the key to a strong middle act (and what I learned from my mistakes)
The middle act is a bitch.
The middle act defeats many a formidable writer.
I’m approaching the middle of my own novel-in-progress THE DECADENTS. I was reading James Scott Bell’s book PLOT AND STRUCTURE and it occurred to me that I need to think of the middle act as a crucible.
A ‘crucible’ is a melting pot: a vessel made of material that is used for high temperature chemical reactions. It makes me think of disaster films. I always like the idea of disaster films (even if the films themselves tend to suck): a group of people, usually strangers to each other, get trapped in a burning building or sinking ship or remote island and have to work together to survive.
The point is, they are stuck together. They can’t go back to before the disaster. They have to move forward and deal with the situation, and whatever obstacles and confrontations it throws at them, in order to find a way to safety.
This is what a middle act is. It’s like a vessel that contains all the characters and forces them to deal with each other (and themselves).
When you read about story structure, you come across various terms like ‘inciting incident’ and ‘plot points’ and ‘call to adventure’ and whatever.
Bell uses the idea of doorways. The beginning of the story is about set-up: introducing the characters, establishing their ‘ordinary world’ and then introducing the first signs of change. This change might at first be very subtle, but it’s a threat to the status quo. This is known as ‘an inciting incident’ or ‘call to adventure’ or what Bell calls ‘a disturbance’. The crucible starts to form. In a disaster film, this is the first inkling of trouble that the characters might or might not notice (but the audience certainly does). The characters might react to that change, but it hasn’t trapped them in a situation yet. They can still walk away. They still have options.
Then something happens that pushes or pulls them through the first “doorway”. The “doorway” is the transition point from the beginning to the middle, and it happens when the characters pass a point of no return. In a disaster film, this is usually when the disaster happens. In a more subtle type of story, it can be anything that compels the protagonist to make some kind of decision or commitment (whether voluntary or not) that puts all the established elements into play and sets the course of the rest of the story. The crucible is complete, and the story is what it is: the protagonist is forced to move through it in order to find a way out.
(The crucible, by the way, has to do with the structure of the story. The plot is what happens inside that structure.)
The protagonist is never alone inside the crucible. There are other people in there with him — including the antagonist(s). This is when group dynamics emerge, characters are revealed and relationships form, strengthen, or come apart. But the point is that the main characters, including the antagonist, are trapped in the situation. Nobody can walk away. Everyone is forced to deal with each other and their conflicting agendas. The protagonist and the antagonist (defined as anything and everything that blocks the protagonist’s pursuit of his goal, whether it’s ancient Mayan treasure or personal enlightenment) are locked in what Dara Marks calls “a unity of opposites”.
After all, if the characters can just walk away from the situation, or each other, where’s the story?
This was the big mistake I made in my first post-university novel, a psychological literary effort called SWAY, which landed me my first literary agent but was rejected by all the major houses. Editors liked the characters, thought I had talent, yadda yadda, but said the book “lacked structure” or “unfolded awkwardly”. I realize, now, that the book had a promising first act, but then slowly fell apart because the writer never applied what Bell calls ‘adhesive': any reason that would glue the characters to each other and prevent them from leaving the situation.
There was no unity of opposites.
There was no transitional doorway, no passage into a crucible.
There was, in short, no crucible: the protagonist was free to walk away from the situation at any time, and the fact that she didn’t, as my agent commented, made her seem “kind of crazy”. It also screwed up the rest of the novel. Because it was a literary novel, a genre that places such importance on language and characterization, it limped along as far as it did.
Bell talks about “the second doorway” (or what screenwriters would call ‘plot point two’): it’s when something happens that changes the situation and swings the story toward the big showdown, the final resolution. The characters are out of the crucible — the middle act — but now the elements are aligned and the momentum so strong that all they can do is rush toward an ending that will seem, to the reader, inevitable (yet somehow unpredictable).
Going back to my crucible analogy, I would say that this is when the temperature heats up (the stakes rise, the confrontations get more serious, the problems deepen, the conflict escalates) until finally the crucible can’t take it anymore. The “second doorway” is the point when the crucible shatters. The characters are free of it — they’re in act three now — but everything that got established inside the crucible must now play out to its inevitable conclusion.
What do you think?