Plotting the Dreaded Middle

Bridging the Gap Between Beginning and End

By Claire Tucker

Reading a good novel is like taking a road trip. The road winds between hills and forests and anticipation for the end of the journey is palpable in the vehicle. Then all at once the hills and forests fall away as you drive onto a bridge spanning a chasm. You gasp, appreciating the splendor of the scenery around you, occasionally giving a nod to the design of the bridge itself. Then you’re across the bridge and your anticipation for the long-awaited end burns within you as the hills and forests close in once more.

That’s what reading a good novel is like. Writing one is much, much harder.

That’s because writing a novel is like trying to build the road.

And so we start. We have a great destination in mind, and we know where we are starting. We’ve selected who will journey with us—our characters—and construction begins. The lay of the land dictates the first part of the journey, and we wind through the hills, our anticipation for the end growing with each sentence we pen. And then …

Then the ground falls away before us and we find ourselves upon the edge of a chasm. The scenery is splendid and you pause a moment to appreciate it. Your gaze settles upon the far side of the chasm and you see your promised destination.

But how to get from where you are to where you want to go?

A lot of focus goes into writing the end of a story. In fact, googling the phrase “writing the end of a story” produces about 1’730’000’000 results. Googling a similar phrase for the beginning and middle of a story produces 1’240’000’000 and 1’180’000’000 results respectively. My point?

We, as writers, can get a lot more advice about writing the beginning or end of our story, when the middle is what gets us from one to the other. The middle is the bridge across the chasm.

This prompted me to set out on a journey. A journey to discover the structure underlying a good middle, that bridge between the beginning and end of every story.

Three important points

To begin, let’s step back and look at the big picture of a bridge, then we’ll take what we learn there and apply it to fiction.

Notice that a bridge has three distinct points: The beginning, middle, and end. Each of these points along the bridge are vital to the structure and integrity of the bridge itself. Let’s look at each one in a little more detail:

  • The Beginning. This is the moment you first move onto the bridge. In a well-constructed road, you won’t realize that you’ve driven onto the bridge until you’re already on it. In other words, the transition from land to bridge is smooth but, upon looking back, clear.
  • The Middle. This point is very difficult to nail down precisely because there is no sign telling road users that they have crossed the middle of the bridge. Why then is it so important? Because at that point you are closer to the end than the beginning.
  • The End. This point is the clearest and most easily defined of the three, because you can see it coming. You are aware of the moment that you pass from bridge to land and your thoughts then shift to the destination you are journeying toward.

How do these three points apply to fiction?

  • The Beginning of the Middle. Like the road-trip described above, you don’t want your transition from the end of Act One to the beginning of Act Two to be jarring. The transition needs to be smooth, the natural outcome of what came before and where the story is going. At the same time, it needs to be clearly identifiable. We’ll talk about how to achieve this in a moment.
  • The Middle. You’ve probably already figured out that the middle of the middle is also the middle of your story. As we reach and cross this point, we are closer to the end of the story than the beginning, and there are specific clues that we as writers can plant in the story to indicate this.
  • The End of the Middle. This is one of the most easily identifiable points in a story. Once we have crossed this point, our attention is going to be on our story’s destination: the Climax.

Before looking at each of these points in detail, I need to point out something that became clear to me in my study of structure:

Every major point in a story is accompanied and dictated by character. In other words, you cannot study plot without considering character. Characters shape plot. Their actions, reactions, and decisions are the driving force of even the most action-orientated books and movies. At the same time, plot shapes character because plot is the events that force characters to react, make decisions, and take actions.

That means that we need to assess these points of the middle (the plot) with characters in mind.

The Beginning

This point is accompanied by a decisive action from the main character. This action differs from previous actions in that it directly involves them with the main conflict. At this point, they have committed themselves.

Example: DreamWorks Animation studio’s How to Train Your Dragon. This point in the story is when Hiccup takes a fish to Toothless. It differs from his previous actions (cutting Toothless free; going to find Toothless) in that it now involves him in the friendship that the story revolves around. He’s committed himself. This action was dictated by what came before and where the story is going.

The Middle

Remember: Once we cross this point we are closer to the end than we are to the beginning. This is shown, once again, by character. They are changing, the events of the story forcing them to release inhibiting beliefs and face their fears. At this point, a little bit of who they will be shines through.

What prompts this change, this glimpse of who they will become?

Action.

Something happens at the midpoint that forces the character to make a decision. Notice that, unlike the previous point, the decision is forced. It is a result of the action that directly preceded it.

Example: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. The middle of the story is Edmund’s journey to the Witch’s house. That’s the action. The resulting decision comes from Peter, Susan, and Lucy. They decide to go to Aslan and ask for his help. The decision shows a little of who they will become: Children who rely on Aslan for help.

The End

This is the most easily identifiable point of the middle, because it is accompanied by great action. I like to think about it as the “first climax”. Why? Because the action at this point involves the antagonistic force coming directly against the protagonist. Most often, the antagonistic force wins. This is because of one of two reasons: The protagonist hasn’t yet overcome the lie they believe or they are missing a key piece of information.

This is the point of the middle of the story, the moment you have been driving toward from when you first moved onto your story’s “bridge”. It leads to those “all-is-lost” moments: Hiccup overlooking the empty sea; Susan and Lucy grieving over Aslan’s body; Rapunzel returning to the tower with Mother Gothel. All of these moments were preceded by moments of great action involving the main character(s) and the antagonistic force.

The “first climax” differs from the main climax at the end of the story in that the protagonist hasn’t yet committed everything. In the final climax, they will be required to go “all-in”, risking everything for the chance of success.

In How to Train Your Dragon, Hiccup and Toothless fight the big dragon alone.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe Peter and Edmund go to war against the White Witch without Aslan by their side.

In Tangled, Rapunzel begs to heal Flynn, offering her freedom in exchange.

Lastly, the best advice I can give you is to go and study the middle of stories for yourself. Now that you know what points to look out for, practice identifying them in other people’s work.

Then go and build your bridge.


Claire Tucker is a Christian fantasy writer and freelancing copy editor and proofreader. Stories are her passion, as is helping writers polish their work to the highest standard. She lives in South Africa and enjoys spending time outdoors, reading books of any genre, and doing a variety of crafts and needlework. You can find her on Instagram @clairetucker_writer and on LinkedIn at linkedin.com/in/claire-tucker-editor


This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.

Published by headdeskliz

Elizabeth Jacobson is the author of Not by Sight: The Story of Joseph. She lives and teaches in sunny California and loves fantasy, science fiction, and historically-based Christian fiction. She has multiple other titles in the works.

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