The Middle Keeping Up The Momentum

The middle, Act Two, is the longest section of your story.

Your task is to make sure the story keeps rolling and the readers keep reading. In writing the middle you have four objectives:

• Develop the characters and their relationships. As the story proceeds, we should come to know them better and better—their personalities, their motives, the basis for the kinds of choices they make.

• Prevent them from reaching their goals. In Act Two the characters are attempting to straighten out their conflicts and predicaments. Attempting is the key word; don't make it too easy for them. Although you will have introduced some complications in Act One and you'll have important ones coming up in Act Three's dash to the climax, the bulk of the barriers and obstacles come in this section.

• Keep the tension rising. Make sure that as the complications progress, the stakes to be settled in the confrontation become ever higher and the outcome increasingly in doubt.

• Set up the finale with a new plot point or crisis. Another significant complication as Act Two winds up will propel us into the endgame of the story.

The middle is where stories, and their authors, are likely to bog down. Often a writer knows in the early stages how a story will start and finish, but the middle—that vast gap to be bridged between the beginning and the end—remains obscured in fog. Too often, stories sputter to a halt after a few promising pages, and wind up in the back of a desk drawer, never to be completed.

To keep yourself on course, bear in mind that a story's purpose is to provide answers to a series of questions—the central issue plus the three key questions that provide your characters' motivation. When the story starts to move in the wrong direction, it's often because the author has lost sight of those questions or never figured them out in the first place.

Other sources of difficulties in the middle are:

• Not having a strong enough sense of who your characters are, what they want, and what they would do in a given situation.

• Trying to force actions on your characters or manipulate them into doing things that are contrary to their own natures or circumstances.

• Including actions in the story that don't arise as a result of previous actions. Don't forget, when characters make choices, consequences ensue; how they respond to those consequences determines the next action. If you follow that cause-and-effect chain, it often leads you directly to the story's end.

• Letting the tension flag. This happens for two main reasons. First, it may be that risk and payoff are out of balance. Perhaps the complications the protagonist faces do not pose an increasing degree of threat to her goal; we never doubt that she will achieve it. Conversely, the complications may have become so great that achieving the goal is no longer worth the risk. Either way, the outcome is no longer sufficiently in doubt. Second, the writer may be interrupting his own story by digressing into side discussions, inserting unnecessary scenes, or injecting authorial asides that pull readers out of the story world.

• Sidestepping the conflicts. Yes, conflicts can be unpleasant. But you must allow the characters to grapple with the forces that oppose them, even if doing so causes them (and you) some pain. A big reason that stories don't succeed is because their authors set up significant issues and then pull away from dealing with them. Writing any story is an act of courage; it pays to let yourself muster enough bravery to carry it through all the way.

Remember, the story belongs to the characters. The struggles and choices are theirs. The course the story takes and the resolution it finally reaches may not be at all what you expected when you started writing.

If you need help in figuring out what happens next, ask your characters and see what they say. Here's a technique that may prove worthwhile: At the top of a page (either on paper or on a computer screen) write a direct question, addressing the character by name:

Alex, what are you going to do next?

Isabel, what do you want to get out of this situation?

Eric, you seem angry. What are you angry about?

Mrs. Featherstone, what are you doing in this story anyway?

Now, let them answer. Start writing, using the character's voice in the first person, stream-of-consciousness style. Don't stop to think; don't lift your pen from the paper or your fingers from the keyboard. Just let the words flow, capturing every thought as it comes. Don't edit or go back to correct a misspelling or fix a comma or change a word. After all, this is not material that will appear in your story. It's simply a way of opening a conversation with your subconscious mind so that it can give you the information you need to move forward. Doing this may feel awkward at first, but with a little practice and willingness to let go, it can be a helpful method for tapping into your own creativity. You may be amazed at what your characters are willing to tell you.

Another technique is the "what if..." game described in Chapter One. Don't reserve it for generating story ideas; it's useful at any point in the creative process. By the time you reach the middle of your story, you should know your characters well. As you come up with possible scenarios, you'll be able to sense them shaking their heads sadly over those that won't work, and cheering when you hit on the one they've had in mind all along.

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