The middle is where most of the plot happens and whether we’re writing a plot-led or a character-led story there is always a plot. This doesn’t have to be a complicated plot or have lots of subplots. Even if your story is about someone finding their way after the loss of a loved one that is a plot. At its most basic plot is starting in one place and getting to another, though not necessarily by the most direct route. Whatever our story the basic structure means most of the action happens in the middle.
If we were to take a grieving plot we might have three events in the middle that advance the character’s ‘recovery’, for lack of a better word:
- Beginning – We’re introduced to Jane who has just lost her husband.
- Event 1 – Jane meets Beth and learns something that takes her forward.
- Event 2 – Something happens to Jane that advances her forward.
- Event 3 – Jane learns something about herself that takes her forward.
- Ending – Jane finds herself in a more emotionally stable place and able to continue with her life.
We don’t have to break a story down into these constituent parts to have a plot, we don’t have to plan at all to have a plot. My point is that even if we think there isn’t a plot there usually is. In this example story Jane may be striving for some solid ground after losing her husband of many years and therefore Jane moving from unstable to stable over the course of the story is the plot.
Now we know what our story is, and we don’t have to know this when we begin the first draft, we know most of the action is going to take place in the middle of the story. If we start introducing plots that need to be resolved towards the end this could be frustrating for the reader, unless they are subplots that resolve earlier subplots, but we’ve discussed this in a previous article.
Similarly we know we need the beginning to introduce the characters and plot. While we might talk about ‘jumping straight into the story’ what this usually means is an interesting moment that introduces the characters and plot rather than a drawn out explanation, for example. Jumping straight into the story might also mean that the beginning is very short, the action builds quickly and we’re away with the plot.
As we’ve discussed in other articles on narrative structure this doesn’t necessarily mean that the beginning, middle and end are chronological, simply that the narrative moves forward. Consider, for instance, the use of flashback, while time is going backwards the story is still going forwards because we’re learning more about the characters and the plot. We may have flashbacks of Jane’s life with her husband which shows their relationship giving us further evidence of how much she loved him and showing how different her life is without him. These would probably appear in the middle of the story because although they are part of the story they are not the beginning of the story. If we were to put the scenes from the flashback at the beginning it would be a long and slow beginning before we reach the husband’s death where our story really starts. While readers don’t necessarily mind long beginnings they too have a sense of a where the story should start and would be able to tell that we had started it in the wrong place. The story isn’t about a happy marriage, it’s about what happens when the happy marriage is over.
Ultimately when we’re writing the first draft it doesn’t matter if we have these scenes in the wrong place or the beginning is too long. If we were to put some of the relationship at the beginning and later realise it would work better as a flashback we can easily move chapters around once we have a complete picture. The important part is getting the story down because we can’t shape something that isn’t there.