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 – Story Structure: The Beginning, Part Two

Last week, we talked about some of the elements that go into the Beginning of a story.  Whether a novel, a short story, a screenplay, or a play, there are important items to consider from the start as you develop your story.  In this post, we’ll talk about a few more things to consider as you work on creating the beginning of your story. 

A Basic Formula

One of my screenwriting professors once wrote a basic formula on the board that holds true for pretty much all commercial stories:

Hero + Goal + Opposition = Conflict = Drama

Think about most movies or novels of today, and this formula rings true.  We are presented with a Hero.  That hero has a Goal they wish to achieve.  There’s some Opposition in the way of the Hero achieving the stated goal.  That Opposition leads to Conflict.  And that Conflict translates to Dramatic tension. 

As you develop your story, make sure that the three main ingredients are clear.  Then you can find ways to create conflict that increases the dramatic tension of the story.

What is an Antagonist?

When we think about the concept of an Antagonist, we are usually drawn to the big guns: The Joker (The Dark Knight), Thanos (Avengers: Infinity War), Cruella DeVil (101 Dalmatians), Loki (Avengers), Ursula (The Little Mermaid), Dr. No (Dr. No), Hades (Hercules), Dr. Evil (Austin Powers), Scar (The Lion King), or the Evil Queen in Snow White.  These are clear-cut antagonistic characters that oppose the goals of the hero in their respective stories.

However, an Antagonist doesn’t have to be a maniacal super-villain or an evil entity bent on world domination.  Anyone in your story who opposes your main character’s goals and is a constant block to them achieving that goal is an antagonist.

In Legally Blonde, Elle Woods’s antagonist is her ex-boyfriend, Warner.

In Hairspray, Tracy Turnblad’s antagonist is Velma Von Tussle and her daughter.

In October Sky, Homer Hickam’s antagonist is his father.

Even if the antagonist wants what’s best for the main character, they can still be an antagonizing force getting in the way of their goal if what they want for the main character is in conflict with what the antagonist wants.

And that conflict leads to dramatic tension.  

I think that because mainstream cinema is saturated with big-time antagonists because of all the superhero movies, it’s easy to forget that romantic comedies function on the formula of starting the partners off in an oppositional relationship.  You’ve Got Mail.  Crazy, Stupid, LoveTwo Weeks NoticeThe Proposal10 Things I Hate About You. All begin with oppositional relationships between the main couple.

How Do You Like Your Stakes?

Your protagonist wants something.  Something big.  If they get it, that’s great.  But what if they don’t get it?  What if all their attempts to achieve their goal fail?  What will happen to them?  Their best friend?  Their family?  Their home?

In other words: What are the Story’s Stakes?

Stakes keep things interesting.  They keep the protagonist motivated to achieve their goal.  They also keep the viewer/reader along for the ride.  What should the stakes feel like?

Life or death.  That’s what things should feel like to your hero if things don’t work out.  I’m not talking literal life or death (unless your story is about that), but the odds have to be pretty steep against the main character once the inciting incident happens that we’re unsure how they’ll reach their intended goal.

If you have a basic idea of what your story is about, who your main character is, what their goal is, and where the story is going, you should start to brainstorm obstacles that the hero might face throughout the story.  Each one should be unique, escalate the stakes, and help move the story and the hero’s character arc along.  

The higher the stakes, the better the dramatic tension.  Most sitcoms have low-stakes situations (Oh, no, the poker game and the dinner party are planned for the same night!).  Dramas tend to have higher stakes (If we don’t find the killer soon, he’ll start killing a new victim at the top of every hour!).  

Think of your favorite movie, or a movie you recently saw.  What were the stakes for the main character?  Were they high or low?  I can tell you that in the new Angelina Jolie movie, Those Who Wish Me Dead, the stakes are very high.  If a movie you watched has low stakes for the main character, did you lose interest?  

Can I Help You?

All protagonists are on a journey.  It may not be away from their uncle’s moisture farm on Tatooine to learn the ways of the Force, but they do have to move from point A to point Z by the end of the story.

Is anyone with them? 

Best friends.  Romantic partners.  Sidekicks.  Co-workers.  Family. Neighbors.  Are they people close to the main character that can assist them on their journey?  Every character in a story needs to serve the hero and the story in some important way.  Much like the protagonist and antagonist have a function in the story, the Secondary and Tertiary characters need to as well.  

These characters also help in giving us insight into the main character, they help dimensionalize them, and make them more relatable to the audience.  Who populates the world of the hero? Of the antagonist? What functions do those characters serve throughout the story?

The Big Moment

So, you’ve shown us a glimpse of the protagonist in their natural habitat.  All is good in the world.  And then…BOOM…something unexpected happens that throws their world into a tailspin.  Now, they have to regroup and figure out how to fix, stop, or change whatever has just happened.  The stakes are high.  The Opposition is great.  The way to achieving the goal seems impossible.  But they have a few folks to help them along the way.  

After a few missteps, things start to feel like they’re going the hero’s way.  Maybe getting to that goal will be easier than they thought.  All they have to do is…

BOOM

Something HUGE comes out of nowhere and knocks the wind out of them.  What they thought was the way forward is no longer the way forward.  Everything they thought they knew, every decision they were sure was working, is suddenly turned upside-down.

Welcome to Turning Point 1.

It’s a big moment in the story.  It’s something that shakes things up and takes the hero and the audience in a new direction.  Here’s an example from Legally Blonde (get used to it, I’m gonna use it a lot in this series):

Hero: Elle Woods

Antagonist: Warner

Inciting Incident: Warner dumps Elle as he heads to law school instead of proposing to her.

Hero Goal:  Get into and graduate from Harvard Law School (and reconnect with Warner).

Turning Point 1: At the first party of the semester, Warner tells Elle she’s not smart enough to get a prestigious internship with their law professor.  

Notice how Elle is initially crushed by Warner’s words but then actively pushes through and uses his Opposition to her goal as motivation to keep going.

In the film, this is the start of Act 2.  It’s the end of the Beginning, and the beginning of the Middle.

Homework

Watch some movies and determine what the initial stakes are for the hero and when Turning Point 1 happens. For most two-hour movies, it’s around the 25-30 minute mark.

We’ll talk about the Middle (of a story, not the series starring Patricia Heaton) in two weeks!