The Ditchwalk Book Club is reading and discussing Rust Hills’ seminal work, Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular. Announcement here. Overview here. Tag here.
What is there to say about the middle of a story that hasn’t been said a thousand times? Little. So little, in fact, that while Hills’ previous section on Beginning runs six full pages, this section barely commands two pages, and a chunk of that is devoted to a diagram.
If the beginning of a story introduces a situation, then it’s fairly clear the middle will expand on that premise. Despite the obviousness of this continuity, no effort has been spared analyzing the alchemy that goes on in the middle of a story so as to improve the audience’s experience — if not also the bank accounts of the analysts. Whether armed with diagrams, buzzwords or paradigms, proponents of formulaic approaches feast on the middle because it is the meaty bulk connecting beginning to end. Whatever your genre, politics, religion, or favorite ice cream flavor, there’s a time-tested yet cutting-edge storytelling formula just for you — buy now! (All you have to do is add a plot, characters, dialogue, description, setting, tone, mood and your own distinctive voice.)
Earlier in his book Hills ends the section on Plot Structure with this:
As we have seen, it is probably good to begin and end a story as near the middle as possible.
Here again ‘story’ means ‘short story’, and Hills is specifically talking about how the limited length of that form affects the ability to relate meaning in fiction. There’s simply no time for a great deal of preamble and summation. The novel, even the film or play can elect to linger, but the short story seldom has that luxury.
In this section Hills expands on that idea:
What the middle of a short story might do, if there is a middle, and, I guess, even if a story doesn’t have a beginning or ending as such, it more or less has to have a middle — what this putative middle might do is end with the moment of movement of character.
Here Hills identifies both a clear, unifying, craft-based purpose for the middle of a story, as well as a metric by which the transition from middle to end can be confirmed. (This is the little that hasn’t already been said about the middle of a work of fiction.)
For me the main benefit of Hills’ approach is that it decreases the tendency of writers — and particularly new writers — to lean heavily on plot when structuring their work. In many formulaic schemes the middle of a story ends with a ‘crisis’ or ‘climax’, but those words themselves almost demand a catastrophic explosion or intricate plot turn. Too, examples of a crisis or climax often feature plot mechanics, lending more credence to the erroneous idea that it is plot that gives a story its power. In fact, without convincing movement of character compelled by action, no plot can have meaning.
In saying that the middle of a story ends when a character is moved by action Hills unifies all of the elements of a story toward a single cohesive effect. I can’t think of a better or simpler authorial goal.
Next up: Ending.
— Mark Barrett
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