The Janus Faced Interval

Whether you're writing short or long fiction and whatever the section following the beginning is, it's got two chores: to open up the beginning by looking backward or simply around, adding context; and to look anxiously forward and lay the groundwork for what's to come. The Roman god Janus, the god of doorways for whom January is named, had two faces so he could look both ahead and behind. That's what you need to do, after a story's first beginnings. I'll talk about methods of doing that kind of necessary spadework in a minute. But this part of your story is where it starts in earnest.


Now, the good news for the novelists out there: everything I've just been explaining applies to you too, but you've got more space to do it. You can devote a whole chapter or two to this second part, if you want. Probably there'll be scenes as well as straight exposition, to keep things rolling; but a strong effective beginning will win your readers. They're on your side now.

They've picked up the book. They know everything isn't going to be over in three or four pages. That's the way they want it, if they like novels. They'll stay with you now, unless you do something to lose them.

The looking-forward aspect of early middles is even more important for you, though, than for the short story writers. There's short-term plot and long-term plot, and both have to be running at once, either together or in alternation.

Stages in the Journey

Remember, plot is a verb. Something is happening, and going to happen. But there are stages to plot, and in long fiction there should always be some specific event in the not-too-distant future the reader can anticipate. The main or long-term plot ideally runs through the whole story from the beginning. It's what the opening centers on; it provides the final climax or confrontation.

In Lord of the Flies, the castaway boys' immediate problems are, in sequence: establishing order, lighting a fire, hunting a wild pig, exploring the island, and dealing with their dread of "the Beast" they believe is on top of the mountain. More problems follow. But each of these intermediate problems is a stage in the larger problem of staying alive, and civilized. The whole long-term problem is broken up into a series of actions, each of which has its crisis and resolution. For instance, the problem of gathering the castaway boys together is solved by the finding and blowing of the conch. The problem of making fire is solved by Piggy's glasses, concentrating the sun's rays. But the solution sets up a later problem, when the breakaway tribe led by Jack steals the glasses and deprives Ralph's group of fire and Piggy of sight/ vision (not precisely the same thing, in this book).

One problem or crisis builds to another, and another yet beyond. You need to have the main plot firmly in mind all along and be building toward the final crisis—in Lord of the Flies, the murderous pursuit of Ralph by painted, screaming savages driv en by fear and superstition. You may not, at the early stages of the story, know precisely what that final crisis is going to be. That's all right. I'll offer some advice about endings in Chapter 10. Early in the story, just know that you should be building toward that ultimate crisis and that it should derive from the main plot as it was in the beginning, not from something weird and unexpected that turns up someplace along the way.

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