The problem with the idea of the beginning, the middle and the end is that it can create an idea that a novel can be easily cut up into sections. On the one hand we can because we have the beginning of the action, the main action, and the action winding down. However, sometimes an impression can be given that we put a fixed measure on how long each of these sections can and should be. This isn’t true, each part of a story is as long as it needs to be. We may have a long, slow-build beginning and a short ending. We may have a short beginning and ending and a long middle. Or the main action might be over quite quickly after the build-up (I noticed that sounds like a euphemism).
Really when we talk about the middle what we mean is the main action after you’ve introduced the characters and situations but before the resolution. In simple terms we could have:
- Beginning – Character needs milk and decides to go buy some.
- Middle – Character goes on a treacherous journey to buy milk.
- End – Character returns home triumphantly with milk.
Obviously most stories are a little more complicated than trying to buy milk with various subplots and characters that are introduced throughout. Sometimes, whatever books say, the middle isn’t so clear cut we can say precisely where it starts. When we try to this can become problematic for our writing because a story doesn’t need a precisely marked beginning, middle and end to be a good story. B. S. Johnson showed this with The Unfortunates where his chapters were separated booklets in a little box with only the first and last chapter marked, the reader could put the rest in any order they wanted. This meant that one reader could read a different story to another reader and suggests that narrative structure is not as clear cut as some writing books imply.
Sometimes the best way to write a story, particularly a first draft, is not to think about the structure at all. By which I mean that, if you want to, you can simply follow the story where ever you feel it needs to go and if it doesn’t work then change it in editing.
Writers are almost always readers too, and, as I keep saying, all that reading gives you a sense of story structure that can’t be defined by beginning, middle and end because it’s a gut instinct. We may not be able to say the ‘middle begins with chapter ten’ but we know that chapter ten doesn’t belong at the beginning because the events of the previous nine chapters need to happen first. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the chapters are in chronological order, simply that this is the order we feel our story needs to be told in.
My advice is not to worry about the length of middles or the starting point of the middle and write your story because there will be a middle whether you know where it starts or not.