checking out the link below to find screenplays to break down and analyze.

Happy writing and analyzing. I’ll see you next week!

Don’t be Afraid to Give Your Protagonist Negative Traits and Flaws

I recently came across this clip of Daisy Ridley being interviewed about her character Rey in the latest Star Wars trilogy, and her perspective piqued my interest.  Have a look:

As a writer, I respectfully disagree with Ridley’s view on characters not needing flaws or faults and her perspective that Rey doesn’t have any.  Why are character flaws and negative traits important even in a protagonist?  Let’s talk about it.

Flaws and imperfections give a character depth and dimension.  They humanize the character and create empathy or sympathy between the reader/viewer and the character.  Flaws give the character something to overcome or cope with as they work through the narrative.  

Just like in real life, there are external events we have to deal with, and at the same time, we have to work through any internal issues we may be facing.  Sometimes the two can conflict, which can be frustrating in real life but makes excellent story material.

A perfect character is a BORING character.  You want your characters to feel relatable, and negative traits are a great way to do that.  This doesn’t mean they have to be evil or do illegal things.  There is a wide range of emotions, traits, and flaws you can give a character that will help your reader see them as a person and not just a vessel through which a story is being told.

Think of some of your own personal traits that might be seen as unfavorable or even your own flaws.  Do they make you a bad person?  Probably not.  How do you cope with them?  How do you work through them daily?  By incorporating internal struggles and flaws, you can add dimension to your characters. 

Think of your favorite film, TV series, or book characters.  Are they perfect?  Probably not.  Do they have flaws?  More than likely, a lot of them.  But even with these faults, flaws, and struggles, we identify with them, root for them, empathize with them and watch the character evolve as the story unfolds.

You know, that whole character arc thing.  Pretty important.

Daisy Ridley’s proclamation that Rey has no flaws starts with the writing.  If J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson created a flawless character for Ridley to play, that’s an error in judgment on their part, not Ridley’s.  She’s merely performing what’s on the page and interpreting it based on what the director – and Disney – wants.  

Rey should have flaws, doubts, imperfections, and negative traits.  It doesn’t make her a bad person; it doesn’t make her less likable.  It HUMANIZES her, giving the audience someone to follow and root for.  

These issues enable the character to have an arc, to strive toward being better as they traverse the obstacles thrown at them by the story.  If you listen to the clip, Ridley lists several things that she feels people can overcome – “anger and jealousy” – and she’s right.  They can.  That’s called personal growth in real life.  Or a character arc in a story.  

Just like the characters in the original Star Wars trilogy.

If you look at the original trilogy, Luke, Leia, Han, and even Darth Vader all have negative traits and flaws, but they overcome them throughout the trilogy.  We watch, and we have a vested interest in who they are and what will happen to them.  Is it because they’re perfect, flawless humans?  Quite the opposite.

So, as you create characters for your stories, remember that it’s okay to have them possess negative traits and have flaws.  This gives them something to work on, something for the audience to identify with, and presents the reader/viewer with a dimensional character worth their time.

Apologies for the late post. I will be back to the earlier post time next Sunday!

Writing Tip #9: Don’t Be Afraid to Rough-Up Your Protagonist

You’ve created the perfect protagonist for your story.  They’re smart, funny, liked by other characters, and best of all, you love them, too!  Now it’s time for them to enter the world of your story and there’s a fear deep inside you that wants to protect them at all costs.  After all, this precious creation should travel through the ebbs and flows of the story unscathed and come out on the other end as perfect as they were when they started their journey.

This is one of the worst things you can do.  Not just as a writer, but to your audience.

Your audience – whether reading or watching your story – wants to go on a journey with your main character.  They want to experience, grow, change, and be moved by what happens to your main character. If your character doesn’t go through some metamorphosis over the course of the narrative, an audience will grow bored with what they are reading or watching.

And you definitely don’t want that!

Don’t be afraid to rough up your main character.  Put them through traumatic events.  Shake them up emotionally, psychologically, physically.  It’s through how they deal with these types of events that their character arc grows over the course of the story (which is just as important as your plot points and story arc).  You want your main character to wind up in a different place on the final page of your script or novel than they were at the beginning.

Audiences expect that.

Exercise:

Watch your favorite movie and write down what the main character is put through over the course of the story.  Where were they at the start of the film?  Where are they at the end?  Write down 5 to 7 events over the course of the film that caused them to change as a character?  Are they a stronger character because of these events?

Now that you’ve taken the time to see how it’s done, you can apply these same principles to your main character.  Don’t be afraid to take them to the limits to see how they handle stressful, dire, or deadly situations.  It’s through these events that your character becomes a more realized and dimensional being for audiences to root for.