Many of us have great ideas for the beginning of our story. We might know how the characters meet or what forces the characters to get involved. We often speed through these scenes with fresh excitement in our veins.
And many of us have ideas for the end of the story. We might know who or what the protagonist faces, or what forces them into a final solution. After all, it’s often the ending that makes us excited about the story idea at the start of the process.
But what happens in the middle? I write by the seat of my pants, so I often do great for the first 20-30K words and then reach a point where I have no idea what to do next. This is where having a vague plan can help us—even when we’re pantsers.
What’s the Goal for the Middle of the Story?
The middle act of our story isn’t about adding page count to drag out the tension and make the story novel-length. And the middle isn’t just a delaying tactic before we get to the “good stuff.” *smile*
Instead, the middle of our story should be the “meat” of the story, as far as conflicts and arcs. Without setting up the obstacles here, any solution in the final act will seem too easy and won’t be as satisfying.
This should be where we see failed attempts to solve the plot or overcome character flaws. Those failures demonstrate how tricky the story problems are. In short, the middle act is a fantastic place to ensure our story doesn’t feel shallow, simplistic, or formulaic.
If we’re familiar with beat sheets, we might know the names of the beats that are supposed to show up in the middle section of our story. But we might not know how to apply those beats, especially Pinch Points and the Midpoint, which often have a wishy-washy explanation. With a better understanding of those beats, we might be able to avoid a sagging middle for good.
Sagging-Avoidance Technique #1: Pinch Points
Pinch points are my favorite technique for avoiding a sagging middle, mostly because they’re so simple. Larry Brooks introduced the idea of pinch points on his blog. They’re plot events that pinch, or constrain, the protagonist from reaching their goals.
But I don’t worry about a specific definition very much. As Larry says:
“A pinch point may require a set-up scene, it may not. That’s why this isn’t a formula, it’s a format. You get to choose.”
I approach pinch points with the easy-going attitude that they’re:
- any plot event around the three-eighths or five-eighths marks in the story
- that reveals more about the antagonistic forces
- or increases the stakes.
Why the three-eighths and five-eighths marks? Simple. If you look at a basic beat sheet (one that’s not cluttered with other plot events that make it harder to see the big picture), you’ll see those sections are the big open areas in a story—areas where nothing is planned.
In other words, without pinch points filling in the blanks, there’d be a whole lot of pages without any story direction to guide us. When we plan something to add conflict, tension, and obstacles, we give ourselves a direction to write toward.
The details of the pinch points don’t matter as much. They could be related to the plot arc or the character arc (or both). They could be related to the main plot or a subplot. They could be related to the big bad guy or a secondary antagonist. The idea is that we’re driving the story and the arcs forward with something that shows the difficulty of the situation.
Sagging-Avoidance Technique #2: The Midpoint
Unlike pinch points, which are minor plot beats, the midpoint is a major beat. That fact might make us think it should be a huge turning point, maybe with Michael Bay-style explosions. *grin*
And while our midpoint certainly can fall into that category, it doesn’t have to. It’s a major beat from a “shift in context” perspective, but not necessarily from a “shift in story” perspective. In fact, many midpoints don’t involve huge plot events, and that’s what can make this beat so hard to understand.
I came across a fantastic blog post by James Scott Bell that really illuminates how the midpoint beat works. Most descriptions of the midpoint give vague instructions to raise the stakes or change the protagonist’s goals or choices, or explain that it can be a false reversal, etc. That’s all true—and not much help.
My preference is to use this beat to ground the reader by reminding them of the goals and stakes before the chaos of the Crisis/Black Moment hits. Some stories will accomplish this by having the protagonist stop and think about their situation. James Scott Bell explains that’s why this beat can be overlooked. It’s often a quieter character moment he calls “a look in the mirror.”
The character might:
- wonder what it will mean for them if they do or don’t succeed,
- question how they’re changing or what they’ve become,
- consider how they’ll have to change to succeed,
- stop and recognize the odds against them, or
- figure out their chances of success.
With this reflection and insight, the character will now make choices with their eyes wide open, the story will have deeper meaning, and the reader will have greater understanding of the context of the goals and stakes. That’s why I call this a “shift in context” turning point—and that’s how the midpoint is still a major beat, even if it’s a quiet one.
Used together with pinch points, one before the midpoint and one after, the beats of our story’s middle provide direction so we’re not writing aimlessly, give a greater sense of conflict, obstacles, and tension, and make the story a story.
We need the failures of the middle act to add meaning. It’s only by setting up all those obstacles that the final solution will seem like a real accomplishment. And it’s only by seeing the conflict for themselves that readers will be satisfied with the final outcome.
In short, better obstacles equals greater story satisfaction, and a better middle act equals greater reader satisfaction. *smile*
Do you struggle with the middle section of your stories? How do you work through that act? Do you plan arcs or use beat sheets? Does this explanation help your understanding of those middle beats? Do you have any other insights or tips to share?Pin It