Writing Resource–Plot & Structure–Part II
We’ve all heard about “the middle” of a story and usually what we hear is that it sags, stalls, and slumps. It doesn’t seem to move the story along or go anywhere. James Scott Bell addresses this in chapter five of Plot & Structure.
The middle is typically known as Act II. In a three-act construction, which most stories, plays, and movies are structured, Act II is important because it must move the story along. “What you do in Act II, the middle, is write scenes – scenes that stretch the tension, raise the stakes, keep readers worried, and build toward Act III in a way that seems inevitable.” Pg. 79. How do we do that?
The first thing Bell talks about is “death.” More than physical death, there is psychological and even professional death. The threat of physical death can be there as well.
The next thing is to make sure you’ve created the opposition, someone or something that keeps the lead from getting what they want. The middle is a place of setbacks for the lead, and a series of confrontations between the lead and opposition.
Bell suggests making the opposition a person, but not necessarily an evil person, such as a villain. The opposing character has to be stronger than the lead. Why? The lead must overcome obstacles to meet their objectives. There must be adhesive, the lead cannot simply walk away. These adhesives can come from moral duty, professional duty, life and death, or obsession. Pages 81-82 spell these out a bit more and discuss how important adhesive is.
Stretching the Tension
Think Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense here. What were his techniques? Of course, he was a film director who used camera angles, mood lighting, and varying degrees of close-up vs. full shots. So how do we do this in a novel?
Bell recommends placing trouble at the feet of the lead in the scene. Once you’ve done that, stretch it out for all its worth. “When you’ve got a handle on the trouble for your character in a given scene, you’re ready to stretch it. You can do that with two aspects of your fiction–the physical and the emotional. Each presents an opportunity to transform your story from the mundane to the thrilling.” Pg. 86
Stretching the Physical
“Physical peril or uncertainty is perfect material for the big stretch. The way to do it is simple – slow down. Go through the scene beat by beat in your imagination, as if you’re watching a movie scene in slow motion.
“Then, as you write the scene, alternate between action, thoughts, dialogue, and description. Take your time with each one. Milk them.” Pg. 86
Stretching the Emotional
Don’t make it easy on your characters. We all go through things emotionally. Make the characters suffer as well. It adds depth, feeling, passion, and expression to the story and to the character.
Ask yourself these questions: 1) What is the worst thing from the inside that can happen to the character? Look at fears. 2) What is the worst information the character can receive? 3) Has the depth of emotion been sufficiently set up for the readers? Pg. 89
In a story arc, it’s important to keep the mountain going. There are three kinds of stakes to raise: plot, character, and societal stakes. Plot stakes comprise the threat of physical harm, new forces coming into play against the lead, and some sort of professional duty danger.
Character stakes involve taking the emotional to the max, who else does the lead care for, put them in danger, and what dark secrets is the character hiding?
Societal stakes contain society and social issues in which taking sides is something that characters can line up on either side with. Pg. 91-94
In our next installment from this chapter, we’ll deal with “How to Energize a Lethargic Middle.”