If the first 50 pages can be said to be the beginning of a book, then from page 51 up until about maybe thirty pages from the end can be called the middle. The middle is the longest part of any book, just like a chess game’s longest part is the mid-game. This is where all the stuff happens. Nearly everything that is memorable about a book will take place here.
The worst thing that can be said about the middle of a book is that it sags or falls flat.
Have you ever seen the St. Louis Arch?
The St. Louis Arch
This is the image that always comes to my mind whenever I hear anyone talk about story arc. What if it was to sag? What would it look like then? It would fail at its most basic task, which was simply to arc. If your story sags in the middle, it means that things are not moving along at the same pace they were at the beginning. Readers are growing bored. Something went wrong somewhere.
One simple rule I follow is this: something must happen on every page. Something–no matter how small or seemingly insignificant–must happen always be happening. When things stop happening, that’s when your story runs into trouble.
A story is not as symmetrical as the arch in the picture, of course. The apex of the arc, which we usually call the climax, is actually much closer to the end than the beginning. The whole middle builds up to that climax.
And then, of course, comes the last important piece: the ending.
I’ve always secretly resented it that a story has to contain anything, just like it’s always annoyed me that an 80’s-era rock song has to contain a guitar solo. It feels formulaic to me, and when I was younger I really despised anything that smacked of formula. But over time, I’ve learned that stories tend to follow a certain pattern for the same reason that every other aspect of literature exists: because that is what people respond to. This is rooted not in fascism or in the desire of one group to control another group, as my hyper-sensitive teenaged self believed, but in simple human psychology, which in turn has its roots in biology. Storytelling is one of the most important things people do.
To explore this, let’s take what is probably the oldest story of all: the story of a hunt.
Zog and the Mammoth
We’re back in prehistoric times now, part of a group of people who are living just after the last Ice Age–somewhere in southern Europe, say. Zog, a young hunter, is just back from a successful trip during which he killed a mammoth. That’s a big deal, because it means the continued survival of his people… at least for another season.
Now he’s sitting around the fire with the rest of his tribe, including people of all ages: his friends, their wives, their children, their parents, and maybe even their grandparents, if they haven’t already died of scurvy, worms, gangrene, or any other of the nine thousand horrible things that might have killed you at the drop of a hat in those days.
This is the first thing I want to point out to you about this ancient story, before Zog even gets started: notice that it was told to all ages at once. Today, when we go to a movie theater, we are separated by demographics. There are kid’s movies, romances, action films, and sentimental stories of days gone by, to name a few. In each theater you will find a distinct segment of society, with very little overlap. When we buy a book, it’s often marketed to us (whether we know it or not) based on our gender, age, and the general type we correspond to. Telling a story to an integrated group such as Zog’s tribe requires great skill, because you have to include something for everyone…. which is something that WIlliam Shakespeare also knew very well. So, if you want to write a book that will appeal to a broad audience, keep in mind you have to include things that will appeal to different kinds of groups–not just twenty-something car enthusiasts from Los Angeles, for example.
Zog is gearing up to tell the tale of how he speared the mammoth. Everyone is rapt, and he’s loving the attention. The last thing he’s going to do is say, “Well, I saw a mammoth and I speared it. The end.” He wants to entertain everyone. He wants them to know how brave he was and how scary the whole situation was. He wants them to respect his knowledge of hunting craft. He wants to capture the attention of the single ladies of the tribe. Maybe he’s secretly hoping that his story will be memorialized in a painting on a cave wall. And he wants to educate the younger hunters, who are absorbing every single word he says with total attention–partly because they idolize Zog, and partly because what he has to say might save their lives some day.
He begins by describing where he was, including the place and time. “I was far away by the Big Rock, at the time of the Long Shadows,” he might say. That’s the setting. He might describe how he got there, who he was with, and how long it took them to get there. He might detour into telling one or two smaller stories about things that happened to him along the way, such as a meeting he had with a person from another tribe, a sighting of a strange animal, a weird new plant he found, or any other item of note. If his destination was somewhere the other tribespeople have never been before, he will take extra care in describing it, because they will add this knowledge to their store of collective wisdom, forever after remembering it as The Place Where Zog Killed The Mammoth. That way, if they ever find themselves in the same place, they will be able to recognize it, even though they have never seen it before.
You can start to see why, from an evolutionary perspective, the ability to tell stories is a huge advantage.
We can safely say that Zog has left the beginning of his story and entered the middle when he begins to talk about actually picking up the trail of the mammoth. In terms of story architecture, he is traveling up the arc. Tension is building. His listeners are rapt and getting excited. Maybe he’s been observing a herd for several days, watching them to memorize their behavior and trying to find a likely ambush spot. Maybe he intends to start a stampede and make them all run over a cliff, which was a common way of hunting in those days. Maybe he found some mammoth tracks and followed them for a long time. All of this would form the middle of the story.
If Zog is a particularly good storyteller, he will stretch the middle out, building anticipation in the minds of his listeners. He will try to make the eyes of the little ones widen in fear as he describes the size, the smell, and the sound of the mammoth when he finally spots it. He will try to impress his comrades with his skill in sneaking up on the herd without being detected. He will try to seduce the women by bragging about his bravery and his physical prowess, but he can’t overdo it in this department, or they will make fun of him–the perennial curse of the dude who tries too hard. He will also crave the approval of the elders, who may have been through similar experiences themselves, and who, though past their prime, can still influence the way the other members see Zog by how much respect they decide to show him.
Finally, Zog will arrive at the moment where he throws the spear. He will devote some care to this part of the story, too, for this is obviously the climax of the tale–the whole reason he went hunting in the first place. He will try to describe how it felt to see the mammoth react to the blow, and whether it charged him or took off running. He might try to stretch things a bit and claim that it fell dead instantly, but here he risks losing credulity, and besides, the longer he can spin things out, the better. He will describe the death throes of the massive beast. If he was injured in the hunt, that will only serve to make the climax that much more exciting, since it was completed against greater odds than normal. Finally, when the mammoth is dead and Zog stands next to its body, victorious, the climax may be said to be complete.
Everything that happens after this properly belongs to what we call the ending. We almost don’t even need to hear it, because it’s obvious to the tribe what happened: Zog killed the mammoth and brought it home. But no tale would be complete without it. It allows time for our brains to snap back into place after having been transported. It allows us to process and correctly categorize the information we took in. It allows us to unwind emotionally, and to perhaps exhale all the tension and fear we had been holding in as we listened. It’s cathartic (from κάθαρσις, “katharsis”, meaning the release of strong emotion).
Although there is of course a great deal of variation, every single story you’ve ever heard has contained within it, as a sort of skeleton, a story very similar to the one I’ve just summarized. Not in subject matter, of course, but in terms of structure. Authors can play all they like with this element or that, but I doubt any would disagree that the fundamental aspects of storytelling are the same from genre to genre: hook your audience early, keep on building the stakes until the big finish, and then have them let go of all the emotion you built up in them. It doesn’t matter if your story is not actually about an Ice Age mammoth hunter. I hope you see that. All that matters is that you see how the very basic pattern of a story works. It’s not exactly rocket science, is it? Yet many people get it wrong, because they are not thinking about their audience. They are thinking about themselves.
Some of us are good storytellers by instinct. Others can write well, but can’t tell a story to save their lives. There are always as many ways to do a thing as there are people doing it, and rules were made to be broken. But if your story has a discernible beginning, middle, and ending, and if it satisfies your readers’ expectations, you will be well on your way to mastering the art of novel writing.
Learn more about William Kowalski at https://www.williamkowalski.com
Read Will’s previous article: Beginnings.
Check out the first article in this series: Beginnings, Middles, and Endings.