Monday, September 10, 2012

The Quest for Story: #7 -- Stuck in the Middle with You

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Sunset Headstones)

(This is post #7 in a ten-part quest to define "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

To recap our quest so far: I've defined the three large elements that I believe make up a good story:  Character, Plot, and Voice.  I've also touched on a story's beginning (the introduction of the character and the onset of the plot), discussed the importance of conflict (tests and strengthens the character and forms the whole core of the plot), and mentioned setting (illustrates where the plot takes place, and acts as a component that establishes and frames the character).

But now, frankly, I'm not sure I can go on with the quest.

I can't think of what direction to go next.  I've run out of ideas, hit a brick wall, and everything I try seems to be falling short.  Nothing is working, and everything seems to oppose me.  At this point, it looks like the quest may have to be called off, and that I may be doomed to fail.

Know where I'm at?

The Middle

Every good story needs one. 

We've had a beginning, and at some point, we'll (hopefully) have an ending, but there has to be a separation between the two.  There has to be the point where the conflict and tension seem insurmountable. For now, we're there -- stuck at the lowest point.

The darkest hour.  Where things look their gravest.

The point in the story where a character hits rock bottom, and where the reader thinks the story might -- just maybe -- end in disaster for the character with the failure of all he was trying to obtain.

Of course, some stories do end this way.  But then, with these dark stories, their middle is usually the point at which it looks like the character will succeed, where they're riding high, and everything seems to be going their way.  With these tragic anti-stories, the middle of the plot is many times essentially just the mirror image of the traditional story's low-point middle.

The length of a story's middle-section varies, but it's typically the bulk of the story.  Using the well-known three-act structure, the beginning takes about 1/4 of the story, the ending takes another 1/4, and the middle takes 1/2 -- as much as the beginning and ending combined.  In a novel-length story, the middle can have a whole series of mini-crises and resolutions, all continuing to build tension and drama, and raising the stakes, until -- at the peak (or pit depending on how you picture the story arc), the whole plot looks like it might end with disaster. 

But it (usually) doesn't.  Somehow, through some last tiny bit of inner strength, the main character breaks through the wall, overcomes the crisis, or realizes the key piece of information that crystallizes everything, and gains new energy to charge on to the final climax. 

But the story's not over -- not by a long shot.  Just because the main character has climbed out of the pit of despair doesn't mean he's done with his quest.  The final conflict of the plot still needs to be faced, but now, with the character having made it through the challenges of the middle, the ending been unleashed and the story is racing towards it at full speed.

And we'll talk about it more in the next installment of this quest...


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Lots of small, escalating crisis situations in the middle of my next book!
And I remember reading a quote by a famous author that the beginning must be great, the ending great, and the key to a great middle is making the beginning and end as close together as possible. (Pretty sure he was being sarcastic.)

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Ah, yes. The middle. Otherwise known as the part of the first draft where I think: what did I get myself into and why did I think this story was worth writing?

However, the middle is where I do my most carving and reordering and refining in the future drafts. As you said, it's the bulk of the story and the hardest to get exactly right!

Tonja said...

I think the middle is really important. Each of the things that happen have to lead to and contribute to the final conflict at the end. That's why I like planning better - I think the middle is difficult when winging it.

LTM said...

Good stuff! Now I'm thinking of all these "middle" metaphors. Don't have a saggy middle! Watch that flat tire... LOL! sorry, Chris. :D <3

Guilie said...

Haha... The dreaded middle. But that's the story, isn't it? Where everything builds up, develops, where the conflict grows and festers. Great post!

Chris Fries said...

@Alex: Sounds exciting, Alex! And I laughed at the quote -- I can see why he'd say that. ;^)

@Dianne: LOL! And I agree. The middle is where most of my edits come, too.

@Tonja: It is. It's where the story gains emotional intensity and momentum, and I agree with you -- it's very hard for me to just pants it through.

@Leigh: Ha! A saggy middle is definitely not good, for neither an author nor their stories. ;^)

@Guille: Thanks! And you're right -- it's where all the hard groundwork is laid for a dynamite ending.

Suze said...

Writers always say the ending is notoriously difficult to execute and it is. But the middle is a sneaky bastard. It's easy to sag in the middle, go on and on and on in the middle, meander, indulge, get lost in the middle. Sharks in them waters.

I like what you say about the middle being a mirror image of the more conventional narrative arc in 'anti-stories.' I'd never quite looked at it that way before. Nice.

Nicole said...

I love using twists and mini-crises in the middle!

Chris Fries said...

@Suze: Thanks!

@Nicole: Yeah, me too, lol!

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

Sneaky. For one nanosecond, I thought you were ending the series. Clever, dude.

Chris Fries said...

@Susan: Yeah... Ha, ha -- that was my sneaky intention. ;^)