Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Some Thoughts on Middles

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:

First Act
(~30% of length)

Second Act
(~50% of length)

Third Act
(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?


  1. You remind me of all my Lit. professors in college...I remember one whose favorite line about middles was "Reach, REACH for it, don't be passive and wait for it to come to you, be agressive, find it, get it, drag it back to your pen, paper, computer, typewriter, whatever it is you're using to make words on paper...even if it sucks, you still found it. Once it's there then you can play with it."

    This doesn't make sense in reference to your post but in a weird kind of way, to me, it does. Middles are the hardest. I must say, I write whatever I feel like (I'm a panster by the way) I REACH for whatever it is that grabs me and get it down before I forget it. Revisions are when I outline and plan and take things out and put things in so I can move the story along.

    The middle is where I find the beginning of my resolution, not the climax per se, but the MC'S ending, if that makes any sense at all.

    And yes, Mr. Bailey, these questions are way too academic. I hate it when you make me think. And we're having taco's for dinner.

  2. Piedmont: "The middle is where I find the beginning of my resolution, not the climax per se, but the MC'S ending" Yeah, that makes sense. I think, as I say above, that the middle of a novel is about character growth.

    I don't think it matters if we outline or are pantsters; at some point we have to come face-to-face with the overall dramatic shape of our books. I think about it while I'm in the first draft because I want to have most of the big ideas in place before I get to revisions. Also, because the abstract idea of a story as a knowable form fascinates me, and I'm trying to come up with a workable model of "story." I think a story is a process more than a thing, and I think that there are, in larger terms, certain parts of the story process that are necessary to make a novel into a proper story. And stuff.

    I have no idea what we're having for dinner. Maybe something with potatoes. It might be a good night to make soup. Though I begin to think that roasted chicken with potatoes and rosemary in white wine sounds good. I have a really great Martha Stewart(tm) roaster that doesn't get used enough.

  3. Scott, Good discussion. I noticed you mentioned a lot that this was all your opinion, which I appreciated! With my new story, I originally decided to embrace the three-act structure. More specifically, I embraced the screenplay structure described in a book called Save The Cat by Blake Snyder. It was a fascinating idea, and I made a detailed outline as a result of it that felt quite entertaining and exciting to me. Then, I sort of felt bored with it for awhile. I was watching a bunch of movies, and I suddenly saw that most of them stuck to that similar structure and they all started to feel cookie cutter to me. THEN, I rewatched Little Miss Sunshine and saw that, even though the structure was there, there was a lot of fun, unexpected things about the movie that still made it feel original. So, November has come along and NaNoWriMo is here. I'm sticking to my story and the staying close to that original outline. But, I threw in a twist at the last minute. I'm building the story off of the original outline and letting the twist introduce that spontaneity. So far, I'm having a great time.

    All that is to say that I think middles can be whatever they want. In the three act structure that I've been analyzing, it gets hard because it is indeed half the book. I'm thinking that if you broke the book down into some other pieces, something with an even number, there would be no difficult middle to go through. I'm serious about that.

  4. Davin: No matter how detailed my outlines are, I still find ways to improvise while doing the actual writing, and there is always room for a good idea or a flash of insight, or just throwing in a scene because it seems funny at the time to have three of the secondary characters get drunk together and sing obscene folk songs. Which is to say that I'm looking for the deeper structure of storytelling, the thing behind the three-act structure; I figure that if I examine the 3-act thing long enough, I'll see what it's an abstraction of. I am dangerously close to invoking Chomsky, so I'll stop, but I will say that, on one level, middles (and, indeed, beginnings and endings) can certainly be "whatever they want," but at another level, I think they have to be pretty precisely a certain thing. I wonder aloud what that certain thing is. Intuitively, I'm sure it's there.

    Yes, all my opinion. You're very droll.

  5. I've read many a book that I quit reading once I got to the BORING middle. It's as if some writers believe it is their sworn duty to make the middle stagnant.

    That said, it takes a lot of writing to settle on a great middle.

    I treat the middle as its own book. It helps me to do that. I realize this method does not work for all people, but it works for me. I think of the beginning of the middle as the start of the book. Which in some ways is as you're doing here.

    A blogging friend prodded me to read, The Fire in Fiction, by Donald Maass. He discusses this very thing. Susan has been blogging about this book for a week or two now.

    For me the writer should be trying to show that the character is trying to change or fix her situation. It should have intense, dynamic scenes and have a lot of conflict.

    Hmmm, veggies for dinner. I love my veggies.:)

  6. Oh, Scott. Robyn reminded me. The chicken and potato dinner you described is exactly what I had last night! Only I passed on the wine, even thought I wanted some. Baked pears for dessert too.

    Tonight a couple of friends and I are trying a local French restaurant.

  7. The middle is all the stuff that needs to happen to teach the characters what they need to know to get to the end.

    Scott, I read the Literary Lab because it is academic. I love that about you guys!

    As for dinner, I'll be at Panera because we have a Slushbusters meeting tonight.

  8. Robyn: I agree that a middle "should have intense, dynamic scenes and have a lot of conflict." I think the whole book should be that way. A lot of times, middles seem to bog down into something that's got nothing to do with the beginning and end of the book. They don't have any real movement, but are written in an episodic style that is clearly just padding for length.

    Veggies sound good. Last night we had baked squash and salad.

    Davin: I was going to remind you that you ducked the "dinner" question. Seattle has some decent French restaurants. I've been craving cassoulet lately.

  9. This post couldn't have come at a better time. THANK YOU!

  10. What is the function of the middle of a novel?

    To separate the front and back covers.

    What should the writer be trying to accomplish there?

    Good writing and an intriguing story. This is prime ground for sub-plots, as you have fleshed out for your WIP. This can also be the pièce de résistance if you play your cards right, providing a good depth of suspense and/or intrigue as you set up the roadblocks for your characters as they try to fulfill in Act III the goals you established in Act I.

    I think it was agent Janet Reid who once said something along these lines:

    "Good writing is when you know what's going to happen, but are driven to keep reading anyways."

    Even though the reader may know that the characters will persevere and triumph in Act III, the second Act can still be a pleasurable part of the journey.

    Is it essentially different for each story written?

    Depends on the author.

    Do you use any sort of overarching structural ideas to shape your storytelling?

    Yes, I think it is important to the plot to know what does and doesn't happen (along with when and why).

    Are these questions too overly academic?

    For you, no. They are what I have come to expect ;-)

    What's for dinner?

    Chicken parmesan

  11. Michelle: "The middle is all the stuff that needs to happen to teach the characters what they need to know to get to the end." Do you have any particular guiding principals for writing middles to make sure your characters get where they need to be at the end of the middle?

    Aimee: You're welcome! You didn't answer the question about dinner!

    Rick: Nick Hornby wrote a column in The Believer in which he once stated that, at some point, writers were all merely keeping the reader's left hand from meeting his right hand by filling the space between with pages of printed matter. In other words, padding the word count. I believe he had an example from Dickens to illustrate the point.

    "This is prime ground for sub-plots, as you have fleshed out for your WIP. This can also be the pièce de résistance if you play your cards right, providing a good depth of suspense and/or intrigue as you set up the roadblocks for your characters as they try to fulfill in Act III the goals you established in Act I." So you see Act 2 as essentially a plot-oriented setup for Act 3? I'm not arguing; I merely ask for clarification.

  12. Rick: Additional clarification. If you take my "But my protagonist has an internal conflict (a problem) he must resolve, and Act Two will show him going through several emotional stages" as meaning that this is a subplot taking up Act Two, you are mistaking my meaning. This internal conflict which is resolved in the middle section of the book is the most important thing that happens in it. The plot in the first and third acts exist merely to create a space in which this internal conflict can be resolved. Acts 1 and 3 support act 2. Act 2 is not a long march from Act 1 to Act 3. At least, that's my intent.

    Mighty Reader has agreed to the roasted chicken plan. I am pleased!

  13. Scott, you've got me thinking about multiple pov novel middles...because I've just started such a novel and am WAY in the beginning (8K words).

    Are all of the POV's beginnings lined up?? Are any still in the beginning when others are in the middle? Are any still in the middle, when, God forbid, some are entering the end?

    Am I making sense or is it the
    "likely" h1n1 talking?


    Dinner: Dal and Naan, fresh broccoli and carrots. (Too tired to make a properly corresponding desi vegetable.)

  14. Jennifer,
    I'm going to jump in just because I've written this type of book. What I liked about the multiple POV's was that you could stagger the structures and make the climaxes happen at different times. I have two main storylines, and I made one of them hit the most dramatic point at about halfway through the book. The rest of that story tapers down from there, putting more weight on the other storyline. At least that's what I was trying to do!

  15. I just stumbled upon this blog and while I don't have any novels in the works( I'm very much a novice writer ) I found this post to be very informative. (: I shall have to keep it for future reference.

    And as for dinner: pizza.

  16. This is a great post, and a timely one which reminds me to plan out my middle a bit more. I like the idea of having my protagonist (and others) change from the beginning of the middle to the end of the middle.

  17. You've succeeded in making me think about my story in more detail, Mr. Bailey (always a good sign). Before I became conversant in the blogosphere, I didn't even consider the majority of the things discussed here at the Literary Lab -- including thinking of the middle as its own self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end separate from the beginning and end of the novel itself.

    Between you, Davin, and Michelle, I may end up writing sci-fi/fantasy with a literary bent before too long! Which wouldn't be a bad thing, mind you.

    As for dinner? That was a chicken salad and cheese sandwich washed down with Coke Zero eaten on the way to my second job this afternoon.

  18. We had leftovers for dinner tonight. Pork chop for me. Hamburger/Potato casserole for the hubby.

    Oh, and enjoyed your thoughts about the middle. Mine is really spreading with all this sitting around writing.

  19. Scott, sorry, but I don't have any sage advice as to how to get the character to that place. I suppose it depends on your story.

  20. I like middles that basically make everything a worse hell for the characters before there's any chance it will get better. ;)

    Middles are hard, so I try to keep in mind: what could get worse? And after that, how can it get even MORE terrible? (And keep going)

    Not easy, of course. But that's all I can really think of. Making a bad situation (set up in the beginning) worse and worse (the end of all hope!) through the middle until you get to the beginning of he climax/ending when things come to a head and explode, and are either solved or not, and then the aftermath wrap-up.

    I try, anyway.


  21. Merc: So for you, the middle is all about increasing the tension and showing the plot at work by throwing obstacles at the protagonist? This is pretty much what I did in my last book. I'm trying something different this time around.

  22. I like complications, yes, but as long as a middle is interesting and maintains a forward progression and tension, I'm happy to read all sorts of middles. :)

    I may experiment more with middles in my writing, though adding conflict and problems at least helps me keep a forward momentum... shorts are easier to experiment with, actually, since if it utterly falls apart, you haven't spent months and close to 100k on a failed experiment. :P

  23. I'm late to the party here, but thanks outlining how you're thinking of the middle of your novel. I'm in my LDNTOTN stage at the moment, so it was useful for me to read this. Also the idea that the middle is about character - about developing that character's flaws and making him grow - really resonated with me.

  24. Christina: I was working on the outline of my novel yesterday, especially charting out the middle. The more I look at it, the more I see that it really works, and that having the second act about character will be really satisifying both to write and (I hope) to read.

    And lest anyone accuse me of writing literary "navel-gazing" with the middle half of my book being about character, I assure you that there's plenty of action going on, too. Oh, yes. Because I believe that character=action.


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