In my current work-in-progress, I am moving steadily toward the end of Act One (I like to pretend that I'm writing this novel in the shape of a classic three-act drama), which means that soon enough I'll be writing Act Two, also known as either the Middle or the Long Dark Nighttime of the Novel (LDNTOTN). As anyone who's ever written a whole novel knows, the middle (or second act, or LDNTOTN) takes up about half the total length of the story, and can be the hardest part to get through. It's also the place where most failed novels meet their doom, though they don't know it and stumble on for another hundred or more pages, sometimes managing to drag the reluctant reader along to the end. Sometimes not.
Anyway, I'm gearing up to write the middle of my novel, so I've been thinking about what the middle of a novel is and what the function of the Second Act might be in a long-form story. Aside from, that is, padding the book out by 150 pages.
If you use the traditional three-act structure, your Act One sets up a conflict that will be resolved in the climax at Act Three. Act Two, therefore, is the bridge between the first and third acts. But what do you, as a writer, do to bridge those acts? How do you make your second act a middle--a bridge--and not just a LDNTOTN?
My current working theory about how stories operate tells me that the beginning and ending of the story are pretty much where the plot resides. You set up a conflict and you resolve it. That's pretty mechanical, pretty easy and straighforward. So if the plot is in the outer acts, what's in the middle? Character, that's what. The middle of the book is where the writer explores the possibilities of the characters' emotions. It is, as lots of prior essayists have said, the heart of the book. It is also, at least in my current working theory about stories, a sort of separate and self-contained story within the novel. And as a self-contained story, it has its own structure.
The idea I'm working with now will be to give Act Two--my novel's middle--a three-act structure of its own. My Act Two will begin, go on a bit, and then end. Things will be different at the end of the second act for my characters. They will have gone through emotional story arcs that make Act Three both possible and inevitable. So the overall structure of the novel will be:
(~30% of length)
(~50% of length)
(20% of length)
In fact, each act will in turn be broken down into beginning/middle/ending, but that's a separate post. Let's just stick with Act Two.
My book's middle section begins with the protagonist and two support characters running for their lives. The basic task for them, plotwise, is to simply survive the second act. They don't even know a third act is coming. But my protagonist has an internal conflict (a problem) he must resolve, and Act Two will show him going through several emotional stages:
1. he first thinks that he need do nothing and the problem will go away
2. he thinks that he can make the problem go away
3. he realizes that he can't make the problem go away without stepping outside his normal way of behaving
4. finally he acts in a new way that will solve his internal conflict (which, happily for the author, will force the external conflict to resurface and give us the exciting and ultraviolent Third Act. In fact, his achieving stage 4 in this emotional arc is the beginning of the Third Act. Yay, structure!)
Along the way, in order for my protagonist to move through these emotional stages, he and his support characters will have some adventures that outline the central themes in the book, meet new characters and see the world in new ways. Their relationship with the world in terms of the plot will not change much during the middle of the book, but their relationships with the world and with each other in terms of their emotions and character will be dramatically different. This change is, in my current opinion, the purpose of Act Two in a three-act story.
And even if I'm wrong, it's nice to have a plan going into the draft. I'll let you know how it works out.
Questions for you: What is the function of the middle of a novel? What should the writer be trying to accomplish there? Is it essentially different for each story written? Do you use any sort of overarching structural ideas to shape your storytelling? Are these questions too overly academic? What's for dinner?