the key to a strong middle act (and what I learned from my mistakes)

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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?

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Feb 4, 2010
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19 comments · Add Yours

I *love* Bell’s concept of the disturbance and two doors. Ever since I read one of his books, I have tried to frame my stories in this way, and it has really helped avoid that sorry, soggy middle.

I like your image of the crucible as well. Found your blog just the other day, following a breadcrumb trail of links and hints from the Copyblogger/third tribe folks.

It’s wonderful to see that philosophy applied to the writer’s life, and it dovetails well with my struggles in defining my ‘platform’ and presence.

Thank you!

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this is awesome…what happens, though, if the first doorway is at the very beginning of the story? Also, can I read SWAY? (lol)

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Glad you’re here! Funny that you should mention third tribe — I just joined it, although haven’t participated in the forums yet. I’ll look for you. :)

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I actually want to revise Sway as a novella and offer it as a free download to anyone who’s curious. That is the dream. :)

You can do anything in fiction, so long as you can get away with it — if you’re opening with the first doorway, it just means you’re opening with the first doorway, & can work in whatever needed information through flashbacks and exposition and dialogue, etc. You can tell things out of ‘order’ and/or move back and forth in time in whatever way best serves the story you want to tell…Once you ‘get’ the rules, you can break them in whatever way you please. And if it doesn’t work, hey, that’s what revision is for.

I’ll ask, though — are you sure it’s a ‘doorway’? Maybe it’s actually an inciting incident leading up to the *real* first doorway…

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I haven’t joined, but I’m interested. Right now, I can’t really justify the investment, as I don’t have a business. Perhaps if/when I have book(s) in print. . .

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I like the crucible idea-perhaps the bridge between beginning and ending is the point at which the most conflict manifests and becomes apparent? Insightful as always, thanks Justine.

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Great article, Justine!

In recently plotting a screenplay I realized perhaps why so many new novelists “get it wrong” by trying to structure their novel like that of a film. How many new writers have you heard say something like: “Yeah, I know it drags a little in the begining, but it really picks up steam around chapter 7 or 8.”

I like your analogy about the disaster movie and the subtle (often unnoticed) change that is the inciting incident (the boat is slowly leaking) and the doorway to Act II (“The ship is going down and we’ve only got one lifeboat!”)

I do thank that with novels the inciting incident usually needs to be much more evident and crucial. The tension needs to build faster (and be more compelling) than a film’s first act. Otherwise the reader will get bored and set the book down. In movies they can get away with a lot more “walking around” scenes during Act I because there is promise of a quick escalation (within 30 minutes) of conflict.

I’m at that point in my WIP that’s the end of the begining or the very begining of the middle and this article really helps me focus my attention on the structure of how Act II will unfold.

Thanks again for this!

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I’ve been thinking about buying that book of Bell’s. You’ve just convinced me!

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Nice. I am also a bit subject to the Sway-problem, and likely more so than you. I once lost a couple of years’ writing-time to what I now call the Kitchen Sink Novel, on account of the way I had to keep throwing everything and the kitchen sink at my characters from all directions, just to keep them inside the plot. Initially part of the intended effect, this got so far out of control as to end up something like a condensed pop-culture Wheel of Time, only deprived of Robert Jordan’s rigorous narrative discipline.

But last night I hit a plot problem with my current neo-folk tale, and I thought of this crucible notion again and it came to me: this middle section is not the run-up to the grand climax, to which I need only find some way of getting my characters. This, not all the hair-raising preliminaries, is the fire – and I must close ways before them instead of opening them, until all their world breaks open despite them, and their last strife changes all days for good or ill.

That is… a larger story than I had guessed it, though not perhaps a much longer; and the outlines might not look all that different. But, at any rate, at least I now see how it has got to happen.

Thank you for a thoughtful insight coming most timely!

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The classical approach seems strongly inspired by the feeling that all the action should begin, at least, in the crucible. That gives you in medias res straight away. Of course, it is easier to be Homer if you are writing about Achilles than about Anthony Adverse, because then your audience knows a lot of the lead-up already.

There seems to be a linked feeling, in the starkly cut-off endings of things like the Iliad, that what rushed out of the crucible is only worth telling of for as long as it’s white-hot. I guess that again has to do with an audience who know more or less where it’s headed.

Harder to pull that sort of thing off with wholly invented worlds, but mighty resonant if you can manage it.

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So I let your question marinate and while I went back to Chapter one (after being at an impasse with Chapter 26) and it hit me like lightening. I was thinking about the beginning as a ‘doorway’ and that was what was causing this impasse. Once I placed it as an ‘inciting incident’ the entire story popped into place and bulldozed the impasse at Ch 26…holy crap I now have a better plot (wordplay intended). Thank you.

Who knew comment boards were like drawing boards (got a wordplay for that?).

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“…most conflict manifests…” good way of putting it. character, too, I think — conflict reveals character and character drives conflict.

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True, it’s crucial to ‘hook’ the reader from the first paragraph — sometimes I’ll be kind of confrontational about it, when dealing with a book or movie I’m ambivalent about committing to — “Okay, show me! Make me want to stay!” There are different ways of doing that, though — you can catch the reader’s curiosity through something else while drawing him in to the ‘disturbance’…Subplots are good for maintaining tension while the real plot builds up steam, and can add richness & complexity to the novel…It all depends. You can do it so many ways, so many variations. Fiction is so cool.

Good luck on act 2! about to plunge into that crucible myself.

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It’s worth the read.

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I would have offered it up in one of my book giveaways, except it’s on my Kindle…

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Your point is dead-on. It’s easy to think of the middle act as just this thing we have to cross to get to the ending, when really it’s a complex little world in itself, and it’s when the reader starts to really care about the characters…I like the phrases you used — ‘close ways before them’ ‘is the fire’ — good ways of visualizing it. Best of luck with it (let me know how it develops….!)

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…and I use the word ‘rules’ very loosely….Maybe principles is a better word. The principles of structure…

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Alisa, yay! — it’s a great feeling when you find your way (again) in the story…

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I’ve been struggling with a saggy middle lately, too (both writing-wise and figure-wise, but the latter is a topic for another Web site :-)), so it was a nice bit of timing when my friend and fellow Drafter Dana Evans referred me to this Tribal Writer entry. Being visual-minded, just the imagery of crucibles and doorways was enough to give me a jump-start with the scenes I’m working on. Justine, Dana, thanks a million!

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