Does your middle sag?

I don’t mean your waist line that might be suffering from that late night snack attack. I mean that author’s graveyard – the middle of your story when enthusiasm wains and your characters wonder what they’re doing, and you wonder why you ever started the story. Unless you’re one of the literary giants like Stephen King, Dan Brown etc. most authors experience some self-doubt about at this stage. You’ve done the easy introduction bit, now it’s all uphill and hard work.

In one of my previous blogs, I discussed the three-act story structure and what happens in the first Act. The first Act is all about introducing the main character in his/her normal world, and then hitting them with some problem or opportunity that will change their world forever. At the end of Act one, something happens to propel the main characters forward towards a goal (the first turning point). Think of Luke Skywalker, Obi Wan and Hans Solo escaping from the space centre in the millennium falcon – now they are committed to a course of action: there’s no going back and its onward to rescue the princess. In other types of stories the first turning point may be less spectacular, but just as important in propelling our main character along a course of action towards their goal.

The middle of the story (Act two) is all about what our main character tries to do to overcome that problem or exploit the opportunity to reach their goal. Each obstacle he/she encounters should make it more difficult for them to succeed, and the stakes of losing should become increasingly more severe. By the end of Act two, the main character should have grown in character and learnt what he/she is doing wrong and commit to a new course of action (the second turning point). Act three is then all about the final confrontation and climax to the story.

It all sound so very simple; it’s not. If it were we would all be writing best sellers. The middle section of a 300 page novel is probably 200 pages. Knowing you’re in the middle doesn’t help much unless you have some kind of plan. What are the obstacles you’re going to throw at the main character? How will he/she cope? How does the character need to change during the course of the act? Think Skywalker, from farm boy to jedi knight; think Scrooge from miser to reformed philanthropist. In most stories (but not all) the main character or one of the main characters need to change in order to reach their goal. What is the cause of that change? How does it affect them?

Most supporters of a three-act structure accept that something  important happens at about the Mid-point of Act two to ratchet up the stakes and force the main character to commit to a new plan. The Mid-Point therefore effectively splits the second Act into two parts.

The first part covers the initial attempts of the main character to deal with obstacles in his/her way. This may be a period which Blake Snyder describes as the ‘fun and games’ period where the main characters seem to be succeeding or making progress. It may also be a period covering the B-story (for example, a love story). But the main character is usually brought back to reality by the Mid-point event. This may be a false victory or a false defeat, but it should provide new motivation for the main character to move forward.

The second part of the second act is usually featured by matters getting worse: the ‘bad guys close in’. There may be an ‘all is lost moment’  followed by ‘the darkest point’ where the main character appears to have lost everything. At this point he/she learns something new (an epiphany) or finds a new way forward that sets him/her on course for the confrontation of the final Act.

Syd Field in his book, ‘The Screenwriters workbook’, says the three elements Plot Point 1, Mid-Point and Plot Point 2 are the structural foundation that holds the second Act in place. He offers the following advice to screenwriters, but it is just as relevant to any storyteller:

1. Decide your ending first

2. Choose your opening

3. Choose Plot Point 1

4. Choose plot Point 2

5. Then determine the Mid-Point

Syd Field also talks about two important story progression sequences that often occur in the middle of the first half and middle of the second half of Act 2 called pinch points.  Pinch 1 drives the story forward onto the Mid-Point event; Pinch 2 drives the story forward towards Plot point 2 at the end of the second Act.

Syd Field’s Three-Act Paradigm:

diagramzz

Maybe you’re a writer that thinks the three-act structure is too formulaic and doesn’t follow your genre, such as romance or comedy. It’s for action type stories isn’t it? You may be right; but analysts have mapped the main turning points onto many of the most successful films and books of all genres. Having a three-act structure isn’t the main reason for their success; to be successful they need to be dam good stories, and dam good writers. But not having a solid structure may be the cause of why so many other stories seem to fail.

If you’re a good writer you might not consciously think about structure when your writing. You’re in the moment. Structure maybe something you notice only when your story is complete, and you want to edit and analyse what you’ve got. It doesn’t matter as long as you get it right.

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