Cycling Through the Middle
The middle of the story is comprised of many small conflicts. A successful resolution transitions into a new one, while a failed resolution creates new complications. In rare instances a conflict may end in a draw or interruption. The resolution is postponed. This is more common in relationship based conflicts, which are often used to add subplots (more on subplots in a later post). During the middle of the story the various small conflicts expand the scope of the story, creating a sense of new perspective in the character and the reader.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the plot begins with a letter. The first conflict is Harry wants to read it but his uncle obstructs him. Soon after successfully reading the letter he learns that he needs supplies. When this task is completed he is given a ticket. He has to catch a train. Throughout the story every resolution is quickly followed by a new conflict.
Conflicts & Scenes
Most stories feature a main, overarching conflict, which unites the story, sub-conflicts in the form of steps that characters take towards resolving the overarching conflict, and minor/relationship based conflicts that focus on the characters. Most scenes have small conflicts in the foreground, while larger ones continue to slowly advance in the background. One way of recognizing where a scene is in the overall story is to see how many conflicts are established or resolved. Pivotal scenes are the key moments when a major conflict is either resolved or introduced.
For example, in the first Harry Potter book, the pivotal scenes include:
- Harry meeting Hagrid.
Resolves Harry’s unpleasant status quo.
- Harry being sorted into a house.
Resolves Harry’s doubts about his place in the magical world.
- Harry learns that someone is trying to get past a dangerous guardian.
Establishes the main conflict of the story.
- Harry learns that the villain has learned how to get past the guardian(s).
Escalates the main conflict towards a final confrontation.
- Harry confronts and rejects the villain.
Resolves the final confrontation.
A conflict is always either building up or resolving. The shift from build-up to resolution is a pivotal moment. It’s when the character either rises in conviction and strength or falters in doubt and vulnerability. The resolution of the big conflict and the story represent the ultimate pivotal moment, but every resolution is a pivotal moment.
As a character approaches a pivotal moment they are often isolated; cut off from tools, friends, and alternatives. The plot briefly narrows to a single decision, often between two choices. This helps focus the story on the character, the choice, and the meaning or theme exemplified by the choice.
In Aladdin one of the central moments is when he has lost everything. He almost gives in to despair, but instead he chooses to keep trying. Similarly in the climactic moment of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry is confronted by the villain and offered a simple choice, join him or die fighting. He chooses to fight.
While a story should be unique and entertaining, themes are often very familiar. They engage the unconscious questions that many face in their life. The key is to be subtle. Start with characters in conflict, and let the rest come with time.