This is the middle of three posts that pretty much cover my current thinking on narrative structure. I don’t claim to be an expert – I challenge anyone to screw up the middle of a story quite as well as I can – and this stuff isn’t new. Nevertheless, it’s the combination of maybe five or six books on the matter as well as countless balls-ups and rewrites, and as such, I might a least save you a bit of time.
You'll need a copy of Sam Raimi's movie A Simple Plan.
OK. Part Two. Once you’re through gate 1, there’s no turning back, remember. Usually this gate is psychological. It is in A Simple Plan; it’s murder and the associated guilt that comes with it.
Philip Larkin once quipped that most stories have three things; a beginning, a muddle and an end. He’s got a point. Act two is hard. I started to get better at this when I listened to Writing Excuses, which is a really useful podcast on the craft of storytelling. Hosts Brandon Sanderson and Mary Robinette Kowal use the word escalation to discuss act two. “Act two is a series of try-fail cycles…” they say; the protagonists try but fail to achieve their goal, and with each attempt and failure, the stakes are further escalated. (See also the ‘Yes-But, No-And’ model for further details on try-fail cycles.)
If you’re up for it, stick A Simple Plan on again kicking off, remember, at gate 1 which is 33:00. Spoilers coming up. There are at least six degrees of escalation in Raimi’s act two. I’m doing this from memory, folks, but my seven go something like this:
You’re looking for a point of complete crisis next. It must be three or four times the enormity of the gate 1 crisis, and must be followed by gate 2 – another turnstile, this time a decision, choice or action which makes the remainder of the story inevitable.
The crisis is easy here – it comes at about 1:15:00. Gate 2 - in my opinion - is the arrival of a character. I'll finish up tomorrow in the next post.