A story starts on the first page and ends on the last page, but there’s a whole bit between those two points. That’s the story’s middle, and something’s gotta happen there. But what, and for how long? This week we’re tackling the often muddle-some middle, discussing things like how much content it needs, how to pace it, and when the low point should be. Also, why you should always remember your most urgent conflict. A lot of authors forget that point.
Generously transcribed by Paige. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast. With your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.[Intro music]
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreant Podcast. I’m Chris, and with me is Oren and Wes. Now we know how this podcast opens. And we know that we want to end it around the 30 minute mark. But what do we do between now and then? It’s all very ambiguous and vague. Too many options.
Chris: Okay. First let’s just divide it into three acts. This mostly makes sure that our middle’s not more than a third in length, so we have less middle to defeat. [laughter] And then we can overlay the Hero’s Journey on top of it.
Oren: Oh, good.
Wes: Good. Great.
Chris: You know, as long as I’m not the one who has to symbolically die. As long as it’s one of you, then I think that will be okay.
Wes: I volunteer as tribute.
Oren: I am prepared to step through a threshold. I do that every day, it’s not that hard. [laughter] We could just fill the time up by talking about our backstories. Doesn’t everyone want to know our backstories?
Chris: Mhm. Maybe we could go on side quests.
Oren: Ooh, that’s good. That’s good.
Chris: So this time we are, of course, talking about what you put in the middle of the story, which sometimes is a tricky thing. And if you’ve thought about your throughline, a lot of times you know where the story starts and where the story ends. But a novel is a very long story, so if you’re writing one, there’s very much a question of what you do in there. And it’s really easy to just have it all feel like one long slurry. Just going to ask a question of how a middle of the story is supposed to work and how you fill up that space.
Oren: Also, because I love to start every podcast by arguing about definitions: What is the middle, exactly? How do you even define what the middle of the story is?
Chris: Well, for our purposes, I’m going to say it’s everything that’s before the climax and after the opening chapter.
Oren: So it’s like the entire story then. [laughter] Like 90% of the story is middle.
Wes: Would you say just the opening chapter, Chris? I would think before the climax, but after the main characters and problem are introduced.
Wes: …which probably, I guess, should happen in the first chapter.
Chris: Again, people have different definitions. Some people, when they talk about story structure, they talk about, well you have your beginning, and then you have your inciting incident. Where we go with, no, that inciting incident is often when the actual plot and story begins. And so that should be as close to the beginning as possible. And you want to, again, instead of having a leisurely time showing your hero in their normal life and their little village, condense it down as much as possible.
Oren: The idea that you need to show your hero doing normal stuff before something happens is a very common and very damaging one. I run into so many authors who think they need to do that, and it is always hurting their story.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, there are some instances where the beginning of the plot means more if you can give it some context, but generally you look to condense that down into like one scene. At that point, it’s always placing a burden on the story. So the question is how quick can I boot the story up? Not like, “I might as well take my time here, ’cause I put in a prologue where somebody got killed.” [laughter]
Now that we’ve done that tangent—that was not what we were supposed to do with the middle, by the way.
Oren: It was a side quest. [laughter]
Chris: That side quest was bad and we should feel bad. So the conventional wisdom is that you should create stepping stones, intermediate steps from the beginning to the end. And that is correct, but it’s just too simplistic to be much use. It’s like, what is a step? And that’s, I think, where people tend to get stuck. Unfortunately, to answer what this step is, we have to do an intersection of all the fun concepts that we talk about with fractal structure, and tension, and pacing, and movement. So we’re going to have a fun time.
Oren: It’s a whole planet’s worth of middle stuff. Middle Earth, you might call it. [laughter]
Wes: Before we get to that, though, is it fair if somebody is like, “What do I even put in the middle?” Is it fair to just ask, “Should I write a novella instead?” [laughter]
Oren: Okay. Okay. So this is actually something that I’ve struggled with, because on the one hand, I’m a fan of letting stories be the length they need to be. And sometimes that means they should be shorter. And sometimes that means that they should be a novella, or a novelette, or even a short story. And trying to add length is generally not going to go well. But at the same time, what I have discovered is that it is often very difficult to figure out how much stuff you need to justify the events of your story.
Cause like, when I was writing my own book, I had a series of things that I knew needed to happen for the ending to make sense, but I really struggled with how much stuff to put in there to build up to them. Because you know, it’s a political story, right? So I could go into infinite depth onto all of the political things this character is doing. But the question is, how deep should I go? How deep do I need to? And that was hard to intellectualize. I had to eventually just go with my gut and try to gauge beta reader reaction. And I ended up adding some stuff after the first round of beta reading. And we’ll see how that works.
Chris: I would echo that a little bit. It’s always nice if you have the ability to just see how much story you have and then see what length it is. Now, in reality, some people are trying to write to specific markets that call for specific lengths. And there’s other things, like maybe you’re writing a series of novellas. And so it’s important to you that the works are of consistent length, and you want each one in your series to be a novella. It’s much harder if you’re trying to create stories where there is a sequel somebody’s supposed to read in order, but they have wildly different lengths. There’s a good chance that people will miss one of the installments, people aren’t used to seeing that.
Or their story has just got a complex premise. And so to make it so the story isn’t overburdened, it has to be a specific length or otherwise it’s just going to be too much complexity in too small of a space. So if you’re having trouble with, “Well, I don’t really feel like putting anything in my middle,” consider whether you could do a novella instead, but sometimes you do have to fill it out.
Oren: Yeah, it’s a question of, if you are struggling with stuff to include, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the solution is to make the story shorter, because it’s a question of what do you need for your plot to work. So if your beginning is your protagonist starting off as a farm kid and your end is them defeating the Dark Lord in a duel, they need to get good with the sword in that time. They need to believably get there, and it’s not going to work for you to just narrate, “And then I trained a bunch and got good with sword.” Right?
Wes: What? You can’t? [laughter] I thought that’s how it worked. I’ve been grinding forever, but I thought I’d just tell you that I did that and I’m good now.
Oren: Yeah. I killed sooo many boars. [laughter]
Chris: I think a good place to start is just fractal structure, which again, we’ve done specific podcasts on a lot of these, but I’m gonna just go over them briefly. If listeners want, they can always revisit those podcasts for a more in-depth look. So basically, when we talk about stories, we talk about arcs a lot. An arc is a basic story unit that opens with a problem that has some uncertainty to the outcome of the problem—that’s what tension is, it’s like a suspense over an uncertain outcome.
So we have a problem that starts up the tension, gets that booted up and running, and then we have a main character who tries to solve the problem and they get into conflict to do that. And then during that conflict, there’s a pivotal turning point that we talk about, at the climax. And then the problem is resolved after that. And the uncertainty is gone, it’s either solved or it’s unsolvable, you know, whatever. But that’s only like three points. We’ve got the problem, we’ve got the climax, we’ve got the resolution. It’s very, very bare bones. And so most stories have lots and lots of those.
And the throughline is one, that’s the most important one, but there is also more of them. So for instance, if I have a problem: everybody in the city is falling ill. That’s a really big problem. So that could take up a whole book. And that’s the only difference between arcs at different scales of like a book, and a chapter, and a scene, is that how big the scope of the problem is.
And then if you want to fill up your middle, you need steps from the beginning to the end. So then the first step in that would be discovering what is making everybody sick. And that is a step, but it’s also its own problem that has to be solved. There’s uncertainty there. What is making everybody sick? It’s a question. And it’s tense because if you don’t find out the answer, everybody’s going to die. [laughter] And so, because it’s a step in that larger arc of everybody in the city is falling ill and we have to save them, it’s what we call a child arc. Whereas the city falling ill would be its parent.
These terms, some people find them weird. I took them from, I’m also a developer. So in a lot of tech spaces, that’s how hierarchies are described, with children, parents, it’s kind of like a family tree. And it’s very useful because it’s flexible and we can talk about parents and grandparents and siblings and all those other relationships that these have to each other.
It is a stepping stone, but it’s actually much more useful to think of it as an obstacle. The first obstacle in saving everybody who’s falling ill is that we have to figure out what’s making them sick in the first place.
Oren: It’s also a productivity trick because you divide big tasks into small ones. [laughter]
Wes: Surprising life lesson.
Chris: But that’s kind of the important thing if you try to fill something out. If you say, okay, this happens next, but that thing isn’t actually hard, it’s not an obstacle. Then it’s not really going to take any time in the story, or fill it out, or be very interesting, because there’s not going to be much of a conflict there.
Oren: Right. And if it does that anyway, and you find that you just inflate how long it takes, it’s going to be boring.
Chris: So rather than thinking of your stepping stones from the beginning to the end as being like milestones, think of them as, this is what’s in the way. That’s going to be tough. And then we clear that out and we get to the next thing that’s in the way of solving the problem, and those obstacles are all child arcs of your story.
And then if you want your story to be longer, what you can do is just take something that would normally happen and make it difficult. Make it really hard. And you can do that by introducing an antagonist, or sometimes if you want your story to be more exciting at the climax, what you can do is just escalate the situation and make it worse before it’s solved, and add another obstacle at the end, when everything is really dire. And so that’s kind of what will fill up time.
Since these happen at all scales, you can add a big obstacle that’s like a chapter level, and it has its own sub-tasks in your to-do list. As Oren would say.
Oren: Yes, gameify everything. Give yourself some points whenever your character solves a child arc. [laughter]
Chris: All of these obstacles, there should be at least one conflict that happens in real time. It doesn’t count if you summarize it. A lot of times they could be, again, lots of different scenes, right, if they’re like a whole chapter-sized arc. And again, chapters and scenes, they’re all arbitrary when they start and they conclude. So you could have one arc per chapter and scene, and it neatly matches. They’re arbitrary, you can end a chapter anywhere that you want. Basically how much effort your character has to put into clearing the obstacle determines how much meat you have there as far as filling out your story.
Wes: Yeah, that’s helpful.
Oren: Can I talk about a phenomenon I have noticed among certain authors, caused by The Empire Strikes Back?
Chris: Yeah, let’s do it.
Oren: Okay. So, we talk a lot about how plot is fractal, right? And how you can zoom out above a single story to look at the series, as well as zooming in. And even though most people haven’t intellectualized it to the same degree Chris has, this is still a thing that a lot of people understand a little bit, at least, at an instinctual level.
And so what they sometimes do, I’ve noticed, is they look at the three Star Wars films, the original trilogy, and think of it as one story. And then they look at Empire Strikes Back, which is the darkest and most downer of the three and think, okay, that means the middle of my story should be the dark downer part.
And they divide it as like the first 33.3% is lighter, and then the middle 33.3% is super dark and downer, and then the last 33.3% is lighter and more heroic. And I just wanted to mention that if those were all one story, like if this was one movie or even like a television show, you would move the low point closer to the end. You don’t want the low point to be in the middle of the story, because then you just have too much time to recover from it. It loses its impact. In most cases, the low point, you want that to happen closer to the climax.
Chris: Yeah. But that’s a good segue into pacing. Pacing is—we did, I think, a joint podcast on pacing and movement, but pacing is just like the level of tension throughout the story. Kind of like if you were to do tension graph from start to finish, what that is supposed to look like. The problem with putting a super down point right in the middle of the story is that generally will create higher levels of tension, but you want your highest levels of tension to be more towards the climax.
You might be messing up your graph, but here’s the thing. The problem is that when people don’t understand fractal structure and they think of the structure as flat. And you’re using something like, people often compare Star Wars to the hero’s journey.
Oren: Yeah, they do.
Chris: And they’re like, well, there’s something exciting right in the middle of the story. It’s like, well, so what we have is a pointy staircase, and the points—each stair that’s pointy—is a child arc. So if you have three child arcs, you have a staircase that has three big points on it. And each point is a high tension area.
If you think, okay, we could have three child arcs, and there would be one right in the middle. And if we have four, there would be two that are sort of near the middle. So there’s usually going to be something exciting somewhere in proximity to the middle, but it’s not because there’s like a middle point that specifically needs something exciting. It’s just how that works out, when it comes to dividing up your throughline into child arcs that each have their own mini climax. But you still want successive mini climaxes to be more exciting than the previous mini climax. You want each stair to be higher on the incline than the last stair.
And one of the problems that people have, when a story feels anticlimactic, like Project Hail Mary would be an example where the tallest stair feels like it’s half, maybe two thirds of the way through.
Oren: Yep. There is a super exciting climactic conflict where they have to fly their ship into the atmosphere of a planet to collect samples and it’s super exciting. And then the story just kind of keeps going after that.
Chris: Right. And it has, again, another smaller stair where the climax should be, but it’s just much lower tension than that climactic middle point. And so the story just feels anticlimactic. Another issue you have is the Calculating Stars issue, where you have to be careful because you want your beginning to be exciting and engaging, but you also want room to build.
And so if your beginning is super exciting and you can’t keep moving up on the staircase after that, then your middle will feel really boring in comparison when it maybe wouldn’t have before. So that’s one reason why middles tend to sag and be boring a lot. And I don’t have an easy answer for that. It’s a hard balance of how can you make your opening engaging, but try not to sacrifice engagement in your middle.
Oren: Yeah. Because sadly you can’t just make your beginning boring to make it easier to build from there. Unfortunately. Readers are unreasonable that way.
Chris: We don’t recommend that. But yeah, so that’s why there is exciting middle scenes, but again, we really should keep an upward incline as the story goes on because the tension you have will have less and less impact. So you have to increase it. But speaking of what it looks like again, if you have any slow scenes you really want in your story, you want to put those immediately after your most exciting scenes. That will work a lot better, because once there’s something really exciting, people get tired, they’re ready for a change. And then that way, as soon as you have your reflective scene done, you have a tenser scene that goes right after that.
But the biggest tension problem that happens with pacing is, once you finish one of those child arcs, let’s say you found out, oh, this is what is making people ill. It’s this new widget from this grand opening of the shop that almost certainly happened in Sailor Moon. [laughter] Every Sailor Moon episode is about, like, a grand opening to a new store that is selling a product that’s making people sick.
Oren: Just nothing but a series of small business scams.
Chris: But once you figure that out, it feels like, okay, now, from here, it’s easier to get to the point where we’ve saved everybody. And as soon as the problem seems easier to solve the tension plummets, and what you have is like a chasm right there at the end of that child arc before you manage to pick it up again.
So to solve that, what you need to do is as soon as you solve one problem, you need to introduce something to keep that tension going back up and make the problem look more difficult to solve, even if you’re closer to solving it. So in this case, maybe we found out what it was, but it’s actually that the only supply of water that people have to drink is contaminated. It’s like whoa, now that’s tough. We can’t just tell people to stop drinking the water cause they’ll die of thirst. And so that problem, for instance, would keep the tension up. Or you could just do, hey, we found out what is making people sick, but it also turns out that the people who are infected are being controlled by the bad guys and are deliberately infecting others.
Oren: Oh no.
Chris: So we have a new thing that makes it again, more tense, makes it harder to solve, to make up for the fact that we are a step closer to solving it.
Wes: And then to what extent should you be foreshadowing those kinds of new stake-raising steps? If I have to go foreshadow, I guess that’s more stuff to put into the middle of my story. But you don’t want it to seem like all of a sudden, oh, by the way, the water is contaminated.
Chris: That’s a great question. So I actually had a blog post recently on foreshadowing and the question is, does your foreshadowing need to be plausible or guessable?
Chris: So the difference is that guessable is exactly that: it’s something that a protagonist is going to guess. They’re going to come up with a solution themselves often to help them solve problems.
A plausible reveal is when they just find something out instead of guessing it. A lot of times it’s something that’s tense. So whenever you put in a hook that makes problems worse, you’re actually at the plausibility threshold, not the guessability threshold, generally, if you’re creating a new problem as opposed to solving a problem.
So in that case, as long as it’s plausible, and usually plausibility means that if it’s an antagonist, they have to have a means and a motive. If they don’t have any reason to do something and they don’t have the ability to do it, then it’s not plausible. If you make it possible, as long as you don’t have stuff in your story that outright contradicts it, usually you’re okay.
Chris: But it just depends. We’d have to look at exact details of the story and be like, okay, what would make this feel like it’s plausible? I mean, if we’re talking about the water supply and a protagonist is going to figure that out, we have to make it guessable, right? So we’re going to have to have enough hints that a protagonist could put the puzzle together and figure that one out.
But if we want people that are being infected, and are mind controlled by an antagonist after they get ill, there has to be something in the setting that is capable of doing that, first of all, to make it plausible. [laughter] I think at that point, there’s plausible reasons why somebody would make a population ill so they can mind control them.
But there would mostly have to be something in this setting capable of doing that to make it plausible. But the general rule for pacing is that every time you finish that stepping stone, that child arc, you’re supposed to be closer to the resolution, but it’s supposed to look more difficult to pull off a happy ending because that’s what keeps your tension going on.
Oren: Can we talk a little bit about stories that start with a cool problem, and return to that cool problem at the end, and then kind of have a middle that just sort of meanders around and doesn’t have much to do with that problem.
Chris: You mean bad stories? [laughter]
Oren: Yeah, but like a specific kind of bad story, right? Like Age of Myth, a story that I read recently, we’re told at the beginning that this is a story about a human rebellion against the elves. And it’s like, okay, cool. I’m into that.
The beginning starts with a human killing an elf because the elf had attacked him, and that’s supposed to be, oh man, humans aren’t supposed to kill elves, like even in self-defense. This is going to be bad. And then, for a lot of the book, we just kind of do random stuff. There’s this very weird plot about a bear that is maybe a demon, but maybe not. And there’s nothing to do with the elves.
And then finally at the end, the elves show up again, and now it’s fight time, cause we have to fight the elves, and I’m just…I’ve seen that enough that I feel like it’s kind of its own—it’s a specific problem. It’s not just a bad story. It is also that. [laughter]
Chris: Well, I think a lot of these cases, the goal of the storyteller is to have, you know, the whole “problem builds in the background” type. And generally for that to work, you have to have a problem that if you want to be in the background, it has to not be tense because if it’s tense, then why aren’t the characters solving it right now? How dare they go about their business when people are dying or what have you.
So you have to have something where it just doesn’t feel like it’s a problem yet, or at the very least it’s not urgent. And then you have to have something else giving the story structure while that’s happening. And I think probably in a lot of cases, when you have some of this weirdness, some of those things have been messed up.
Either the writer thought that they could just put a problem in the background, but they didn’t actually need to put another problem in to create structure. Or they accidentally made that problem too tense. And so in the beginning it’s like, okay, wow, that’s an urgent problem. We’re going to do that problem, right? And they’re like, no, you can do other things.
Oren: Yeah. And I would say that it is always better—or almost always, I guess, there might be an exception somewhere—to make the problem in the background less urgent, rather than making it urgent and then trying to create a justification for why your characters can’t do anything about it.
Wes: Yeah, definitely.
Oren: Because if you do that, then it feels like your story’s about the wrong characters. The novel Tropic of Serpents does that. It opens with this problem of, oh wow, all of the dragons might be hunted to extinction. And it’s like, all right, I guess that’s what we’re doing this book. And then it’s like, no, actually we’re going on a regular dragon expedition to go study some swamp dragons.
And it’s like, how does this have anything to do with all the dragons going extinct? Well, nothing, but we can’t really do anything about that. That’s not our problem. And it’s like, well, could I read about the people who are doing something about it? Whose problem it is? [laughter] You brought this up, not me.
Wes: It’s a reasonable request.
Chris: Similarly, if you create a waiting step for your character, that can only go on for so long. You might be able to get away with like a single scene where they’re waiting for somebody to get back to them on the blood work for the mystery story. And they go to visit their estranged mother. And then it turns out they get important information about the visit, but you don’t know that to start with.
Definitely if that lasts longer than a scene, it’s going to get pretty frustrating. If the problem has tension, has a significant amount of tension, it’s going to feel urgent. And even if you say the protagonist just can’t do anything about it right now, it’s going to be frustrating. So it really has to be, if you want to build in the background, it really has to be a low tension problem, not a high tension problem that the protagonist just can’t do anything about right now.
Oren: It’s like, why is this character the protagonist, if they’re not involved in the most high tension conflict?
Chris: Mhm. And then you start getting questions, even if you intend to completely absolve the protagonist from moving forward on it, because they’re waiting for somebody, people will get frustrated, and be like, well, why doesn’t the protagonist do this or that or that? Cause they’re feeling that sense of urgency. So you have to take that away if you don’t want your characters to be spending all of their time solving this problem.
Wes: Yeah, good point.
Oren: It’s just better to not create that situation in the first place then to try to create such an iron clad explanation that none of your readers can find a hole in it and come up with a reason the protagonist should’ve done something else, right. It’s just better not to do it in the first place.
Chris: All right, so before we go, movement. We talked about fractal structure and we talked about tension and we talked about pacing. And so then the last thing is movement, which I actually already talked about a bit with the idea that the protagonist is closer to the resolution after every child arc. That’s what movement is, it’s that sense of closing in on the end.
Basically, the events need to feel relevant towards the problem and trying to solve the problem. And basically what it equates to is your child arcs are kind of like a chain that is unbroken. And if you remove one link in the chain, the plot shouldn’t work anymore. And so if you can just like completely cut out an entire section and nothing else is different, that’s a bad sign.
But you don’t always need every single part to be super essential. In many stories, it’s enough for you to get an essential piece of information as a result of tackling an obstacle. There’s different rules from story to story, it matters how episodic the story is and how urgent various arcs are. But as long as you have some reason why it mattered that everything just happened. It matters that the protagonist tackle that obstacle, then you’re usually good to go.
Oren: All right. Well then with that, I think we will “move on” to the end of the podcast.
Wes: Ooh. [laughter]
Oren: We have successfully completed our objective of ending the podcast at around 30 minutes.
Before we go, I want to thank a few of our patrons. First, we have Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. Next, we have Ayman Jaber. He is an urban fantasy writer and a connoisseur of Marvel. And finally we have Danita Rambo, and she lives at therambogeeks.com.
We’ll talk to you next week.[Outro music]
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?