Thursday, May 3, 2012

What's in the Middle of a Story

All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Some say, all stories should have a beginning, middle and end, but I always felt that was a little silly because the beginning is where I choose to start, the ending is where I choose to stop, and the middle is everything else.

There are more accurate biopsies of a story, however, ones that include the inciting event, the climax, resolution, and so on and so forth. Yet, I remember, when I first started writing, getting passed the inciting event and going, “What the hell happens in the middle of a story?”

If you look at story formulas, which are actually hard to find, they often go into detail about the beginning and the end, but not the in-between. The reason for this is obvious; the middle is the longest and most varied aspect of the story.

But the middle of the novel has to still relate to that plot, so it becomes a question on what events are off topic, and what aren’t?

There are seven different sorts of scenes that take place in the middle of a novel.

1. Getting from a to b.

Getting from a to b happens when the author has major plot points in mind and has to fill the space in between.

For example, in The Hunger Games, the main character has to get from her hometown to the capital, so the middle of the story starts after the inciting event (the protagonist volunteering to be a competitor) and gets them to the next plot point, which would be when she first gets to the capital and meets the other competitors.

Or, maybe the situation needs to change, like in romantic comedies in which it goes from meeting of the characters to them falling in love to something terrible happening and making them fight. Though they may be in the same place physically, they’re in a different place emotionally.

The important thing to remember is that though the author might know the events he wants to happen (they fall in love, they fight) he then has to figure out how to get from a to b in an interesting way.

The most common type of middle scenes, it is hard for it to survive on its own, and is usually combined with sequences of the other six different kinds of scenes.

2. Consequences of actions.

The consequences are like getting from a to b, in that it may not have to do directly to the plot (that would be, the major conflict in the story), but they often need to be included.

The consequences are what they sound like. When the main character does something, she triggers a chain of events. When an author doesn’t know what should happen next, he can often look to what they’ve done and realize there can be ramifications for their actions, or, rather, he sees what happened and realizes that there should be.

It goes like this: a group of people mob an outsider. The main character saves that outsider. Now though the author just wanted an interesting way for the two people to meet, he feels that the main character and the outsider can’t just walk around after beating up the guards, so there is a scene in which they are chased out of town. That would be a consequence.

What is important to remember is it is easy to dig yourself into a hole with this sort of scene. Because the author feels like they couldn’t just get away with defying the law like that, else everyone would do it, he may get them arrested, or have the whole kingdom’s guards after him, except now, they have to escape from jail or defeat 50 men in battle. Suddenly, the story’s spun out of control and you have 100 pages of a 200 page book in which they are trying to sneak out of a prison even though the story is supposed to be about her trying to fight a tournament at the capitol.

3. Raising the stakes.

This is by far the most important sort of scene in a story.

When an author raises the stakes, he makes it more important that the main character succeeds at what’s she’s doing.

Now, instead of it just being about the homeless shelter being closed down if she doesn’t get the money, if the other team gets it, they’re going to build another Walmart! And now, if she doesn’t do it within 10 days, her homeless friend will die of pneumonia!

The problem is what I’ve just demonstrated here. If the author makes the stakes too high, or too ridiculous, they have the opposite effect. Instead of making the reader care more, he makes her care less.

We care more about a bus of children blowing up, then a country of a million, and we care more about the protagonist then we do about the children. Psychologically, humans cannot show empathy for faceless masses, otherwise, every time we read in the news about catastrophes like Haiti happening, we’d react the same as if our whole family had been brutally murdered. We could not function.

4. Changing plans.

The characters are going along nicely. So, nicely, in fact, they’re about to achieve their goals. But half the movie is left over! What to do?

You’ll see this often in stories in which the characters are attempting to do something and then they have to change tactics.

In the movie The Lion King, first Scar tries to get Simba killed by sending him to elephant graveyard. It, of course, didn’t work. So, then he tries to get him and his father crushed in the stampede. When the prince survived, he told him to go away and never come back and had the hyenas try to kill him again. It worked, for a while, but then, of course, Simba came back, and so he tried to kill him himself.

The Lion King propelled by the antagonist’s wishes (as some stories are) has a switch in tactics for almost every scene.

This helps the author, number one, raise the stakes because it makes the author feel better when after all these failed attempts, the antagonist finally loses for sure (or the protagonist wins) and it adds some conflict.

To have a scene like this, all the author needs to do is, 1) understand the character’s goals, 2) have the character come up with a plan, 3) demonstrate why the plan will fail, 4) have the character come up with a new plan. (With maybe some depression in the meanwhile.)

5. Foreshadowing end.

The best foreshadowing is vague foreshadowing, in which the author doesn’t recognize it until after the story is over. Or, it can be foreshadowing that the audience isn’t sure what it means. Either way, this means that a foreshadowing scene needs to have a red herring, i.e., something else it pretends to be about.

These scenes, hidden as other types of scenes, create legitimacy for the ending without giving it away. The author wants the main character to sacrifice himself at the end, he needs to show parts where he sacrifices other things. He wants the villain to have a change of heart, he needs to hint at his good side or guilt.

The foreshadowing scenes are ignored by viewers unless they look for them. They are the hardest, but most important to write.

The issue to avoid is having a foreshadowing scene that seems to be about nothing, or is too obvious in its intentions.

6. Building end.

Like the foreshadowing scene, these are events that explain why the ending happened the way it did, the only difference is, they are allowed to be obvious and stand on their own.

A scene that builds the end is when the character (either aware or not) does something that sets up the resolution.

She gathers items needed to beat a god. She practices basketball every day to win the tournament. She commits to straightforward actions that will affect the end of the story.

7. Background information.

Though not usually a standalone scene, it is by far the best kind because it helps flush out all the others. If you’re getting from a to b and you need to set up a fight between the lovers, the main character can be foreshadowing how she will kill the villain by explaining how he killed her parents. Need to talk about something while she’s throwing hoops? Have her explain why she wants to be a basket ball player.

When a reader first is introduced to a character, he isn’t really concerned with her back story, but once he knows and loves her, he really cares.

We like people and we like hearing new things about them. Having interesting back story can be a standby for authors to talk about when they don’t know what else they should be doing. Though most biographical scenes should end with a raising of the stakes or having them change their plans, it can make even the most boring scene relevant. (If we like the characters, of course.)