This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?” The rest of the series is here. You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂
The middle of a scene is where you get into all that nice, juicy conflict.
I know, I know. A lot of writers have heard the advice to start in the middle. However, that just means “don’t take forever to get to the story, don’t start with the Big Bang or the birth of the character as a baby or even with the first event that is relevant to the story, because that’s what backstory is for.”
But to rush into the middle of a scene without first having a beginning is disorienting. Long-term professional writers don’t do it. Write a beginning to set up the character, setting, and conflict of every scene before you get into the middle; otherwise the reader is going to get lost. It doesn’t have to take a lot of words. Just do it.
Okay, you’ve had your lecture. Go read the section on beginnings if you missed it.
Middles are made up of conflicts. The conflict can be obvious. It can be subtle. But every middle has a conflict. If the conflict isn’t obvious, watch for something horrible to happen to that character in the next scene or two. Some writers like to put in a happy moment, successful moment, or reconciliation between characters before they kill that character off [cough Joss Whedon cough].
And sometimes, in more literary stories, the characters don’t have any conflict. It’s the reader who is supposed to be conflicted at all the surprising non-conflict that the characters have. A good example of this is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which the main character decides to take his revenge…and has zero issues carrying it out.
(I really like that story, sorry. I’m just going to keep using it over and over in this series.)
So. You’re not a beginning writer anymore, and you’ve stopped taking terms like “conflict” for granted. What is this conflict, in practical, fictional terms?
A conflict is when the main character attempts to do something and is prevented by some element of the story from doing so.
The conflict can come from a variety of different sources:
- The character themselves (internal conflict).
- Other characters.
- The environment.
- An interruption.
- Fate/bad luck.
As long as it stops the character from accomplishing what they set out to do–even if it’s something good–it’s conflict.
In the case of stories where there is no outright conflict (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), the conflict comes from upsetting the reader’s expectations in some way. These stories are generally pretty short, around three thousand words at most–at least, the ones I’ve been able to spot in the wild are that short. It’s hard to sustain tension without in-story conflict.
The way that the character can be prevented from accomplishing their goals can vary as well, and this can be critical:
- The character can try to accomplish something, and fail. (Try/Fail.)
- The character can try to accomplish something, succeed, and still have things turn out worse. (Succeed But Worse.)
- The character can try to accomplish something, and be interrupted. (Interrupt.)
- The character can try to accomplish something, and how it all came out can be held in suspense. (Suspense.)
These are just the main conflict outcomes that I’ve been able to identify from my studying, by the way. There may be more.
Here are examples of these four outcomes, from the movie The Princess Bride:
- Inigo tries to stop the man in black from following Vizzini and Buttercup. He fails. (Try/Fail.)
- Buttercup tries to find out the truth of whether Humperdink told Westley that she wanted Westley back. She succeeds and finds out that Humperdink didn’t send his four fastest ships and has in fact been lying to her. This gets her locked up and Westley tortured. (Succeed But Worse.)
- Fezzik tries to walk down the hallway of the castle with Westley. When Inigo screams for him to knock down a door, he does so–however, when he comes back, Westley is gone. (Interrupt.)
- Westley, Fezzik, and Inigo look over the castle gates, which are guarded by sixty men, and discuss their plans, which, by the way, they don’t spell out in detail. The scene ends with Fezzik saying, “I hope we win.” (Suspense.)
There is also a great suspense scene that ends with an interrupt, which shows that you can get clever and combine conflicts: When the shrieking eels are circling Buttercup in the water (suspense), suddenly, we are interrupted by the Grandfather telling the Grandson that “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.”
If the scene hadn’t been interrupted, it wouldn’t have been as exciting–Princess Buttercup tries to escape but propels herself deeper into danger (Succeed But Worse), only to then be rescued. As it is, the interrupt from the Grandfather is such a reversal of expectations that it’s funny. (If it was a trick that was pulled more than once, however, it wouldn’t have been as entertaining!)
The middle of a scene can get quite complex. It can have one long conflict. It can have multiple short conflicts. It have have a few short, then one conflict. It can have conflicts within conflicts. The pattern of conflicts is up to you. Different writers tend to have difference preferences for types of conflict, lengths of conflict, and how many conflicts they string together in a scene.
Which conflicts should you choose? It depends on the story.
Mostly, go with your gut instinct.
But if something isn’t working, ask yourself, “Does this conflict reflect what the story is about at this point?” For example, if the story is about something that just goes on and on and the scene has only one short conflict and it ends in a complete and utter failure, does that reflect something that goes on and on? If the story is about an internal conflict and the scene focuses solely on an external conflict, does that reflect the story?
But if it’s working, don’t change it, even if the reason you wrote the scene that way isn’t immediately obvious. Your subconscious may have plans…
Next, I’m going to talk about endings. First the kind of ending that makes you move from one scene to the next, and then the kind of ending that makes you put the book down happy yet wanting more.
Just before Black Monday in 1929, a secretary discovers magic…and the swindlers who use it. Read it here.