A story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. How to avoid the ‘saggy middle’.
The middle bit of a story is really the story proper. It is usually the longest section. It comes after the introduction of the main character(s) and the setting up of the context, that is the world of the story, as well as the problems and themes the story deals with.
At the end of the first section – prior to what we’re here calling ‘the middle bit’ –, the protagonist has decided to set off on the story journey. Obviously, this does not have to be physical journey through a particular geography, but it does mean that the main character is somehow entering into new and unfamiliar terrain. In this sense, every story is a ‘fish out of water’ story. The heroine must leave the comfort zone in order for the audience to feel interest in her plight.
Some authors jump right into this unfamiliar territory, showing the run up to it in flashbacks. Anita Brookner’s heroine Edith Hope has already arrived in the Hotel du Lac in the first sentence of the novel. Gradually the reasons for her stay here are revealed as the reader progresses through the novel.
Nonetheless, for an author, it may be advisable to create a marked threshold where the protagonist enters into the alien territory of the middle bit. The exploration and transversal of this territory is what on a plot level the middle bit is about, and it takes up the greater part of the story journey.
The middle bit shows characteristics that oppose the first section. As the beginning section of the story is about the ordinary world, the usual circumstances of the heroine, the middle bit is about the imbalance, indeed the chaos brought into the main character’s general understanding of the world by problems that had arisen in the first section.
So there may be new characters introduced at the beginning of the middle bit. They might mirror the main character, but with key differences. Consider Han Solo compared to Luke Skywalker.
There may also be a significant B-Story that opens at the beginning of this second section, and which might later provide the solution at a decisive point of choice at the crisis. For the protagonist, the B-plot provides nurture and strength in the alien world, perhaps in the form of an ally, possibly a lover. This B-plot, by carrying the symbol of solution, might be redolent of the theme.
What we have so far clumsily described in terms of bits and sections is more normally referred to as acts. In the standard idea of three act structure, the middle section is act 2, the antithesis to the thesis presented in act 1. Some hesitation notwithstanding, the protagonist usually enters this antithetical world of his or her own volition, but perhaps lacking sufficient knowledge of what this other world will entail.
Act 2 contains the main action of the story. In dramatic theory it is sometimes called the ‘epitasis’. The protagonist has been shown to the audience in the first act, the ‘protasis’, as having a flaw, an inner problem, and it is in the middle section that this weakness will be tested by the forces of antagonism.
If Boy has Met Girl at the inciting incident in the first act, the Boy may lose Girl in the second act, possibly at the midpoint.
Because of the distinct midpoint, the middle section is effectively divided into two halves pivoting at a midpoint. Stories have a strong tendency to be symmetrical.
What we have described so far applies very much to modern western storytelling technique, the Hollywood way of telling stories. There are reasons why this structure has become so (stereo)typical. For instance, Chinese and Japanese narrative theory knows the kishōtenketsu, which divides stories into four sections. The two in the middle, shō and ten, can be compared to the two halves of Act 2. The beginning of the section ten has a ‘twist’, something that pivots the plot. So structurally, kishōtenketsu describes in different terms the same story phenomena: introduction, development, a turning point or twist leading to conclusion or resolution.
In standard three act structure, the acts are divided by the plot points. Each section or act can also be seen as having an arc. So there is an overall story arc as well as three act arcs. Which means there is a zenith to each little arc between the plot points too, a midpoint. These mini-midpoints are known as pinch points.
In act 1, the pinch point might be the inciting incident.
Act 2, however, is dominated by the midpoint of the story, which is also the midpoint of act 2. The pinch points therefore appear between plot point 1 and the midpoint as well as between the midpoint and plot point 2.
All this may seem somewhat formulaic. But bearing the principle in mind may help you to avoid the terrible ‘saggy middle’ that authors and audiences rightly fear. By working out the story around the midpoint and keeping plot points and pinch points in mind, an author structures the plot according to regularly dispersed dramatically revelatory moments – which serve to keep the audience emotionally invested.
The first pinch point within act 2 may be some event which demonstrates to the protagonist (and the audience) that this story journey will be no pleasure cruise. The protagonist is out of their comfort zone for a reason. It will become seriously uncomfortable.
The midpoint presents a revelation, a truth, a turnaround, a point of no return.
And after the second pinch point in act 2, which may coincide with a great loss and/or instance of soul searching, the protagonist may be left to face the antagonism alone, without allies.
Thereafter act 2 races toward the great confrontation or moment of choice, and the transition to the resolution presented in the last bit.
Header Image by WeiWei
This post is a follow up to our post Beginning and Inciting.
Cut the flab from the middle bit of your story: