One of the most challenging things about writing a story is making the middle, the second act, as vital and focused as the beginning was.
Whatever was problematic in the opening of your story has to become more and more problematic in the middle, until, at last, the problem is so urgent that the climax is forced by the choices the character made and the actions she took. This is the part where many stories—and more novels—go off the rails. It’s the part where the writer must keep in mind that story is, as David Mamet says, “the essential progression of incidents that occur to the hero in pursuit of his one goal.”
In other words, if it ain’t essential, trash it. If there is more than one goal, cut them. If the work in question is a novel with subplots, decide if the subplot’s protagonist has more than one goal, and cut them.
Easier said than done of course, but as I’ve been heard to say, “If you want easy, professional football is three doors down on the left.” Writing isn’t easy, so get over it.
So what can you do to make sure that the middle contains nothing that isn’t essential? Here are a few tricks you can try, knobs you can fiddle, and bolts you can twist.
Stories have to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but they don’t have to be in that order. Neither do they have to be written in that order. If you’re not sure about your middle, skip to the end.
- How does your story end?
- What’s the best possible ending for your character?
- What’s the worst possible ending for your character?
- What’s the craziest?
Have fun writing toward the answers to these questions, and then ask yourself: What events are essential to get your character from the end of the beginning to the beginning of the end?
Keep this mind: Beginnings end because something has happened. Endings begin because something has happened. An event, a revelation, a shift in awareness; whatever the something is, it’s happened. Things as the character knew them before have changed. What changed? Where? When? Who was there? How did it smell? How did your character feel about the change? What will she do about it now?
The beginning sets up this change: principals are introduced, setting is established, and then—POW!—the conflict is triggered. The beginning establishes a decision or a course, and the middle follows through on that course as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
Follow-through is an important idea. Decisions and events cause the next decisions and actions, like a daisy-chain, each one interlocked with the one before and the one after.
In the middle, you can’t forget what came before. If a giant bat bites your protagonist in act one, and the second act is set in a high-stakes political conference, the middle has to address how that giant bat bite affects the protagonist’s political cause. The middle is where you follow through on the complications introduced in the beginning, and set up the resolution of those complications in the ending.
Beginning in the Middle
Keep in mind that for any longish story (25+ manuscript pages), the middle has beginnings, middles, and endings of its own. Some events sets the action in motion, that motion leads to a crisis, and the crisis leads to a climax. But not necessarily the climax. To maintain a middle over the length of a novel, one needs to incrementally turn the screw and further complicate the situation, and then turn it again and complicate it again. In my own novels, I have two such complications to get me through the boggy middle: the “three-chapter quest,” and the “four-chapter mini-novel.” These micro-stories in the middle of the novel encourage me to stay the course, to heighten the tension and the suspense toward the resolution.
Sometimes, we get stuck in the manuscript, wondering where to turn. A good exercise in these moments is to just turn right the hell around. Ask:
- What did my protagonist believe in the story’s opening?
- How can I make that exactly the opposite at the end?
- What did my protagonist value?
- How can I have her destroy that thing?
- What are the circumstances of my protagonist?
- How can I make those exactly the opposite?
Reversal has a long and time-honored tradition (remember Oedipus?), so why not try it? If your story is stuck in the middle, try reversal and go the other way. In the end, the trick will be to make the reversal seem like a natural outgrowth of the story, rather than a mechanical, “ugh, I’m stuck” exercise, but forcing a reversal on a stalled story is good practice for when the real thing comes along.