Story Arcs: The Middle
In the last Writing Corner post, we looked at the beginning part of the story arc, where we are introduced to the setting, main characters and the story leads up to the event where the main conflict begins. Every story is different, so it is hard to generalize, but that is usually the form.
Today we’re going to look at the middle of the story. This is the biggest part of the story and is where most of the action and conflict takes place. In a traditional story model, this part would go from the event where the story conflict really starts (often called the inciting incident) to the event where the main conflict is resolved, called the climax. This is the high point of the tension where the characters live or die, win or lose, get the girl or lose her forever.
Examples from Books and Movies
The Matrix (movie)
The middle of this movie starts when Neo comes out of the Matrix and learns the truth about his life. In the middle, Neo and the other people in his group fight the agents of the Matrix and trying to find out if Neo is the One, the person who will finally defeat the Matrix.
The climax comes when Neo fights Agent Smith and is killed, only to come back to life and kill Agent Smith.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
the middle of this story starts with Meg and Charles Wallace leaving Earth with the three old women to find their father. In the middle of the story, they go to different planets to get advice and help in rescuing their father. Finally they go to the Camazotz and try to rescue their father. They get him out but lose Charles Wallace in the process.
The climax is when Meg goes back and finally rescues her brother from IT, the evil mind controlling him.
Lord of the Flies, by William golding
The story starts with the boys finding themselves on the desert island and having to survive.this story uses a Thrown In approach, so the conflict starts right away (see last week’s post Story Arcs – The Beginning). However, you could say that the middle of Lord of the Flies starts when they set off on an expedition to explore the island. During the middle of the story, the tensions rise between Ralph’s group and Jack’s group.
The climax comes when Jack and his friends are hunting Ralph and the others and trying to kill them.
Middle Parts for Different Plots
What happens in the middle of the story will depend on the type of plot you have and the length of the story. If it is a novel, there will be a series of scenes that lead the main character towards the climax of the story. Let’s look at some example plot types:
Quest (going somewhere to do something)
In a quest, the characters are going somewhere to do or find something. The middle part of the story will be a series of scenes of them traveling and finding things along the way. This might lead to smaller conflicts if they have to fight someone or get out of a trap or solve a mystery. In general, it will lead the characters to the goal of the quest. Then, the second part of the quest might be getting home alive from it.
Mystery (trying to learn something)
In a mystery, the conflict is trying to learn the truth. This might be who killed someone or who stole the treasure, or what the mysterious symbol means. The middle part of this might be finding clues that will lead them to the final truth. Sometimes the characters think they have learned a truth but it is not actually true. This is often called a red herring. The climax of the story comes when the characters find the real truth.
Fighting the Bad Guy (defeating someone)
This might not mean killing, but is where the main character is trying to defeat either a person or an organization or something else. War stories and sports stories are often this type. Often this type of story can be combined with a quest story where the characters have to go somewhere to defeat someone. The middle part of this story might be getting ready for the fight or having a series of smaller fights. If there are a series of fights the main characters will probably win some and lose some but slowly get closer to the last, big battle where they will finally (probably) win.
Survival (not dying)
This story is about the characters staying alive, either like Robinson Crusoe because they’re on a desert island or are lost in space or homeless, etc. The middle part of this story is them doing what they need to in order to survive. This might mean finding food or shelter or escaping from someone trying to kill them.
Points to Remember When Writing the Middle Part
1. No wasted scenes
It is important to make sure that all of your scenes matter to the overall story. This is true anywhere but is mostly a problem in the middle of a story where there is a lot going on. The best way to test this is to see if the story would be hurt if the scene was taken out. If it wouldn’t be hurt, then take it out. That doesn’t mean that whatever the main characters are trying to do has to succeed of course, but they should learn or gain something that helps move the story along.
2. No anti-climax
One way to think of a story is like a bank. The reader invests their time in reading it and in return, they expect to get a payoff in the form of a satisfying ending.
The climax should be the high point of the story’s tension. Of course, if it is a low tension story (for example, I can’t find my wallet), the climax doesn’t need to be very high tension but if it is very high tension (the world is going to be destroyed in 1 hour), then the climax needs to be equally high.
An anti-climax is where there is a big build-up, but the story is resolved in an unsatisfying way, either because it’s too easy or unrealistic. An example of this might be in the Lord of the Rings if Frodo cried on the ring and it dissolved, and we find out that the Ring’s one weakness was hobbit tears. This would be a random, unrealistic and overly simple solution to the conflict.
Some examples of anti-climaxes:
- It turns out the story was all a dream
- The bad guy dies suddenly of natural causes or is killed by a minor character
- Someone powerful shows up to suddenly solve all the problems
3. No stealth twists
This is something I talked about in my post on Endings. Plot twists usually happen at the climax of the story. We find out that the police chief is really the bad guy or the characters have been on earth the whole time. However, you need to put clues to the plot twist through the whole story or it will seem random and that’s not satisfying. Here is a good rule of thumb for writing plot twists.
Plot twists should be subtle enough that readers won’t see them coming but should have enough clues so that if they read the story a second time, they will see the clues leading to the plot twist.
4. Don’t make it too linear
The backbone of a story is conflict, which means the characters are going to suffer to some degree. Things are not going to be easy for them as they try to get to their goal. Not everything they try should succeed. It is more satisfying to read a story where the characters struggle and finally succeed than a story where everything they do works the first time and there aren’t any problems.
Most of this advice is for novels or longer stories but it would work with short stories as well. The difference is that short stories usually only have one point of conflict and there is not as much room to develop the story. Also, since there is not as much room to work with, it is usually okay to give a plot twist without many or any clues.
Now it’s your turn
- Think of a book you’ve recently read. How did the main story progress? Think of each scene as a step along the journey of the story. Did the steps go in a straight line or did the plot have setbacks along the way?
- Look at a story you’ve written, either a short story or a longer one. Does the middle part of it grow in tension until the climax or high point of the story? If not, how could you change it so that it would?
If you have any questions about writing or other topics you want me to talk about in Writing Corner, just send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.