the secrets and revelations of a powerful middle act



I’ve been thinking about secrets.

The characters in my novel-in-progress, THE DECADENTS, all have them. They have to do with desire, especially forbidden desire, and the destructive forms it can take when repressed. And as these secrets surface, one by one by one, the world of the story changes forever.

I’m fascinated with the idea of the Shadow. We all have one, made up of the parts of ourselves we learned when young to dismiss and deny in order to feel loved by the people around us. But the things that we repress have a way of sneaking back to secretly inform our behavior. In English class at university I learned the term ‘return of the repressed’ (and “what is repressed, explodes”).

Until we learn to acknowledge these rejected aspects of ourselves and integrate them into our beings, every now and then they take possession of us. Every now and then we are completely at their mercy.

Maybe a story — or any creative project — also has a shadow side.

An important part and purpose of a story’s middle act is revelation. The middle act, as Michael Halperinputs it, “is the central place where revelations, motivations, and confrontations take place – making the stories we create live and breathe.” Information rises from that secret underside to raise the stakes, deepen character, and shift the reader’s perceptions.

It also changes the course of the story. The protagonist is forced to deal with this new information and the impact it has on his life. He can no longer hide or deny. He is past the point of no return. But because of the necessary confrontations that result, his character transforms. He gains the wisdom he needs, the shift in perspective, to become a more complete individual — which allows him to defeat the antagonistic forces in a way he could not do at the beginning of the story.

This is the thing about the Shadow. When we confront it, we learn and grow and benefit. We unearth the vein of gold that’s been buried deep inside it – and ourselves — all this time.

Do your characters have secrets? What would happen if some of those secrets came to light?

Are there aspects of the story that make you uneasy, that you find yourself downplaying or avoiding?

Often there are scenes that we don’t want to write, usually because they force us to go somewhere uncomfortable. Maybe you’re a ‘nice’ girl who needs to inflict some major suffering on a beloved character. Maybe you need to write about anger or sex or blasphemy or violence, or explore an emotional wound, or call up a childhood trauma.

Maybe you need to go someplace dark.

Some writers like to say it’s the scenes you don’t want to write that you need to write the most. Like Luke Skywalker in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, into the cave you must go.

Why do you think this is?


May 6, 2011

4 comments · Add Yours

This struck me as an exhalation, as an adulation. The power of writing in secret. Not to destroy, nor to mimic but sometimes to amuse, to allow myself to be in a state of exhilaration, to become a void through which the words stream. It aches with desire and love, it sends sparks into the light, it enters deep tall rooms. Its touch is so light, the containment or ornament of power, it’s secret is brevity, or its full length, it is to be caught once in a river that sweeps on, or snared on the wing, snatched to be braided and saved, for it will not return.
The earth in which it grew will turn anew.


Hi Justine,
Interestingly, I read this after viewing today’s (July 6) video post. I kept thinking of my own personal “middle act” now that I’m newly in my fifties (don’t look or feel like it). I feel more and more confident about staying true to myself, recognizing the right “turnoffs” to take on this journey. It really is about finding one’s authentic voice, including those emotions one has repressed while young. Finding your blog at exactly this time in my life is confirming my own revelation of myself.

I know what I’ve just written sounds a bit much for a blog post, but I wanted you to know I’m using whatever touchstones I find right now as I reveal myself to myself–and then the world–and your blog is one of those touchstones.


I enjoyed this post, and tried a couple times to subscribe to the blog. I entered my name and email and then what? You’re addictive! Gotta have more. Thanks for cluing me in and for writing so bravely.
~ Michelle


I am so glad I discovered your blog after my friend Michael Margolis FB liked this post.

Excellent stuff!


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