Journey through the centre of things
- A narrative bridge
The Middle as a Bridge Much attention is given to story beginnings. Writers craft first scenes with great care and deliberation in the attempt to compel the reader to turn the page. This section of a story may be written over and over, each word weighed, images carefully juxtaposed.
Similarly, writers usually have an idea of the way they want the story to end and give a great deal of thought to where the characters end up in relation to each other.
The beginning of a story is the embarkation point, the start of a journey. The ending, of course, is the destination. The journey itself, with its twists and turns, its rugged terrain and changing weather, happens in the middle. The most demanding part of a story to read, the middle can also be perilous to write: the plot might lead to cul-de-sacs and dead ends; pacing can lag and stall; characters might lose motivation, acting illogically or unbelievably; inspiration could abandon you; the tedium of writing make it difficult to journey on.
It’s useful to think of the middle of a story as a suspension bridge over a high gorge. The reader can’t travel to the other side without it. It’s your job as the writer to craft the bridge with enough knotted rope and wooden slats to span the gulf, bear weight, withstand high winds, and look picturesque both from a distance and close up. If it isn’t strong enough or woven together carefully, it might sag, even collapse, leaving your readers hanging.
The Way Forward The middle of a story sustains interest by building tension. Escalating conflict is key. Throughout the middle section, the main characters undergo a series of complications and difficulties. There are different ways to approach this.
One of the classic story structures, most often seen in comedies, romances and mysteries, is to set up a situation in which the hero’s first attempts to solve the problem actually make it worse. Misunderstandings abound. This failure heightens the drama, offering an added sense of relief when the hero finally resolves the crisis and order is restored.
Another pattern, found more often in tragedies, is that in which each complication leads to a crisis that is temporarily resolved but which leads inexorably towards the ultimate crisis, the final undoing—in other words, the climax. Throughout, hope alternates with disappointment. The characters hold on tight, believing they have some influence over events, but as the story unfolds, it becomes clearer and clearer they will be forever altered by what’s happening.
Middles deal with the primary struggles of a story. The ‘dark moment’ occurs in this section. This is when the main character reaches a decision point after which there is no going back. Supporting characters play key roles by underscoring flaws, causing divisions or providing opportunities for confrontations that intensify the conflict.
This section is also the place in the story where you have the best opportunity to elaborate on motivations, offer insights into behaviours, and reveal critical aspects of the emotional journeys of your characters. Throughout the middle, you have the chance to weave images and forge connections in order to make the story stronger, to point out the interesting features in the narrative landscape, and to move the plot forward step by step.
Travel Tips After promising beginnings, middles often become muddled. Most of this is the result of insufficient conflict, unmotivated characters or not enough intensity of action. To avoid a sagging centre, try these methods:
- Continually raise the stakes on your characters’ emotional struggles. Create a sense of desperation: characters must feel compelled not only to act but to act now.
- Give your hero conflicts he can’t avoid, temptations she can’t resist, problems that underscore personality flaws.
- Advance both inner and outer conflicts—they work together. External problems seem solvable but become insurmountable.
- Look for ways to chart the progression towards self-knowledge. Psychological insight that is initially missing from a character is unavoidable by the end of the story.
- Elicit emotional responses from the reader. Depending on the story you’re telling, look for ways to summon anxiety, excitement, fear, a sense of foreboding, or delight. Beginnings are designed to elicit the spark of interest in your characters; middles are where the reader learns to care about them.
- Use the element of surprise, unexpected turns, and shifts in storylines, which serve to control the narrative so that all the action presses towards a conclusion that becomes more and more inevitable.
The Journey Itself The story is not simply about crossing the expanse step by step. Concentrating too much on the mechanics of storytelling—the muscles required to take the next step, the fuel you’ll need, the weight of your pack—misses something crucial. Take the time to look around and enjoy the view. There is delight in the journey itself, in the sense of adventure, of being somewhere new, taking in a view rarely seen. Seek pleasure in the process as a writer, and you’ll have a greater chance creating something similar for the reader.
Maps, itineraries, reservations are tools to make the experience of travelling happen more smoothly, but they don’t guarantee a successful trip. Creativity is a mysterious force. All the tips and techniques in the world won’t necessarily yield a good story. Trust in the process is paramount. It’s what allows the magic to happen. As Leonard Cohen said, “If I knew where the good songs come from, I’d go there more often.”
This article first appeared in the Perilous Adventures Newsletter in 2008.