Middles: A Knight’s Tale
by Lisa Paitz Spindler
There are as many ways to organize the middle of a story as there are writers.
In the article ‘Pacing Your Novel,’ Roz Denny Fox splits the middle up into: the first half of the middle to the mid-point and the second half of the middle to the crisis climax. Joanne Reid’s article ‘How to Write a Novel in 10 Weeks,’ on the other hand, breaks it down into: early middle, middle middle and end middle.
Any way you slice it, the middle of your novel must keep the reader interested. You can’t afford to have a sagging middle — concentrate on getting those six-pack abs instead. The middle is where your readers get to know the characters, where they incrementally begin to buy-in to the people in the story. It’s the buy-in during the middle of your story that makes the crisis/climax/catharsis powerful.
The easiest way to accomplish this is to have a major story event or a series of events happen in the middle section of the plot. This event won’t be as intense as the climax/catharsis event, but it should affect the protagonist deeply– and it should propel him or her on through to the climax/catharsis point.
If you’re having trouble coming up with what the middle event or series of events should be, ask yourself this question: "What is my story about?"
James Frey in "Beware. . . The Mid-Story Blues" (Fiction Writer Magazine, May 1998) says "[M]ost authors . . . know what their aboutness is. When you ask, they’ll say it’s about love, or ambition, or alcoholism– some aspect of life which will interest, even grip, readers." What is the ‘aboutness’ of your novel? The beginning of your story will hint at this, probably whether you intended it or not.
Now wait a minute here, this ‘aboutness’ stuff sounds like those scary words we talked about when we started these lessons: theme and premise. Yep. Pull out those worksheets and remind yourself what the theme and premise are for your story. What kinds of events could happen to your character that illustrate your theme and premise?
For example, in the movie A KNIGHT’S TALE, Heath Ledger plays William Thatcher, a low-born squire who secretly takes the place of his knightly master when the man dies. His immediate motivation and rationalization is to pretend to be a knight to be able to get some food, as he hasn’t eaten in days. But William voices out loud the theme of the story and his true motivation: "A man can change his stars." He could have sold the old knight’s armor, weapons and horse for money to get food — he didn’t have to impersonate the knight. But deep down William yearns to be a knight. There are two themes to this story and this is one of them — the other is the answer to the question "What qualities make a man a knight?"
The theme of knightly qualities comes up in the first third of the story and carries William through to the catharsis point. First we see William learning the physical or outward qualities of knighthood, such as how to use a sword and a lance. These are obviously the Tests of the Myth Quest, but these tests continue as William develops the inner qualities of a knight as well: responsibility and duty, mercy, good sportsmanship, nobility (as in moral character) and most importantly, respect. The love story is furthered by William learning other outward qualities, such as how to write a love letter and how to dance, and inner qualities such as the value of love over winning.
It is because of these inner qualities that the audience comes to care about William. We come to like him because we realize that he’s really a good guy. We root for him. William’s sense of mercy is tested when an opponent tells him quietly "I am done," and he lets the man leave the field in a draw with his dignity and body intact.
William’s sense of responsibility and duty are tested when he must pay off the debts of his gambling-impaired herald because a knight is responsible for those in his service. His sense of respect, qualities of sportsmanship, and his ability to ‘read’ people are all tested when he meets the disguised Prince Edward in a tournament — and rather than forfeit, William faces his prince and proves that he’ll always ‘tell it like it is,’ that he’s trustworthy. And that he won’t back down.
The article ‘Plot Sequencing: Aristotles Incline’ from the Cacoethes Scribendi Creative Writing Workshop points out that "understanding the importance of this key scene will help you to prevent a boring, floundering middle of a storyor middle-of-the-book blues."
In THE WEEKEND NOVELIST, Robert Ray quotes Syd Field, author of SCREENWRITER’S WORKBOOK, who defines the midpoint as ". . . a pit stop, a destination, a beacon that guides you and keeps you on course during the execution of your story line." In other words, the midpoint of your story is the scene that causes a big change in your characters, it’s a decision point. Ray points out that one chain of events leads up to the midpoint and another leads away from it. In A KNIGHT’S TALE, the chain of events which leads up to the midpoint is William learning the qualities of knighthood and it builds to a big reversal when Jocelyn asks William to lose in the tournament to prove his love for her. This is a huge growth step for William in that he realizes that there are more important things to him than becoming a knight. The story whips around this event, literally hanging on the edge of it because William’s friends, under Geoff’s influence, have bet all on his ability to win. Once Jocelyn is satisfied that William truly loves her, she tells him to start winning again.
Other important events that happen around the midpoint include the breaking up of the couple in a romance or a platonic couple becoming intimate. In a mystery, it could be a violent action or an event that stumps the investigation. The Cacoethes Scribendi Creative Writing Workshop uses the example of the midpoint in CINDERELLA when the prince and Cinderella are dancing, they fall in love and she forgets about her curfew.
In A KNIGHT’S TALE, the midpoint is interwoven with the subplot. According to Vogler in THE WRITER’S JOURNEY: "[S]ubplots should have at least three ‘beats’ or scenes distributed throughout the story, one in each act." The subplot of A KNIGHT’S TALE is concerning William’s herald, Geoff Chaucer.
Geoff Chaucer has a gambling problem. William and his friends Wat and Roland meet Geoff on the road to Rouen after William’s initial practices in the forest learning to use a sword and lance. Geoff is ‘trudging’ down the road nude and quite muddy. He’s gambled away every last possession — except for his knowledge and talent, which can provide William with the ‘patents of nobility’ that he needs to compete in the tournament at Rouen. While Geoff has many more than three scenes as per Vogler, he has about three scenes that directly relate to his subplot.
The first of the subplot scenes is when we meet the naked Geoff ‘trudging’ on the road to Rouen who admits to being taken for everything he owned. The second beat of the subplot is interwoven with William’s Tests — when William must bail Geoff out of trouble. (Paul Bettany, who plays Geoff, spends quite a bit of time naked in this movie.) William must save Geoff from the ‘thugs’ Simon the Summoner and Peter the Pardoner who’ve come to take their money out of his hide. (Do you remember your CANTERBURY TALES characters? Geoff tells Simon and Peter: "I will eviscerate you in prose.")
The third ‘beat’ of the subplot is when it seems that Geoff is learning to control his gambling problem, but he really isn’t. He convinces William’s companions (Wat, Roland and Kate the Armorer) to bet with him on William winning the next tournament. (Wat: "We’ll lose everything!" Geoff: "That’s why it’s called gambling!") Evidently the theme of the subplot is that Geoff will never change, but might become a bit more shrewd about his gambling habit.
Roland at times acts as a Mentor to William and Wat seems to be William’s mundane alter ego. They don’t really have their own subplots, however. Kate the Armorer has part of a subplot in that she has to convince William to let her make him a new set of armor. She does, and it’s the best armor there ever was in all the land. Also, there’s a strong feminist layer to this story between the characters of Kate the Armorer and Princess Jocelyn, which is voiced perfectly by Jocelyn with dialogue like: "But sir, my sex are marked by our silence," and "Would you care if I were ugly?"
Jocelyn is struggling with being the beautiful-but-unreachable princess and the modern woman. In the end she teaches William that winning is not more important than love. Kate, on the other hand, is a young widow who took over her dead husband’s armoring trade and is out to prove she’s an excellent armorer in his stead.
Vogler points out that it’s typical of today’s movies to leave the subplot unfinished. A KNIGHT’S TALE finishes off Geoff’s subplot very well and manages to interweave it with the main story. The yarns of Jocelyn and Kate’s stories are left a little unfinished, however, but seem to fit in the overall story nonetheless.
See the article on Subplots for more information.
THE END OF THE END
There’s one final quality that William must deal with that takes the story into the climax and dark moment — pride. This is also when the theme stated in the beginning comes back to the forefront of the story. William has been found out– they know he’s no knight but a poor thatcher’s son. His friends want him to run, but his pride wins out. William believes they can’t take his pride away, but the princess says that they can (implies torture). He wants to believe that he’s ‘changed his stars,’ but he’s arrested and put in the stocks. The message here is twofold: there had to be a day of reckoning because William hasn’t ‘changed his stars’ (yet) and also that pride and lying are not a knightly qualities.
Still, the seeds of the ending were sown in the middle– it’s William’s meeting with Edward on the field that saves him in the end. Edward takes him out of the stocks, ‘declares’ that William has had a — so far concealed — ancient heritage and knights him on the spot. Edward does this because of how William acted on the field toward him earlier in the story. William’s stars have changed and he now has the noble birth required of a knight.
The story isn’t over here, however. (I wouldn’t leave you hanging without the end.) Through these tests and others William has numerous times come up against the villain — Sir Adhemar — fighting him both in the lists and for the heart of Princess Jocelyn. He has to face Adhemar and finally win against him. After all, a true knight has to be really great on a horse with long sharp pointy weapons and win the girl to boot. Adhemar is also a symbol of the prideful knight who’s forgotten what the title entails. And yes, Sir William Thatcher beats Adhemar while Jocelyn, his father, Edward and his friends looking on. But that’s the ending, not the middle.
See the article on Endings for more information.
IN TEN WORDS OR LESS
Your middle should be a series of events, with possibly one particularly important event near the midpoint, that reflect the theme and premise of your story. Just as the beginning sets up the end of your story, a part of your middle should tie in to the end as well. The middle should also handle your subplot in at least three ‘beats’ or scenes. Be sure to finish off each thread of your subplot and interweave it with the main plot wherever possible.
(OK, so that was more than ten words. . .)
1) Refer to the first lesson worksheet on premise and theme. What is the premise and theme of your story?
2) Does your protagonist agree or disagree with your theme and premise? For example, if your theme is "power corrupts," does your protagonist agree or disagree with this statement? Why?
3) Will the events of your story support your protagonist’s opinion if s/he disagrees with the theme or will it challenge what your protagonist thinks? For example, if your theme is "power corrupts," does your protagonist agree or disagree with this statement? If your protagonist disagrees with this statement, what kinds of events could the protagonist experience that would change his or her mind? If your protagonist agrees with this statement, what events could the character experience that would reinforce this belief?
These events should increase with intensity until the crisis point, when the protagonist must make a life-changing decision. (We’ll cover this in more detail in the lesson on Endings.)
4) Re-read the beginning of your story. Which of your secondary characters lives hints at a possible subplot? What does the reader know about the personal lives or the secondary characters? Does any of it relate to the main plot or the protagonist’s life?
Cacoethes Scribendi Creative Writing Workshop, ‘Plot Sequencing: Aristotle’s Incline,’ http://www.geocities.com/katrinko/aristotleincline.html
Field, Syd. Screenwriters Workbook. Dell Publishing Company, 1984.
Frey, James. ‘Beware. . . The Mid-Story Blues,’ Fiction Writer Magazine, May 1998.
Fox, Roz Denny. ‘Pacing Your Novel,’ Desert Rose RWA Writer’s Guide, http://members.aol.com/DRose60WG/fox.html
Ray, Robert. The Weekend Novelist. Dell Publishing Company, 1994.
Reid, Joanne. Write a Novel in 10 Weeks: Middles, http://www.reporters.net/jbreid/novel10/five10weeks.htm