end of middle

THE END OF THE MIDDLE: Plot Structure Part V


The crisis (the highest point of the story so far) comes toward the end of the middle of the story. Each scene in the middle portion serves to march the protagonist one step closer to the crisis. The protagonist believes he is encroaching on his long-term goal. When the crisis hits, he’s shocked. The reader, though, has experienced the steady incline and feels the inevitability of this shocker from the link between each scene and the thematic detail.

The energy of the story drops off for a bit after the intensity of the crisis to allow the reader to catch his breath. The protagonist, confronted with a potentially life- or ego-threatening situation, finally sees himself for who he is. Now he has to make a decision. Is he going to rationalize his way out of change? Or does he accept the challenge and risk the unknown to live his life differently?

Setting up the roadblocks on the hero’s path is a necessary task. Equally important, though, is illustrating your hero’s emotional reaction to these roadblocks. Don’t rush to get your protagonist over the next hurdle. Take a moment, a scene or sequence, to show how unexpected hurdles and setbacks change the emotional makeup of your character.

In reality, people need time to assess life-changing events. Emotions typically have their moment before we figure out how to deal with an event. In art, we need to make sense of the chaos that ensues when dramatic episodes burst open.


Begin the middle with an overarching tension, conflict, or suspenseful plot point. While the threat holds the reader’s attention, it allows the author to slow down the story and incorporate scenes of place and time, of humanness.

In the beginning of The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje introduces the time and setting, both fraught with danger. The fears and secrets of the three main characters add another level of intrigue. Then, in the last sentence of the beginning, he reveals the Sapper. Ondaatje escorts us to the middle with the promise of change. The Sapper’s presence makes real the threat of an uncut fuse wire, pencil mines, glass bombs and even bombs drilled into fruit trees. The risk to everyone in the story creates suspense, allowing Ondaatje to develop the story more slowly.

Each scene in the middle peals away layers of masks from the characters, increasingly exposing their emotional development through dramatic action permeated with thematic significance.

The first quarter of Grapes of Wrath ends with the Joad family and their possessions loaded in a “truck crawling through the dust toward the highway and the west.”  We enter the middle to find that the family, too large for the truck, splits up with some members riding in a stranger’s car. When Grandpa dies, Ma senses the momentum of the family’s erosion. The car breaks down, and she stands up to the men, establishing the importance of family.

Steinbeck infuses the dramatic action with the possibility that even broke and starving, a family that remains intact can preserve its hope and dignity.   

Challenge the protagonist with formidable obstacles.  Fifteen pages into the middle of The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown throws in a demented Silas and follows the disruption with a furious Fache who closes Sophie and Langdon’s escape routes. A security guard stops Langdon, the Opus Dei is in jeopardy.  And dispersed among the chaos, Brown weaves the subtle concept that balance between male and female is integral to social order.

Plot relies on the cause-and-effect arrangement of scenes. The middle of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird begins with Scout learning that her daddy defends blacks. Realizing that she and her family will now be at odds with their friends, she knows she must keep her head high and her fists low. For the first time, Scout walks away from a fight. Experiencing the swell of dignity—cause and effect—she begins to change.

Ask yourself after every scene, Because this happened, what should happen next?

Resist the urge to tell all. The pleasure of reading is in the sleuthing, discovering that Miss Scarlet did it in the Billiard Room with the Candle Stick. Leave a trail of clues. The suspense mounting from foreshadowed events will draw readers deeper into the story.

Sue Kidd Monk introduces early in the Middle of The Secret Life of Bees a behavior that makes no sense to the protagonist, setting up curiosity as to why June asks May to excuse herself for humming “the song again.”  Monk then lets on that the song symbolizes May’s personal way of warding off crying that sometimes gets so bad she tears at her hair. Now on the alert for “the song,” we cringe when we hear it coming. The intensity of May’s self-destructive behavior builds, frightening the protagonist.  And the suspense continues to build.

The middle is easier to tackle if you add a subplot. The idea is to take the main character and give them the out-of-left-field boot. Something unexpected pulls them out of the main plot for a spell. Once the subplot is resolved, they fight their way back to the main plot. In the Accidental Tourist, Anne Tyler begins the middle with the protagonist’s need to stop his dog from biting people.

The energy of the middle crescendos at the crisis. Each scene in the middle portion of the story serves to march the protagonist closer to the high point. Right after the intensity of the crisis, the energy drops off for a bit to allow the protagonist to catch his or her breath.

In Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden crafted the crisis as an ego threatening and possibly life-threatening challenge. Sayuri must decide whether or not she’s willing to lie to gain stature and a much longed for security. The outcome forces Sayuri to see herself for who she truly is.

Before Sayuri enters the territory of the end where she will face a series of tests to determine whether her newfound faith in herself will survive, she is given the chance to prepare. The energy of the story slows down long enough to reveal further intricacies of a geisha’s the inner life. Sayuri turns eighteen and passes from an apprentice to a geisha. Readers pace themselves for the ultimate challenge on the horizon.

In the middle territory of a novel, the protagonist pushes toward something while internal and external forces delay her. Drag out the suspense—will she or won’t she achieve her goal? Prolong the tension (relative to its payoff). And plot each of the antagonists.

Written by The UnNovelist
The Unnovelist