Every writer knows that writing the middle of a story is tough. But it doesn’t have to be. The Hero’s Journey, an age-old story structure theorized by Joseph Campbell, provides a clear path to take when constructing the middle of your story.
Here’s what to do.
Getting to the Middle
In order to reach the Middle of your story, you have to finish the Beginning.
That means your hero has started humbly (Ordinary World), experienced a Call to Adventure, Refused that call somehow, and found him or herself encouraged and trained by a Mentor. Finally, through a combination of will and force, the hero steps over the boundary between safety and danger, the Threshold, and begins his or her journey.
That’s what the sixth step of the Hero’s Journey is all about: Trials, Allies, and Enemies.
Fill the Middle with Trials
The purpose of a heroic story’s Middle is to test the hero. While he or she acquires some skill and knowledge from the mentor, the hero still must be unprepared for the ultimate challenge that lies ahead: Facing the Shadow.
That’s why your story’s Middle should be filled with trials. A trial is some sort of test that measures the hero’s ability, worth, or talent.
It can be physical, like a test of strength of stamina (Odysseus’s escape from the Cyclops’s cave, or Westley’s defeat of Fezzik in The Princess Bride). It can be mental, like solving a puzzle or riddle (Oedipus and the sphynx, or Wesley vs. Vizzini). And it can be spiritual, like Odysseus’s meeting with his mother in Hades, or when Westley has his life literally sucked out of him . . . okay, maybe that’s stretching it, but you get the idea.
The Middle of your heroic story must be filled with trails that test your hero’s skills, humble him or her, and allow time for triumph, defeat and recovery, and/or reflection.
No matter what, the purpose of the trial is to push your hero past his or her limits and reveal his or her true nature. Never put your hero into a trial merely to show how “awesome” he or she is. This may seem cool in your mind, but for a reader this is quite boring. Readers want to see a hero work through a nearly impossible problem and triumph in the end. Deliver anything but, and your story will be a disappointment.
Fill the Middle with Allies
In the Middle of your heroic story, your hero will also make friends. These are often chance encounters that begin anxiously, only to produce friendships. Consider the Indiana Jones franchise, where Indy travels from continent to continent, meeting people who know something about the MacGuffin he seeks.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, he first meets Marion Ravenwood, an old flame who hates him. While she seems friendly at first, the audience experiences shock with Marion smashes an empty bottle over Indy’s head. Is she a friend? Or an enemy?
Then we meet Sallah, an Egyptian foreman who is helping the Nazis search for the lost ark. From the beginning he strikes us as an ally . . . but will he remain true to Indy?
Great heroic stories are filled with supporting characters like these. Some will be what’s known as “Loyal Retainers,” allies who remain true to the hero. Others, however, will be “Shapeshifters” who may seem loyal one moment, but are traitorous the next.
This, to switch franchises, is what made Captain Jack Sparrow so enjoyable — at least in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The audience never knew for sure whose side Jack was on, and that made him deeply interesting.
As you write your heroic journey, sketch out some encounters for your hero with three or four possible allies. In each, consider how you can make your hero uneasy. Rarely write a scene where an ally is 100% trustworthy. Rather, come up with reasons to keep your hero — and therefore your reader — on edge.
Fill the Middle with Enemies
Finally, the Middle of a great heroic story features lots and lots of monsters, enemies, and obstacles. Sometimes the enemy is in hiding, posing as a friend. But more often than not, the enemy is an obstacle blocking the hero’s way. Sometimes the enemy is a character or creature in pursuit of the MacGuffin or possessing a crucial tool the hero needs to defeat the Shadow and/or obtain the MacGuffin.
There are several kinds of enemies you can employ, and each should be somehow related to your story’s ultimate bad guy, the Shadow:
- A “bad guy”: Your hero must overcome a minion of the Shadow, a devoted servant who believes what the villain believes. Bad guys tend to be the “bosses” in video games and the stars of fight scenes in the middle of action movies. This is Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter, and Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo in The Godfather.
- A “monster”: Monsters are evil creatures that the Shadow uses to stall the hero, or natural creatures that live in the unsafe, foreign land the hero must travel through. These are trolls and orcs in The Lord of the Rings, or tyrannosaurs and velociraptors in Jurassic Park.
Throughout your story’s Middle, there must be Enemies that impede your hero’s path, filling him or her with dread, pain, and struggle. And while your hero will always overcome these mid-story enemies, they must wound him or her, leaving scars of a physical or emotional nature.
In addition to this, the Middle is often when one of the hero’s Allies (including a Mentor) may die at the hands of an Enemy or in the midst of a Trial. This is crucial because, again, your hero must struggle through the Middle of the journey.
It can never be as simple as leaving training to immediately confront the Big Baddie of the story. This is simply not how life works, at least for most of us. And your stories will always be written with “most of us” in mind.
Make sure the Enemies your hero faces are tough sons of guns to defeat. Like I said before, don’t give into the temptation to make your hero a bad-ass. Not yet.
That part comes later.
Master the Middle
How does a writer figure out the tricky Middle of a heroic story?
And how can you figure out what to do with all of these Trials, Allies, and Enemies?
Plan, dear reader. Plan.
I recommend a bubble/mind-map strategy, listing and linking all the possible Trials the hero could endure, all the potential Allies he or she might befriend, and the necessary Enemies stalking the hero and trying to end this journey early. List, link, detail possible scenes, and decide what steps your hero needs to take in order to be ready for the ultimate showdown with the Shadow.
Because it’s coming. The Shadow must be confronted.
But not yet. For now, your hero has to struggle, and the Middle is the perfect place to make that happen.
What Trials, Allies, and Enemies can you think of from stories you love? Let us know in the comments.
It’s time to starting throwing everything at your hero, including the kitchen sink. Take fifteen minutes to plan all your hero might encounter in the middle of his or her journey.
In the second five, identify two or three Allies that could help your hero on the way, possibly suffering and/or dying for the cause.
And in the third five minutes, brainstorm the Enemies (bad guys and monsters) that will directly confront your hero and try to destroy him or her.
When your time is up, share your plan in the comments below, and be sure to leave a comment on another writer’s plan! Happy writing!