Aristotle famously wrote that every story had to have a beginning, a middle, and an end.
He was right, but how he explained what that meant has been widely misunderstood, or, at the most charitable, widely ignored.
In the One Basic Plot I set out to show how, with a very small tweak to his argument, Aristotle gives us the fundamental unit of story-ness (or plot), which is the double-reversal. However, if you are embarking on your first (or fifteenth) 50,000+ word opus this November as part of NaNoWriMo, the middle bit of the story may be giving you quite a lot of trouble.
Over the last six years, I’ve been sent dozens and dozens of newly published books to review by Amazon (I get to keep the books). Judging by what I’ve read, a lot of authors struggle with the middle, and the agent-publisher-marketer system which used to rely on the first fifty pages and now seems to rely on just the first ten pages makes far too much of a strong premise and a strong voice, and far too little of a story which is enjoyable to read all the way through. I frequently wonder if any of them ever read deep enough into some of the books to ask themselves: ‘will anyone think of the poor reader?’.
A really great beginning will serve you well, and a really strong double-reversal at the climax will make the book memorable. But it’s the middle that makes the book enjoyable. If by page 120 you, as the reader, are flagging, and by page 150 losing the will to live, there is actually no virtue in continuing. If the story is worth telling, then it’s worth experiencing all the way through. If that experience actually isn’t worth it, then the story was never worth telling in the first place.
Someone (I will try to find out who) said that British fiction is largely a beginning and an end, separated by a muddle. All too often true. At least, true today. Go back to the 19th century, the golden age of the novel, before film, radio and TV took on the mantle of stories worth enjoying for their own sake, and quite the reverse is true. Middlemarch is almost all middle, and all the better for it. Dickens’s novels rarely have dramatic climaxes (the exception being A Tale of Two Cities, which is allegedly the biggest selling work of fiction ever, and widely regarded as one of his least successful novels). If you read through Wuthering Heights to find out what happens at the end, then you have missed the point of the story.
Even some of our 20th century modernist classics are stronger in the middle than at the beginning and end. Lord of the Flies stops, rather than finishes. The main interest of the Catcher in the Rye (actually, not much interest to me, I’m afraid) is not finding out what happens to Holden Caulfield at the end. The end of Nineteen-Eighty-Four is dismal, but the middle has redefined many of our political concepts.
Reach back further to Shakespeare, and the strange power of most of his plays is in the middle acts. In story terms, we could jump pretty much straight from the witches to the demise of Macbeth, as Hollinshed’s chronicle more or less does. It Acts ii-iv that take us through the darkness of the human heart. We do not watch Hamlet to find out if Hamlet survives (the clue is in the title, ‘The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark’), exciting as the ending is.
Stories need great premises, especially in today’s competitive market. Imagine if JRR Tolkien had decided to set the Hobbit in 1920’s Warwickshire, or if CS Lewis had decided to save on the production budget and kept the Pevensie children in England. A Game of Thrones could be entirely played out in the school playground, as A Game of Conkers, but nobody would bother to read it, and the TV series would be less interesting than the Grange Hill box-set.
Equally, they need great climaxes. The modernist (and post-modernist) literary conceit of focusing on the ‘important’ things rather than plot just makes for dull works that most people only read if they have to.
However, it is the middle which makes the story one that the reader wants to dwell in and come back to again and again. We, too, want to journey through Middle Earth, fight dragons in Earthsea, find our way into the heart of the Congo, watch the doomed romance of Winston and Julia blossom for a while, marvel at how Lizzie does not see that Mr Darcy is perfect for her, and hope (even though we know it is a vain one) that Cathy and Heathcliff will get together.
How it’s done
So, what constructs of middle always work, and, more importantly, what ones never work? Let me first reiterate what I say in the One Basic Plot. Although the device of the double-reversal is fundamental to story-ness (it is the one basic plot), there are not seven, or seventy-seven or seven-hundred-and-seventy-seven approved plot structures which work, while the others don’t. Story can take an infinite number of directions. Particular genres may have a standard plot, but even in these genres, avant garde figures are at work to subvert them, developing the plots that everyone is going to copy in the next cohort.
However, that’s not what you got this far to want to hear. So, while I am adamant that you can’t just take a formula and apply it, there are some aspects of middleness which could help you out.
Just before we go on, let me say that when Aristotle says a beginning, a middle and an end, he does not mean that stories should be in three parts, and he is not recommending a three part structure. All that he means is that the beginning is the parts of the plot which do not follow from anything else in the story, and the end is the parts of the plot which have nothing following them in the story. The middle is what necessarily and logically proceeds from the beginning, and necessarily and logically causes the end. You can have any outlandish premise you want as the beginning, and you can finish the story in the most unsatisfactory state at the end, or both, provided that what happens at the end is the necessary result of the conditions of the beginning, and the route there is through the middle.
Option 1: A simple journey plot (not necessarily heroic)
It’s occasionally argued that all stories are either ‘going on a journey’ or ‘a stranger comes to stay’. It shouldn’t take you too long to come up with some counter-examples (The Midnight Folk, Nineteen-Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, to name but a few), but it is true that these two particular premises have proved remarkably fruitful and have given rise to very many different kinds of stories.
If you’ve studied (heaven help you) plot theory, then you have probably learned about the Heroic Journey. My advice on that is: forget everything you learned about it. Put it out of your mind, and just think of a regular journey. Think of a journey that you have been on, which was worth retelling afterwards, and which people actually wanted to hear about.
I can guarantee it had one particular element that the dull stories of journeys which you never want to hear (and certainly don’t want to see the video of) don’t have.
Ok, so, your journey began by setting off. This is intrinsic to journeys.
Your journey finished (unless you are still travelling) by arriving somewhere. It may not be the place you intended, and it may be back home after abandoning all your plans, but if you’ve finished the journey, then there was a place where you were when you finished it.
So far, so dull.
The journeys that are worth hearing about are the ones where something went wrong in the middle.
Typically, for a journey, this involves a selection of the following:
- There was a mishap, accident, or even an attack
- You lost your bearings and got lost
- You saw or experienced some things which were remarkable, and, even if you’d have preferred not to see them, were things worth relating which you wouldn’t have seen if you’d stuck to the ‘right’ route
- At a particular point, travel fatigue made you almost lose hope of arrival, and you just wanted it to be over, even if it meant abandoning your destination
- At another point, the fascination of what you did find made you (or one of your companions) lose sight of the ‘real’ purpose of the journey, even if, afterwards, you concluded that the detour was what made the journey special
Whether your journey is in the company of a real tiger, an imaginary tiger or a Tigger, entirely solitary, with two friends up a river, or alone across the desert, the combination of mishap, losing direction and finding something that was otherwise unfindable (for better or worse) will resonate with readers, will allow them to explore the wonderful world you have created, in the company of the wonderful characters you have given them, and gives the necessary space between things starting at the beginning, and immediately finishing with the climax.
Imagine how the Hobbit would have gone if Gandalf had a Portkey. He would have arrived at Bag End, bundled the dwarves and Bilbo to the Lonely Mountain, and all but the first and final chapters would be averted. It would have been George and the Dragon, but with a diminutive gang rather than a bloke on a horse: fine if we were looking for some more patron saints, but not much of a story. Without the journey up the Congo, Heart of Darkness would be no more than the tale of an unsatisfactory inspection. As it is, Bilbo finds a ring, and Marlow discovers that cannibals are more human than Kurtz.
For you, the hard-pressed aspiring NaNo-novelist, the most important thing about a journey is that it has distinct stages. You can literally plot it out, on a map, with times and dates. You can work out all the logistics of how the journey is supposed to go, and then work through all of the mishaps of how it actually goes.
Journeys give you a lot of scenery to describe, if describing scenery is part of the delight of your story, but they also strip the characters back to their fundamental resources. They cannot call round on their friends for assistance, dig things out of the lumber room, hide in the drawing room from unwanted guests, or even, often, seek the assistance of sympathetic police.
Definitive, by its title if by nothing else, in the journey-as-middle stories is Around the World In Eighty Days. The premise, a simple wager, is dealt with quickly enough. The climax, where Fogg accidentally wins the bet he thought he had lost through the intervention of the International Date Line, is highly memorable, but it is also only a few pages long. The bulk of the book is middle, and it gives Jules Verne ample opportunity to write about everything he likes to write about, and for the reader to marvel in it. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Centre of the Earth are by no means as successful. Under the sea there is just more sea, and the journey to the centre of the earth is largely caves, with some imaginative embellishments.
So, if stuck for a middle which is more than just a muddle, option 1 is to separate the location of the beginning and the end by a journey. You can, of course, have the beginning and the end at the same place (this is what happens in The Alchemist), but there is a certain sense of futility in the journey if you do.
Option 2, though, may be more in your line if you are focused primarily on character.
Option 2, a simple disruption plot
Pixar, or Disney, or one of them, I am told, tell stories that begin ‘for years everything went as it should, and then something happened which changed everything’.
This is a more general version of ‘a stranger comes to stay’. Essentially, it is a basic disruption plot. Everything was fine, but something changed.
Actually, you can have all kinds of disruption plots, some with no middle at all. Many short stories are disruptions with a blissful (or intolerable) situation which we can all picture sketched briefly in at the start, the disruption taking place immediately, and the story progressing swiftly to its climax.
However, a simple disruption plot lends itself very easily to a middle which is more than a muddle — though, be careful, because many of the British muddle-middles begin as disruption stories.
Think, for a moment, about a time your life was disrupted.
Some examples could be:
- A new sibling, a new parent, or both
- New school or new job
- Coming into sudden wealth, or sudden poverty
- Moving to a new neighbourhood or a different country
- Starting a new project (dance classes, playing the bagpipes, restoring an old car)
As with the journey, many of these experiences don’t make for memorable stories. The ones that do tend to be either unwelcome disruptions or disruptions where the implications seem at first benign, but become steadily more difficult as time goes on.
Probably the best known disruption story of Cinderella. It goes something like this: Cinderella, a Barbie-lookalike with an attractive disposition and a strong bond with her father, acquires a new step-mother and two non-Barbiesque step-sisters. Depending on which version you prefer, her father goes on a journey, dies, or just turns a blind eye, while the step-mother and step-sisters demote her to essentially serving girl in her own house. Unbeknownst to any of them, Cinderella has a fairy-godmother, who arranges for her to go Prince Charming’s ball. She amazes everyone, but flees to be home before midnight, leaving behind a glass slipper. The prince goes throughout the land trying to find someone who fits the slipper, until he finally finds Cinderella (her non-human Barbie proportions are the reason that no one else’s feet will fit it). They get married, and live happily ever after. Things do not turn out well for the step-mother and ugly sisters.
The simple disruption of the-girl-who-has-it-all suddenly not having it all works easily here. We can play out the implications of the step-females’ meanness more quickly or more slowly, or, as in Ella Enchanted, send our protagonist on a long and entirely unnecessary journey, or really do anything else we like. We need to be slightly careful about where we introduce the fairy godmother. She can be as powerful as we like if we introduce her early in the story, but she becomes progressively more like a deus ex machina if introduced too late, unless her powers are sharply curtailed.
The key to making the unwelcome implications of the disruption work is that Cinderella keeps hoping for the best, and doing her best. The storyteller can pile on the agony, as Cinderella persists in saying that things aren’t that bad, being nice to stray cats, and so on. Indeed, the greater the level of sympathy we can create for Cinderella, the more the readers, listeners or viewers are willing to accept her amazing good fortune at having i) a fairy godmother and ii) being the most beautiful maiden in the land.
For the hard-pressed writer, a simple disruption story can follow this plot:
- Everything went as it always had, until one day something changed
- At first the protagonist thought they could manage around this, and therefore not change their life
- The more they did this, the more the implications of the change disrupted things
- The protagonist reached the point of despair
- Something changes in the protagonist: either they embrace the new situation, or they resolve to fix matters
- Unexpected help from outside makes this possible
- After some wild ups and downs, the final result is not that what was is restored, but the new situation is even better
The audience resonates with point 2, because we have all done this. Change is part of life, but we frequently try to act as if it can be contained or ignored. The more we do this, the more inescapable it becomes, until we finally have to face it.
I suspect that Aristotle would have preferred the simple disruption plot to the simple journey plot. The journey is a physical device for separating the beginning and the end. Although the Shire probably can’t really be right next to the Lonely Mountain or to Mordor, because otherwise it wouldn’t be the carefree place that it is, there is nothing intrinsic in the plot that requires quite so many obstacles to be in the way. The disruption is more organic. It is only after a number of half-hearted or half-baked attempts to ignore it or skirt round it that the protagonist reaches the point of despair, and decides that something must be done. What that something is depends entirely on the nature of the disruption. What’s more, any amount of shenanigans, comic or otherwise, can take place both as the protagonist initially tries to ignore the disruption, and later as they do what they should have done right at the beginning.
Bonus: option 3 — the hero arrives
If neither the journey nor the disruption plot appeals, you might want something a bit more genre-related, in which case, ‘the hero arrives’ is a story line that has served many struggling writers.
The basis of ‘the hero arrives’ is that things have been going wrong for a while, and they have suddenly taken a turn for the worse. However, unlike the simple disruption, the story does not follow the self-help attempts of the people whose lives are being disrupted. Instead, an outsider arrives and sets about fixing things. However, in keeping with all post-classical heroic tradition, the hero is uniquely ill-equipped for the particular task at hand, either physically, mentally or emotionally. In retrospect, the monks/villagers/neighbours would have been much better off either living with the disruption, or paying off their oppressors—at least, this is how it seems mid-way through the story. By the end, things may have taken a different sheen.
To the struggling NaNoWriter, this can be a good way of getting away from the middle as muddle because, once again, the implications of the arrival of the hero can be worked through. Whether it is the Name of the Rose, the Seven Samurai or Batteries Not Included, or, indeed, A Fistful of Dollars, High Plains Drifter or Pale Rider, the arrival of the hero who either has a reputation or an enigma (but not usually both) is enough to provoke a response both from the people whose lives are being disrupted, and from their disruptors.
The plot can go something like this:
- Bad situation just got worse because of ultimatum from oppressors
- A hero arrives; he (or she) intimates they are just passing through
- The oppressed make pleas, or an offer, to the hero, which she (or he) turns down
- The oppressed decide to look for an alternative source of help
- The oppressors make threats and an offer, which the hero also ignores
- The oppressors attack the hero, as he now seems a threat to them, and are repulsed
- The oppressed recognise that this really is the hero they need
- The hero reluctantly agrees to help
- The hero’s inner weakness/fundamental flaw becomes apparent
- The oppressed see this, and decide they can no longer help the hero
- The hero stands alone (possibly aided by a plucky side-kick), having given his word to fight the oppressors
- At the last moment, enough of the oppressed rally round, and the oppressors are defeated
- The hero leaves
Items 11 and 12 can do with some variations, as genre-savvy readers will see them coming at a distance. However, the basic shape of the middle rings true because that is exactly what we have all experienced when a stranger arrives, and everyone decides to make her (or him) their hero. First there is courting by one side, then by the other, then, generally inadvertently, one side pushes the hero into helping the other side. It is only then that we discover the hero is flawed, possibly in a way we are not willing to accept. Their popularity fades, but their heroic quality of keeping their promise shines. Eventually, enough of us are willing to rally round him (or her) to get the job done.
In plot terms, this cannot help but work: the points of tension, hopes, fears and double-reversals are built into it. However, it is much harder to write convincing characters this way (or, possibly, it is just as easy, but the plot itself is so easy that often we don’t bother). Often, this story will be told with the hero, the oppressors and the oppressed all as figures rather than characters. Their shadows loom much larger than their souls, to borrow a phrase. For this reason, although we are fairly certain that the character played by Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars is the same as the one in For a Few Dollars More, largely because the title of the second film implies it, it is altogether less clear that the more complex character of Il Bueno, Goldie, in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the same person. He has the same laconic style, but we really don’t know enough about his personality from the first two films to be able to marry it up with the rather more developed personality of the third. Stories, be they written, stage, TV or film, about heroes do tend to deal with the figure of the hero, rather than the actual person.
Over to you
I am not recommending these three middles, merely illustrating them. Still, if you’re stuck to know what to do, any one of them will work. However, if you have a little more time, and are more intellectually adventurous, you can use the same technique which created them to do something more organic with your own premise and climax. All three of these work—time and again—because the middle as described genuinely is a logical consequence of the beginning, and the end of the middle. The technique of simply asking ‘what would naturally happen’ can be applied to any premise. At some point, there has to be an injection of character. Given situation A, what kind of character is going to give us the most interesting ride to the end. What would they naturally do? Why wouldn’t that work? What would they finally do? What would happen then?
It is this questioning of cause and effect which Aristotle believed was intrinsic to the best stories. Two and half millennia later, I have yet to find a theory which betters his.