I skipped a week on writing posts because I was sick last week, and I’m not sure that anything I wrote would have made much sense. But now I’m back in action and ready to tackle the topic of part two of story middles. As I mentioned in the previous post, the first part of the middle is about the hero getting to know the “new” world of the story. It’s Dorothy arriving in Oz and setting out on the Yellow Brick Road, where she encounters the Wicked Witch and gathers her traveling companions on her way to the Emerald City.
And then part two of the middle happens, and things start to get serious. This is when the hero has to go from learning about things to really doing things. You might say that the hero is entering the special world within the story’s special world. The hero’s journey calls this “the approach to the inmost cave,” and there is often some kind of cave-like imagery. There’s a sense of the world closing in. The hero’s options are becoming more limited. If you look at it like a decision tree, at the beginning of the story the hero has virtually unlimited options, but by making one choice, all the other potential options are cut off, and he’s down to only those that stem from that choice. The next choice narrows things still further. Now he may only have a few possible options as he moves forward.
The hero may get a new assignment — like the Wizard telling Dorothy she needs to get the Wicked Witch’s broom — or there may be a briefing scene in a cop or action movie. The hero might get the specific weapons needed for this task. Sometimes you find a bonding scene at this time, something bringing the team closer together. If there’s a romantic element, this may be when the couple expresses emotions or has a love scene. That’s a nifty emotional trick for raising the stakes. It gives the hero something to fight for, and it makes us care about those other characters as we go into some danger. This is when Dorothy and her friends head toward the witch’s castle through the scary forest, or when the Millennium Falcon gets pulled into the Death Star. The characters are in a new, unfamiliar place, and they’ll have to accomplish a goal in order to survive and escape.
This is all building up to what you can think of as the secondary climax of the story. The real climax happens later, but this one is almost as intense and may even take up more time in the story. It’s a bigger set piece. You can think of it as the midterm exam of the story. It tests the heroes on what they’ve already learned, but it’s not the final exam. The heroes can’t have ultimate victory here, or the story would be over. At best, it’s a partial victory. They may get what they need, but they still haven’t accomplished their story goal. In a classic quest story, the hero may obtain the quest object, but he still has to get it back home to use it to heal his land, and the bad guys are going to do everything they can to stop him. Dorothy obtains the witch’s broom, but she still needs to get the Wizard to send her home. Luke and the others rescue the princess and escape from the Death Star, but the Death star is tracking them and will soon be in position to destroy their secret base.
Or, the hero may even fail at this point. He hasn’t learned his lessons, is still trying to do things his way, disregarding advice, and when he faces the villain, he loses, barely escaping with his life. He’ll have to make some changes before he can face the villain again and win. If you look at the original Star Wars trilogy as one story, that would be Luke facing Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. He loses that battle because he wasn’t properly prepared for it. He rushed into it impulsively without knowing for certain what he was doing, and he failed. There’s often a death of one of the team members during this segment, which shows how serious and dangerous this task is. Quite often, this is when the mentor figure dies, leaving the hero on his own to figure things out for the rest of the story. Or we lose one of the team members the hero just bonded with, which gives him added motivation for the rest of the story. Be careful using that trope, though. You don’t want to use a character’s suffering as nothing more than giving motivation to the hero. It’s particularly cliched for something to happen to the love interest to motivate the hero.
While there are all kinds of hero’s journey mythological reasons for this phase in the story, from a practical standpoint, it mostly serves to keep things exciting between the initiating incident and the resolution. Something needs to happen in the middle of the story. The next time you watch a movie on TV/cable/DVD/streaming, look for the length of the movie, figure out what the middle of the movie would be, and take note of what’s happening at that point in the movie. If it’s an action movie, there’s probably some big action sequence. If it’s not an action movie, there’s probably some big, intense, emotional sequence, like a confrontation between characters, a love scene, or a big dilemma. Open a book to the middle and see what’s going on, and you may find the same thing.
I find that this is the part that tends to be skipped by beginning writers, and it was learning this trick that taught me how to really plot a story. We tend to think in terms of what happens to kick off a story and what happens to resolve a story, and it’s easy to look at the rest as filler. By making sure you’ve got some important event midway through that doesn’t resolve the story but that tests your characters, your story will become a lot more interesting.