Shoring Up Sagging Middles

“Good stories inevitably have good antagonists.” That line concluded the article “Develop Your Antagonist,” posted here back in December.

As I see it, good antagonists are also the key to avoiding sagging middles.

By way of reminder, the antagonist is not necessarily an enemy. Rather he is the character who wants what the protagonist wants. Significantly, both cannot achieve this goal; otherwise there is no real conflict.

Think, for example, about The Fugitive. In that movie, the escaped convict Richard Kimbel wants to be free in order to prove his innocence. Throughout, he is thwarted by the federal officer who wants to capture him. This lieutenant blatantly states he doesn’t care that Richard didn’t kill his wife. For most of the movie, these two are in opposition, and the viewer understands they both can’t achieve their goal.

The plot turns, however, when another antagonist surfaces — the real criminal. At that point, the lieutenant realigns his goal, and this new antagonist becomes Richard’s opponent and the lieutenant’s opponent, trying to thwart them both.

The middle of the story, then, is the point where the conflict between the protagonist and one or more of his opponents is ratcheted higher. John Truby, author of The Anatomy Of Story explains it like this:

Throughout the middle of the story, the hero and opponent engage in a punch-counterpunch confrontation as each tries to win the goal. The conflict heats up.

Again, the fable “The Monkey And The Crocodile” shows this increase in tension as a friend becomes an opponent.

Previously, a hungry crocodile becomes friends with a monkey who shares his bananas day after day. Then this middle section of the story:

One day the crocodile began talking about his wife and family. ‘Why didn’t you tell me earlier that you had a wife?’ asked the monkey. ‘Please take some of the jamuns for her as well when you go back today.’ The crocodile thanked him and took some of the fruit for his wife.

The crocodile’s wife loved the jamuns. She had never eaten anything so sweet before. ‘Imagine’, she said, ‘how sweet would be the creature who eats these jamuns every day. The monkey has eaten these every day of his life – his flesh would be even sweeter than the fruit.’ She asked her husband to invite the monkey for a meal – ‘and then we can eat him up’ she said happily.

The crocodile was appalled – how could he eat his friend? He tried to explain to his wife that he could not possibly eat the monkey. ‘He is my only true friend’, he said. But she would not listen – she must eat the monkey. ‘Since when do crocodiles eat fruit and spare animals?’ she asked. When the crocodile would not agree to eat the monkey, she pretended to fall very sick. ‘Only a monkey’s heart can cure me’, she wailed to her husband. ‘If you love me you will get your friend the monkey and let me eat his heart.’

The poor crocodile did not know what to do – he did not want to eat his friend, but he could not let his wife die. At last he decided to bring the monkey to his wife.

‘O dear friend’, he called as soon as reached the jamun tree. ‘ My wife insists that you come to us for a meal. She is grateful for all the fruit that you have sent her, and asks that I bring you home with me.’ The monkey was flattered, but said he could not possibly go because he did not know how to swim. ‘Don’t worry about that’, said the crocodile. ‘I’ll carry you on my back.’ The monkey agreed and jumped onto the crocodile’s back.

The crocodile swam with him out into the deep wide river. When they were far away from the bank and the jamun tree, he said, ‘My wife is very ill. The only thing that will cure her is a monkey’s heart. So, dear friend, this will be the end of you and of our friendship.’ The monkey was horrified. What could he do to save himself? He thought quickly and said ‘Dear friend, I am very sorry to hear of your wife’s illness and I am glad that I will be able to help her. But … ‘

Notice the punch-counterpunch, first with the crocodile and his wife, then with the crocodile and the monkey.

The initial clash of goals is between the crocodile and his wife. They want the same thing — the monkey, he as a friend, she as dinner — and this makes them opponents for a time. Later the crocodile and the monkey want the same thing — the monkey’s life — and they become opponents.

Interestingly, as the conflict intensifies, the stakes also become higher. Instead of sagging, the middle of the story creates more tension and drives the reader on to the resolution. Part of the tension, of course, is not knowing what will happen in the end. At this point the reader has some ideas, but carefully plotted twists will keep the story from being predictable.

I guess we really do need to discuss that aspect of the story, don’t we. Perhaps next week.



Filed under Characters, Plot, Story

2 responses to “Shoring Up Sagging Middles

  1. Eve

    …and leave us hanging all week? Cruel! 🙂

  2. Hahah! I learned that technique from suspense writer Brandilyn Collins. 😉


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