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 One

Every story has a starting point, a place where the writer has decided to begin the story and launch the characters into an adventure that differs from the day-to-day normalcy of their lives.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the different aspects of the Beginning, Middle, and End of a story and what components go into each.

Let’s get started.

Where Are We?  Location, Location, Location.

The opening chapter or scene sets the stage for what’s to come.  Give us the location, the time period, and the current circumstances.  Is this a contemporary story?  Are we in Victorian England?  In a galaxy far, far away?  Give the reader descriptors that help orient them into the world of the story.  Your characters occupy a specific space at a particular time.  The beginning is where to establish these things and make sure the reader has a clear understanding.

Read the first chapter of a few novels and see how those authors establish location and time while also moving the story forward.

Who Are We With? Who’s the Story About?

Whose journey are we following?  Knowing your main character and who they are before the Inciting Incident is a key factor to ensure you know how they will react and actively pursue their goals when the new events begin to unfold.  What’s their name?  Their profession?  What relationships do they have?  What conflicts do they have in their lives?  What’s their personality?  

In his book, The Story Solution, Eric Edson lays out nine “personality traits and story circumstances that create character sympathy for an audience” (Edson 14).  These don’t all have to be used, but they are a great way to help your reader/viewer connect with your main character at the beginning of your story:

•          Courage – “brave people take action, and only action can drive the plot forward.” (15)

•          An Unfair Injury – placing your “character in a situation where blatant injustice is inflicted upon her…[it] puts the hero in a position where [they’re] compelled to DO something, take action in order to right a wrong.” (16-17)

•          Skill – “It doesn’t matter what your hero’s field of endeavor might be as long as [they’re] an expert at it.” (17)

•          Funny – “if you can bestow upon your hero a robust and playful sense of humor, do it.” (19)

•          Just Plain Nice – “We can easily care about kind, decent, helpful, honest folks, and we admire people who treat others well.” (19)

•          In Danger – “If when we first meet the hero [they’re] already in a situation of real danger, it grabs out attention right away.” (20)

•          Loved by Friends and Family – If we see that “the hero is already loved by other people, it gives us immediate permission to care about them, too.” (21)

•          Hard Working – “People who work hard have create the rising energy to drive a story forward.” (21)

•          Obsessed – “Obsession keeps brave, skilled, hard-working heroes focused on a single goal, which is enormously important to any story.” (21)

These are just a few points from the book, which I highly recommend. You can pick up a copy at the link below:

Active or Passive Protagonist?

In modern commercial fiction, the protagonist is almost always active.  This means that when things happen, they react and actively pursue a goal.  Mando in The Mandalorian is actively working to keep Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) safe from those who wish to harm him.  Mando’s inciting incident was meeting Grogu; he now has an active goal to protect him.  His actions move the story in a new direction.

Katniss in The Hunger Games actively volunteers her life to save her sister’s during the Hunger Games lottery.  She is actively involved in the decision that launches the story in a new direction.

A passive protagonist just allows things to happen around them, or they don’t do enough to try and fix what’s happening.  Even in disaster movies where the elements are out of the hero’s hands, they still are active in their attempts to save their own lives and the lives of others.  When you watch TwisterDante’s PeakSan Andreas, or Volcano, notice that while what’s happening is out of the main characters’ control, they are still actively pursuing a goal: survival.

What actions can your protagonist take to try and resolve their newfound issues?  What is their active goal, and what steps will they take to reach it?  They can try and fail, but they should be active in their attempts.

Is It Really “The Beginning”?

A story begins at a point that shows the reader/viewer the protagonist in their normal element.  We, as an audience, have to assume that this character existed before this story. We are about to see a series of events markedly different and far more interesting than a typical day in their life. 

You want to give your readers a glimpse of this world before things begin to change and move the protagonist into a new direction that they didn’t see coming.  We need to know who they are before this story starts so we can witness how the events of the story impact and change their lives by the end.

A character’s story is on a continuum.  What we are writing about and what the reader/viewer is experiencing is something out of the ordinary.  Steve Rogers (Captain America: The First Avenger), Elle Woods (Legally Blonde), and Mando (The Mandalorian) all were just doing their normal thing until a new set of circumstances took them to a new level of existence, which is…

What Starts the Journey? The Inciting Incident.

Things are pretty normal for your main character.  They’re just living their life as always when suddenly…something big happens to alter their life for the better or worse.  This is the Inciting Incident, the moment where the protagonist has to begin making choices that will launch them and us into a new storyline apart from what they are familiar with.

Your main character could be all set to go into the boss’s office to get a promotion and get fired instead.  Your main character could find out something devastating about their family that requires them to act and discover the truth.  It can be anything that jolts the main character out of their normal life and takes them on a new path.

Brainstorm some ways a character’s ordinary world can suddenly change and how your character would react to new information and their potential paths forward.

Homework

Now that you have the basics about the Beginning of a story, watch the first 15 minutes of a few movies or read the first few chapters of some novels and see how events, characters, and Inciting Incidents are introduced.  How does the main character react when something new happens?  What’s the first thing they do?  How do their actions at that moment propel the story forward?  What traits from Edson’s book are present in the main character when we first meet them?

Happy Writing, Reading and Viewing, and I’ll see you next week with more on story beginnings.