I presume you’re writing a book, right? Well, not right now. But in general. Maybe you’re just brainstorming it?
If so, you’ll know about the dreaded middle.
The beginning and end are relatively easy because they have set structures: inciting incident, pinch points, dark night of the soul, climax, denuement, etc. That’s not to say you have to actively include these in every story – but when your start or end feels wrong somehow, you can google plot structure and work out what you could add or remove to fix it.
The middle is much harder. Generally, all we have to guide us through the middle is the poorly-named midpoint.
There’s a lot written about the midpoint: it’s the moment your character goes from reacting to acting, it’s when they start making steps towards the climax, it’s when they learn new information that lets them finally start trying to defeat the big bad, blah blah blah. Not helpful.
It’s easy to get lost in the middle, especially when writing fantasy – because our middles are loong.
Fortunately, Theoden king is here to help us write an engaging middle – without necessarily having to stress over all the heavy lifting the midpoint has to do.
Let’s do some analysis.
I’m hoping you know a little about The Lord of The Rings if you’re planning to write fantasy. But if you don’t, Theoden is the king of Rohan. He first appears in the second book in the series, The Two Towers, and he has two major roles over the course of the story: the first, which we’ll be focusing on, is in defeating Saruman. The second, of course, is in leading his soldiers to Gondor’s aid in the story’s climax.
The Lord of The Rings is, like many fantasy stories, a tale of the battle between good and evil. In most of these stories, the big bad guy is a sinister figure, lurking in the background and directing his minions after the hero. Otherwise why wouldn’t they and the hero just get the epic final battle over and done with? In Harry Potter, it’s Voldemort, who’s in the background because he’s recovering his strength, and he sends the Death Eaters after Harry. In Star Wars it’s Palpatine, the Emperor, whose ‘minions’, if you like, are Darth Vader and the stormtroopers. In The Lord of The Rings, this is Sauron, who we don’t meet until the end – if we ever really meet him at all.
Many of these types of story have a more proactive, almost secondary bad guy for the heroes to fight through the middle. In The Lord of The Rings, this is Saruman.
Why do they do this? because the most important thing an engaging middle has is motion. Things have to be happening. We have to feel like the characters are making progress, but also couldn’t be going any quicker. So chasing the main bad guy through the middle can feel like a slog, like the characters aren’t getting anywhere. We have a secondary bad guy who tries his hardest to defeat the heroes, and ultimately is defeated, to make it feel as though the protagonists are moving forward.
This is the story of Theoden and Saruman. It’s a well-crafted subplot, taking us away from Frodo and Sam. Defeating Saruman isn’t as important as destroying the ring and defeating Sauron, but also, Saruman is much more proactive than Sauron. He’s actively building an army, hunting the heroes, and causing death and destruction across Middle-Earth. He has to be stopped.
His efforts are focused on Rohan, Theoden’s kingdom. And when we meet Theoden for the first time, we see the size of the task ahead.
We’ve already established that middles need motion to be effective, but this doesn’t have to be physical motion – changes in the world, etc. It can be a character arc – and Theoden’s arc is long. When we first meet him, he’s weak and crippled. He’s listening to his evil adviser, Grima, and ignoring his family and friends. His court is a cold, unwelcoming place. At first we think Theoden has shut the world out, too afraid to confront the evil around him. However, the heroes learn that the real enemy is Grima, who is poisoning Theoden and keeping him weak and despairing. This is the stuff dramatic middles are made of. For me, Theoden’s character is enhanced by this arc. He never really shakes off the wounds of Grima’s influence: he’s always a tragic figure, one we fear might falter again in the future.
By the time Theoden takes action and expels Grima from his court, it already seems too late. Saruman’s armies are on the way and tension is rising. They make the desperate decision to retreat to the Hornburg in Helm’s Deep, taking their civilians with them, and there mount a savage defence against hordes of Saruman’s soldiers.
The Greatest Midpoint In Fantasy?
In the battle, Saruman’s army is destroyed, his power broken, and the Dunlendings (Saruman’s human allies) are pardoned and sent home. The ‘mini bad guy’ is defeated and what remains of the fellowship can turn their attentions to fighting the armies of Sauron.
For me, this makes Helm’s Deep the ‘midpoint’ of The Lord of The Rings: it’s the moment where the heroes can start taking the fight to the big bad guy, the main threat to the world, instead of trying to mitigate damage or deal with other problems. And in my view it’s probably the greatest midpoint in fantasy: after all, pretty much everyone who’s read or watched it knows what it is, and for many fans it’s their favourite moment in the series.
Far from a sagging, boring middle, Tolkien was able to weave a story that pulled us in with both character change and change in the world, making it feel necessary to the story, while being engaging, while allowing the main plot – the story following Frodo and Sam – to move forward without feeling rushed.
It’s also laying down important storytelling that comes to the fore in the climax: the climax wouldn’t have been nearly as engaging, for instance, if we didn’t know the emotional story behind Theoden and his Rohirrim. Their realm was in trouble, Theoden was almost dead, but they recovered and defeated their evil, and now they’ve gone to help their allies defeat theirs. This crucial message, the message of mercy and sympathy and kindness that Tolkien relies on throughout the books, wouldn’t be there.
With that in mind, here’s what a good middle has:
- Motion. The world is changing and so are the characters.
- Stakes. The heroes have to do something, or there will be consequences.
- Drama. The stakes and motion have to be interesting, else reading the middle will feel like work and put the reader off.
- Groundwork. The themes and events of your middle should contribute to your resolution and climax, giving the story a sense of interconnection and completion.
- Midpoint. Doesn’t have to be in the exact middle, but something needs to happen that allows the characters to turn their attentions to the main problem of the series, setting you up for the final act.
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