Fighting Free of the Mire

As a younger writer, I tended to get lost in the “mire of the middle” and spent time wandering, trying to find my way to the climax.  Not only are these wasted words, but the wandering almost always crippled the pacing.  Fixing this problem required a shift in my perspective on story structure and the introduction of what Jim Butcher called “the big middle”.

Stand Alone Plot Arc

The big middle is a mini-climax that drives the story to the final climax.  Not only is the big middle a landmark to work to about 60% through the rising action, but it also provides a boost in tension, accelerating the pacing.  Therefore, it is essential that all pieces be put into play during the exposition and rising action and then be brought together in the push to the climax.  Late introductions often will often come off as dues ex machina.

Taking Star Wars Episode IV as an example, the initiating event is when Luke finds his home has been destroyed by the Empire and the climax is the destruction of the Death Star.  The big middle is the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Before that moment, Kenobi is pushing the story forward and only the lives of the core group (five people and two droids) are at risk.  However, after Kenobi is gone, Luke is forced to push events forwards himself.  Also, the stakes for the story are much higher as defeat results in the destruction of the rebel alliance.

On the series scale, the mire of the middle is called the “middle book syndrome”.  Thinking of the series as one monolithic storyline allows the integration each volume’s plot arch as a component of the series throughline.

Trilogy Plot Arcs

 Note the larger proportion of time devoted to exposition and the falling action & dénouement.  In a series there is more opportunity and necessity for milieu development and additional subplots, requiring more time to both introduce and tie up all these elements.

There are three critical points regarding the series graphic.  First, the climax of the final book is the climax of the entire series while the climax of the second book in the trilogy serves as the big middle for the series.  In the original Star Wars trilogy, the series climaxes with the death of the Emperor, while the Rebel Alliance is injured, scattered and looking for a big victory following the events of Cloud City.  Second, the climax of one volume initiates the events of the next.  The destruction of the first Death Star requires the Empire to find and strike a blow against the Rebel Alliance and the capture of Han Solo in Cloud City motivates the core cast to rescue him from Jabba the Hut.  Finally, each book begins immediately following the cliffhanger ending (or partial dénouement) of the book before and becomes more intense from there.  The plotlines of subsequent volumes are able to leverage earlier works and sustain higher levels of intensity without having to have too steep of a climb themselves.


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