In last week’s post, I talked about story structure–beginning, middle, end–and specifically about beginnings. A beginnings is a short thing. Once the main characters arrive on the scene, the setting is established, and people run into problems, it’s over. Then the characters plunge into the story’s middle, where they spend the bulk of their time.
In the middle, the characters seek to resolve whatever their problems are, but it’s never smooth sailing. Things have to get worse before they can get better, because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a story. Tension equals interest. To avoid loosing the reader, tension has to be not only maintained but increased until the point when matters are resolved and the story ends.
Tension is generally increased through complications, unforeseen occurrences that make life harder for the characters. By way of illustration, let’s jump from literature to film. In the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is faced with a formidable challenge: find and recover the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. An oversimplified review of the plot shows several key complications:
- As soon as Indie finds and recovers the Ark, the Nazis take it from him and seal him underground with his old flame, Marion.
- As soon as Indie escapes, he learns the Ark is about to be flown to Germany.
- As soon as he demolishes the airplane, he learns the Ark is about to be taken away by truck convoy.
- As soon as he recaptures the Ark and gets it onto a ship, the Nazis intercept in a submarine and recapture it, taking Marion with them.
- As soon as he ambushes the Nazi procession on their way to open the Ark and demands Marion’s release in exchange for not blowing up the Ark, his nemesis Belloq hits him in his weakest spot: he refuses to release Marion and dares Indie to destroy the artifact.
Tension escalates through this sequence of events. Although not easy, neither is it excessively difficult for Indie to recover the Ark in the first place. But once it’s been taken from him, he only recovers it through a major fight. And when it’s taken from him the third time, it’s hopeless. He ultimately succeeds through divine intervention.
Moreover the stakes are upped each time it’s taken from him. With each reversal of his fortunes, the Nazis move closer to their goal. The first time he loses the Ark, Indie and Marion are left to die. The second time, Marion is captured as part of the prize. The third and final time, Indie and Marion are both captured.
Along the way, a series of other events play out. New characters are introduced, both helping and opposing Indie. Smaller conflicts play out, including the conflict between himself and Marion. Crises arise and are resolved, but each time relief is short lived; another, larger crisis looms to take the place of the previous one.
These subplots play several roles. They help define the characters in ways that the main conflict does not. Without Marion and Marcus and Sallah and Belloq, Indie would be very two-dimensional as he battled the Nazis for possession of the treasure. Moreover, smaller conflicts and complications help sustain interest while the main conflict builds and when it falls into its inevitable lulls. The humorous interaction between Marion and Indie on the ship sustains interest between their escape with the Ark and the appearance of the Nazi submarine.
We’ve been examining a film, not a written story, but the principles are the same. The differences are largely of complexity: a film offers much less space than a novel, so novels are almost always more complex. That’s why a film based on a novel inevitably leaves out a lot of material, even when faithful to the book. The same can be said in comparing novels to short stories, which often don’t offer room for subplots or much character development. In all cases, however, the middle of the story maintains and increases the tension, which builds through a series of events until it reaches its climax.
And then it’s time for the end.