Stuck in the middle with you

As we enter the middle of the year, I thought it would be interesting to examine the middle of a story. For those that don’t know, most stories are split up into a three act structure. The first act serves as the introduction to the story, its characters, the world, and all the other elements that are needed to orient the reader. The first act also sets the plot into motion. The third act…acts… like you’d think an ending should. It ends things. Whatever conflict the main characters are facing will ultimately be decided and the consequences of those actions are played out.

three act structure
Three act structure, click to go to photo credit.

The second act is where things get real. Now that the reader is oriented in the world, the conflict can truly begin. Sure, Frodo and his friends may have left the Shire with the One Ring in their pockets, but that was just the beginning of their adventure. Act two of Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” starts with their trek to Rivendell where, along the way, they face some trials.

“The second act is really the heart of your book, the section in which your protagonist’s abilities and resolve are put to the test and his goal is most at risk,” Joseph Bates writes in his book “The Nighttime Novelist” and goes on to say that “It’s also the part of the book most consider the story proper.”

He lists Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick, Dorothy navigating through the wonderful land of Oz. Frodo making that pledge to take the ring to Mount Doom.

If you’re planning out your novel and you’re stuck when it comes to the second act, here are some questions to ask:

  • What kinds of conflict will stand in the protagonist’s way?
  • What is your protagonist willing to do to achieve his goal?
  • What would happen if the protagonist fails?

Every good middle should have the following:

  • First Culmination, the midpoint of the story where the protagonist has his/her sights on the prize.
  • Darkest Moment, where the protagonist hits rock bottom and seemingly fails in his/her quest.
  • Plot Point Two, where the protagonist finds a new direction which then leads to Act three’s conflict and resolution.

Each conflict the protagonist faces should be harder than the last. This is what’s called rising action. Bates compares the second act to a roller coaster.

“A strong second act has the inevitable momentum of a roller coaster, something you white-knuckle your way through and enjoy the ride,” he writes.

Throw all of these ideas into your middle and you’ll have the good bones for your middle.

Take Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” (2018) for example. For the purpose of this example, you’ll have to view Thanos as the protagonist. I know, I know, but trust me when I say that Thanos is the hero of this movie. Spoilers for those that haven’t seen the film yet, but come on that was two years ago.

The second act starts after Thanos sends his kids out to collect the rest of the stones. This begins the rising action. Stark, Strange, and Spider-man (all those S heroes) are attacked by Squidward (another S). The Guardians fight Thanos and Gamora gets taken. The midpoint is when Thanos finds out that Gamora has the location of the Soul Stone. That was the only stone that was truly hidden from the big purple dude and now he sees victory.

For Thanos, the darkest moment is when Scarlet Witch destroys the Mind Stone. This robs Thanos of his long sought quest for galactic balance. The audience believes (celebrates because who really wanted Thanos to win… certainly not me) that his quest is done and he failed to collect all the Infinity Stones.

“Now is not the time to mourn,” says Thanos and he’s right. This is where Plot Point Two comes into play when Thanos utilizes the Time Stone and reverses what Scarlet Witch did.

thanos gets the mind stone
This is what I look like when a Monday hits, by the way.

That leads into Act Three where Thanos gets his chest caved in by Thor, but it doesn’t matter because Thor didn’t go for the head. That’s another rant for another time.

That’s a summary overview of the middle part of a story. Having said all of that, you don’t necessarily have to do it this way. You’re a writer and rules are made to be broken. However, there’s a reason why most of books, movies, and other media utilize the Three Act Structure. It works.

Also, if you haven’t read Joseph Bates book, I’d recommend it. It’s a very good tool for those that can’t write for a living.

Am I Reading Too Much

As I sit at my home office (aka my bed) trying to figure out how to possibly write this week’s rant, I look over and see “Chain of Gold” by Cassandra Clare resting at the other side of the bed. I’m about 59 percent of the way through it. Picking it up, I marvel at how light the huge hardcover book is. Having never read any other books in Clare’s Shadowhunter universe, I definitely purchased “Chain of Gold” because of the beautiful cover. I know everyone saws don’t judge a book by its cover, but how ever actually follows that advice? Opening it up to the bookmarked position, I finish the section I’m on and replace the bookmark. I use a joker from a deck of cards because there’s no way I’m going to dogear a single page from this particular book.

The next thing I know, it’s a half hour later and all I have to show for it is a few pages down in by TBR (To Be Read) list. Which is always a good thing because I have a very large TBR List. To give you a frame of reference, I have an 18-gallon storage tub filled with books and my bedside table has 32 books resting upon it. Granted, most of the storage tub is an incomplete collection of Terry Brooks, but still there’s a lot.

Last weekend, I took a minute before starting a new book (“Camino Winds” by John Grisham) and pondered the question of “Am I reading too much?” Is that even a thing? At the time, I gave it only a passing thought before beginning the newest Grisham novel. I finished the book that same weekend, by the way.

It wasn’t until I read a quote Friday morning by novelist Ann Patchett that the idea came back to me. Patchett says that “Reading fiction not only develops our imagination and creativity, it gives us the skills to be alone.”

As an introvert and divorcee, my skills at being alone are already quite proficient. After my divorce a few years ago, I thought I had to find another relationship to be in. I tried a dating app, went on a few dates, quickly deleted the dating app, had one really horrible “hey I like you moments” which turned into a painful/awkward moment, and resigned myself to living and dying alone.

It wasn’t until Indiana’s stay-at-home order that I realized that I liked being alone. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. With night meetings canceled, for the most part, and no where to go with friends or family I had an enormous amount of free time. I rediscovered a love for an old video game, read 13 books, and stopped obsessively thinking about what people (in particular one certain person) thought about me.

Whenever I began feeling depressed, lonely, or when the real world became…a bit too real…I’d go outside on the front porch and read. Sometimes, I’d spend hours outside with a thermos of coffee in one hand and a book in the other. Sometimes, I’d substitute that book for an audio book, close my eyes, and enjoy the wind and/or sun on my skin. It didn’t matter if it was raining, sleeting, windy, cold, hot. I’d sit out there through all weather conditions. I guess you could call me a literary postman.

Patchett, in her quote, goes onto say that reading “gives us the ability to feel empathy for people we’ve never met, living lives we couldn’t possibly experience for ourselves, because the book puts us inside the character’s skin.” Which makes sense now why most of my 22 books read this year involve characters with romantic conflicts (Team Gale all the way).

My hope is that, since Indiana has entered Stage Three in the reopening plan and a sense of normalcy will be returning, I don’t lose my ravenous hunger for reading in the weeks to come. I don’t want to return to the depressed/lonely/obsessive version of myself before the pandemic.

Too much of a good thing can be bad. Eating too much pizza for example, I’m both guilty and proof of that. Drinking too much water can lead to water intoxication. Addiction to video games is another example, I’d like to say I’ve never experienced that one, but I’d be lying. When it comes to reading a book though, I guess I have doubts. On the one hand, if you are harming yourself or neglecting others because there’s a book in your hands, then okay I can see that. For me though, and I’m sure for others, reading provides that escape from the real world.

If that’s wrong, then I don’t want to be write. And yes, I meant to spell that right.

Hopefully reading

Ever since the coronavirus officially entered Indiana, the state I live in, I’ve been reading books that had a post-apocalyptic and/or world spreading virus theme. For instance, I’m a little under 200 pages left in Stephen King’s “The Stand.”

At first, I thought I was reading it out of sheer morbid obsession. Reading a book about 99.4 percent of the world dying from a super flu while the actual world is living through a pandemic with flu-like symptoms. But then I got to page 904. For those that don’t know, “The Stand” starts with a super flu that kills off most of the population. The survivors are pitted in a battle between God and Satan. The prophet that God has chosen to lead His people is Mother Abagail. Spoiler Alert: She instructs some people to travel to the heart of evil, Las Vegas, and stand up to Satan’s prophet, Randall Flagg.

Here’s the end of Mother Abagail’s instructions. “But he is in Las Vegas, and you must go there, and it is there that you will make your stand. You will go, and you will not falter, because you will have the Everlasting Arm of the Lord God of Hosts to lean on. Yes. With God’s help you will stand.”

Now, only one of those chosen four were religious. The other three were skeptical at best, but they all believed in Mother Abagail. And Mother Abagail believed and trusted God.
I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’ll be finishing the book this weekend. For those that have lost track of the date/time (I know I have on several occasions), it’s Easter. For those that don’t know the specifics, here’s a brief rundown of events.

Beginning in the Bible, Matthew 26:47, Jesus was betrayed by Judas. He was arrested, taken to the high priest Caiaphas, accused of false crimes, condemned to death, mocked, beaten, and crucified. Here’s the thing, Jesus knew this was going to happen. He knew Judas would be the one to betray him and that he would be put to death. Knowing all of this, he didn’t fight the Sanhedrin physically or try to escape (I imagine he could’ve if he so decided).

Now, I’m not saying that the Bible and The Stand are equal in importance. If there was one text, I would advise reading it would be the Bible.

Both have a great moral story to them and teach a valuable lesson. In fact, in each text, it’s the same moral story. The moral is that if you trust in God and stand against evil, you will prevail. Even if your results aren’t what you desire, you’ll eventually prevail.

And that’s why I’m reading the Bible and The Stand. Not for the doom saying or the plagues or the death and destruction. Trust me, there’s a lot of that in each book.
But there’s also hope.

In this time, the Era of Corona, we could use some hope. That’s why Easter is such an important time for those that believe in God. Jesus died and in three days he was resurrected. If we trust in God and are faithful to His instructions, then we will also live again in Heaven. It is my hope that you find something to read that inspires hope. For me, I find hope in the Bible and fictional novels like The Stand.

I wish everyone has a safe and happy Easter. Remain faithful to God, trust in the Word, and do the only thing we can in this harrowing time.

Stand.

What to read in a time like this?

I try to find the humor in every situation I face. Somehow, if I can laugh about something it just doesn’t seem that scary/depressing/overwhelming/(insert emotion). I remember when I was hospitalized for a three foot blood clot and I had made a joke about it to my wife (at the time). She doesn’t share my humor for laughing in the face of disaster.

Maybe that’s why we’re no longer together. Hmmm…

Anyhoo, so for those that are self-quarantined, staying away from the public, or just simply an introvert here are some choices in reading material for this time of season. And please, just know that even though this list is themed toward pandemics, it’s simply a literary book list with some dark humor to it.

So for your reading pleasure, here is my 2020 Pandemic Book List:

the stand1. The Stand, by Stephen King. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this horror classic. The premise of this ginormous novel is a detailed vision of the total breakdown of society after the accidental release of a strain of influenza that had been modified for biological warfare causes an apocalyptic pandemic that kills over 99 percent of the world’s population. It’s an amazing read about what happens to humanity and the good vs evil theme is quite page turning. I’m currently watching the television adapted movie and reading the uncut version of the novel. I’ve been sniffling and coughing up phlegm all the while.

Makes a man a bit paranoid, haha.

the-andromeda-strain2. The Andromeda Strain, by Michael Crichton. First off, I love when people call books a techno-thriller. It’s such a great name for a genre. So this novel handles the narrative differently. It documents the efforts of a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial mirco-organism in Arizona.

Year-One-Nora-Roberts3. Year One, by Nora Roberts. Okay, so if you’re not that into Stephen King because of the length of books he writers, I get it. However, if you’re looking for a pandemic themed book that invokes King’s The Stand without the 1,000 + page count then this one is it. I’ll warn you though, it’s part of a trilogy so if you’re wanting a one and done read, then you may reconsider it. It’s a great read about a sickness that spreads suddenly and within weeks, everything starts to crumble. This is different than your basic pandemic. Where science and technology falls, magic rises and people start developing magical powers and turning into elves and other magical creatures.

world_war_z_book_cover4. World War Z, by Max Brooks. So, without getting into all the zombie fiction out there (and believe me there’s a lot) I’ll just offer this one beacon of light among the undead. This book, written by Director Mel Brook’s son, is a collection of individual accounts following the devastating global conflict against the zombie plague. For those that have read The Zombie Survival Guide, this is the same author and it’s equally well written. While the guide was written in a half-comical nature, WWZ is written in a serious tone that examines survival-ism, uncertainty, and the ineptitude of individuals and governments. It’s really a must-read.

As an additional note, I really disliked the movie simply because it was nothing like the book. In my opinion, it would’ve been better to make it a strict adaptation of the novel. And you can fight me on that.

dracula_book_cover5. Dracula, by Bram Stoker. Okay, hear me out on this one before I get an angry voicemail about how I need to “get my facts straight.” Dracula is about a vampire that travels to England so that he may find new blood and spread the undead curse. However, the good Count is defeated by a band of humans that wield science as a weapon. Sound familiar? It should because that’s the basic theme of almost all pandemic themed fiction. I once wrote a college paper about how Dracula was a metaphor for Cholera. It was pretty good paper inspired by a very good work of fiction. Check it out.

Well, that’s five pandemic inspired fictional works. While I hope you all don’t fall ill with the coronavirus, I do hope you read some of the books on this list. All have a soft spot in my literary heart and have earned a place on my Hall of Fame for books.

With any luck, I’ll talk to you all next week.

Finding the Time to Read

With only about 93 (at the time of this writing) days left in the year, I fear I’m going to fail another one of my New Year Resolutions I had made just 272 days ago. I’d failed just about every other resolution too, but this one was the one that I thought I’d be able to finish. It was the goal of reading 50 books in 2019. So far, I’ve finished 23 books this year. I keep track in my Goodreads app. If you’ve never tried GoodReads, I highly suggest it. If a group of librarians decided to get together and create a social media app, then that’s Goodreads.

Sidenote, follow me on Goodreads here.

There’s a quote from Stephen King I always like to pull out and dust off when people ask me what’s the big deal about reading. “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”

As writers, we must keep our skills sharpened. One way of doing that is reading books of different genres. By doing this, writers glean nuggets of wisdom from within the pages of those books. Examples of what to do, and what not to do. That means reading books that aren’t great.

One of the problems about reading is that it seems like I never have the time to actually sit down and enjoy it.

I remember when Stephen King released The Dark Tower. It was the very last book in his Dark Tower series. It came out Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2004. I graduated from high school in 2004 and had recently started college at IUSB. At that time, I was also working at the gas station in North Liberty. Back then it was still Citgo, right before they changed ownership to LuckyMart. Getting back on track, that weekend after the book was released, I had the weekend off. I’m not too sure how I was that lucky, maybe it was Ka (only fans of the book would get that). I read the entire book, all 845 pages, in that single weekend. I remember where I spent most of that weekend. It was on the couch of our living room (at the time I was still living at home). I remember crying at both sad and happy moments of the book. I also remember feeling that sense of shock at reading the ending of King’s magnum opus.

Having a weekend off is a rarity now a days.

King once said that books are “uniquely portable magic.” It’s important that we don’t forget that. As adults, we need to remember that and take time out of our day to read. It’s tough trying to find the time to read. As we get older, our lives get more complicated and we have more commitments and sometimes we just don’t have the time.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Listen to audiobooks while to and from work. I work about 30 minutes away from where I live. That’s about an hour of book consumption each day. Typically, books can last from four to seven hours. It depends on the length of the book. Think about this. There’s no commercials and no songs you don’t like. Whenever I look at what to listen to, I normally go for series. This spring I burned through the entirety of The Lunar Chronicles written by Marissa Meyer. When you get a talented voice actor that can enchant you mixed with superb storytelling, you’ll never want to press the pause button. Currently, I’m in book three of The Chronicles of Narnia (The Horse and His Boy).

 

  • Read an ebook on your phone. Waiting in line. Arriving at a movie theater a few minutes before the film starts. Sitting in the lobby of a busy BMV because you were too lazy to make an appointment. Eating dinner at a restaurant by yourself because that blind-date stood you up. All of these situations can be made better by reading an ebook. The great thing about an ebook is that you don’t need to have the Kindle app. There’s a variety of apps that’ll allow you to read books. And if you have a library card, then there’s Hoopla and Overdrive. Read my earlier post about the benefits of a library card here.

 

  • Sitting on the toilet. Let’s be completely honest we each other. There’s nothing to do except your “business” when you’re in the bathroom. Why not bring a paperback? Instead of playing Candy Crush on your phone (don’t deny it), just open up your Kindle app and read a few pages. Please be a little courteous, don’t take a borrowed book into the bathroom. That’s a bit icky. And, it’s probably not the first time that borrowed paperback has seen the bathroom. You didn’t think those were chocolate pudding stains, did you?

 

That’s it for this week. I know, it’s a shorter rant then what you’re usually used to, but I was too busy reading. See what I did there? Now go read something!

Happily ever after…

Guilty pleasures. We all have them, even if we don’t want to admit it. I mean, that’s sort of the point of guilty pleasures. One of mine is watching movies with really sad endings. Like, if you don’t tear up during the film then don’t bother making me watch it. Then, as part of the guilty pleasure, I make other people watch them with me. Spoiler warning for some films I discuss today. Here are a few of my “go-to” guilty pleasure films:

  1. Me Before You (2016)
  2. Night of the Living Dead (1968)
  3. A Quiet Place (2018)
  4. Road to Perdition (2002)
  5. Avengers Infinity War (2018)

I know, I’m sadistic.

Before writing this, I started thinking about why I take pleasure in this odd activity. One reason is that I have no soul and can’t gauge emotions, so I want to watch other people when they’re sad in order to copy their emotions. Another reason I came up with is that I’m so depressed that I like to watch fictional characters in pain, this way I take solace that my life isn’t as messed up as theirs.

Maybe I just like realistic storytelling in my films and novels.

That’s right. Sometimes we don’t all live happily ever after. Sometimes the guy doesn’t get the girl in the end. Maybe the father dies at the end in order to save his boy’s eternal soul. Maybe everybody dies at the end of a zombie movie. Maybe the coach mercy kills the paralyzed athlete. Maybe, the bad guy wins and destroys 50 percent of all life in the universe.

Did I just spoil a bunch of films for you? Well too bad! Sometimes we have movie endings spoiled for us. Maybe you should have gone and watched them. Maybe… just maybe… we overuse the word “maybe.”

Now, know what you’re all saying. “But Jimmy, why would I want to go to the theater and watch a film with a sad ending?”

I completely understand. Look at the current “Infinity Saga” that Marvel just pumped out. Starting with Iron Man (2008) until Avengers: Endgame (2019), the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has produced 22 films. How many of those ended with a happy ending? Every. Single. One. Of. Them.

Again, I know what you’re saying. “But Jimmy, in Avengers: Infinity War half of all life was dusted. How is that a happy ending?” To answer that, I’d argue that Thanos the Mad Titan was the protagonist and the Avengers were the “bad guys” of the film. With Thanos completing his task, he achieved his happy ending.

Every MCU film is predictable. You know going into the film that the hero will win, the bad guys will lose, and that everything will be alright. It’s boring. Don’t get me wrong, I love each and every one of those films, but that’s why I have my guilty pleasures. For once, I’d like to see a hero fail at the end of an origin film. That would give the hero an excellent redemption arc in the second and third film. Why don’t they do it? Two words: Box Office. If the film doesn’t do well, then there might not be a second film. You have to perform well in the first film. Meaning a happy ending where the hero wins the day.
You know, the more I think about it, the first film is like a presidential term. If the first one doesn’t do well, there won’t be a second one.

Films that end happily are also a lie. Do you want to know the biggest lie in cinema? Here it is: “And they all lived happily ever after.” It trains children, and depressed adult male writers, that if they try hard and do all they can to overcome their obstacles then they’ll triumph in the end and live “happily ever after.”

Horror movies aren’t even exempt. In the film Dawn of the Dead (1978), the main characters are evacuating from the mall as it’s being overran by zombies. Two of the characters die and turn into the undead while the very pregnant woman gets into a helicopter. Because in the 70’s aircraft births were the thing. The last guy was locked in his room with a gun to his head. He was waiting until the zombies burst in before killing himself, because that makes a difference. At this point, I’m waiting for the film to end darkly. Then, for some reason, the guy has a change of heart. A song that’s reminiscent of the theme to The A-Team plays and the guy fights his way through the horde of the undead to board the helicopter. Together, they take off riding into the sunlight. Happily Ever After.

Again, I know what you’re going to say: “But Jimmy, these are fictional scenarios that’ll never happen. And you’re saying they need to be realistic?”

Here’s my conclusion (tip to all essay writers: never write that as your last paragraph. It’s tacky). Every story needs to have some realism to it. I’m not saying that every ending to every story has to be sad, depressing, or soul crushing. It’s my belief that even in defeat, lessons can be learned. Movies should have more endings where the hero ultimately loses but learns something valuable from the defeat.

Now, as to my mental health, I’m sure you’re all concerned. Because, if I’m being honest with you last week’s rant and this one was depressing. Don’t worry about me.

I’m sure I’ll live happily ever after.