Thursday, March 6, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - MIDDLES - #3 – Catastrophe & The Missing Link

Have you ever seen the “Plot W”?  We’ll examine it in more detail at the end of this series, but suffice to say, the three act plot structure looks like a roughly ‘W’ shaped roller coaster, plunging down from the opening as the protagonist is sucked into the plot vortex; shifting up when the protagonist begins to think maybe they can win this thing; plunging down again somewhere in the middle act when all seems hopeless (*cough, cough* that’s what we’re talking about today); then the slow but satisfying climb to victory at the end.

Last time we discussed putting your protagonist under pressure.  Now, as the middle act of your plot is winding towards its conclusion, it’s time to make pie from the fruits of that labor.

So far in the second act your protagonist has made a plan, then found themselves thwarted and / or at the business end of a life (or blissful happiness) threatening deal.  However you chose to do it, you’ve turned up the heat under your protagonist’s rapidly blistering rear end.

Now we’re reaching the point in the story where the excrement hits the air-conditioning: Catastrophe strikes.  

While catastrophe may include a black moment for your protag during which all hope is lost, the important element to a catastrophe is that it puts the entire plan your protag made a few chapters ago into jeopardy.  The situation must appear untenable.

(You have options here: a failure on the part of the protagonist; betrayal from someone else; an apparent victory on the behalf of the villain; or a combination of all three).

But here’s the interesting part: In the midst of all this awfulness, you – the author – weave in “The Missing Link”.  That means: you draw a line for the reader between the current impossible problem and the real solution.

Depending on your genre and how you write, that line might be a linear, identified solution the protagonist will now work towards.  Or it might be foreshadowing – something the reader doesn’t realize you told them until they look back.  But either way, the story must start telling the reader how we’re going to win this thing.

The trick is not to give certainty.  Readers thrive on tension.  If the solution is identified outright, there must be so many ‘ifs, ands, or buts’ that victory seems unlikely (if not downright impossible).  If your missing link is foreshadowing the actual solution, then ensure the protagonist has a goal, but is taking steps towards it in a last-ditch attempt because, frankly, all hope seems lost.

However you structure it, be careful to ensure the crisis doesn’t look trumped up.  Make the problem organic and preferably unexpected.

Next post: The Final Countdown – Using the ticking clock to build to the end.


  1. "Readers thrive on tension" - so very true. As JR Ward puts it, conflict is king and credible surprise is queen!

  2. You put it splendidly! Thank you!

  3. I had a shell scene just before the final battle turnaround bit in my plot, and I knew what had to happen, but not how the scene would play out.

    I read this post. Now I know how that scene will play out.