The middle of a novel comprises 50% of a book’s pages. It doesn’t have the fresh taste of a beginning and it doesn’t have the twists and turns of an ending. It’s just the middle. Just the middle. Sounds boring, doesn’t it? Writing the middle of a novel has sunk many an aspiring writer; so how exactly did Rowling do it?
Part II: The Response
Reading Story Engineering by Larry Brooks immensely helped my understanding of the mechanics behind “the dreaded middle.” In my previous post I discussed the first 25% of a novel, The Setup, which ends after the first plot point. This post will focus on the second part: The Response.
The Response spans another 25-30% of a novel and its purpose is to zero in on the protagonist’s reaction to his new situation after getting rocked by the first plot point (and if Part 1 was correctly and successfully written, the reader will care about how the protagonist fares). In the case of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Part 2 is about Harry figuring out where he fits in at Hogwarts and in the world of magic in general.
One of the most critical criteria of Part 2 is that the protagonist should not be succeeding yet. He is a “wanderer” at this point, not a “warrior.” He needs time to find his feet and make some mistakes. Brooks says:
In Part 2 the hero is running, hiding, analyzing, observing, recalculating, planning, recruiting, or anything else required before moving forward. If you have your hero being too heroic here, being brilliant, already knocking heads with the bad guys (or some other dark force), it’s too early.
Now see how Rowling does just that and keeps Harry from succeeding:
- In Chapter Six, “The Journey from Platform Nine and Three-Quarters,” Harry feels like a fish floundering out of water in his new magical world – he doesn’t know the lingo, doesn’t know any spells and doesn’t have any friends. He also meets his nemesis, Malfoy, who is clearly much better off than him.
- In Chapter Seven, “The Sorting Hat,” Harry comes very close to being put into Slytherin, the house that has turned out the most bad wizards and witches of the four houses. He also gets his first look at Professor Snape, which leaves Harry with the sneaking suspicion that Snape doesn’t like him at all.
- In Chapter Eight, “The Potions Master,” Harry discovers that Snape doesn’t dislike him – he hates him! Snape goes to great lengths to embarrass Harry and generally make his life miserable.
- In Chapter Nine, “The Midnight Duel,” Harry’s other current nemesis, Malfoy, steps back into the limelight. Here Harry pulls off his first small heroic action. He defends Neville from a taunting Malfoy by jumping on a broom to retrieve Neville’s Remembrall, which was chucked into the air by Malfoy. Harry gets caught by the strict Professor McGonagall, but, instead of getting expelled, McGonagall actually offers him a position on the Gryffindor quidditch team. It seems Harry’s luck is changing . . . which brings us to the midpoint.
And we’re already halfway through the book!
The midpoint is a major crossroad in a novel. Understanding what it is and is not can mean the difference between a dead manuscript and one that has a fighting chance. To be continued in part four, The Attack . . .
More posts on story structure:
And check out my latest story structure analysis of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.