Last week I shared my insights from reading through my fourth draft. The main takeaway was that my middle act is struggling more than any other. Things just sort of happen, with the intensity spiking and dropping at random, messing up the story’s sense of escalation.
For today I wanted to take a moment to straighten out my plans for the middle act, giving myself a clear roadmap to follow. Then, instead of starting at the beginning of the story and working my way to the end, I’ll jump straight to the middle and get it all ironed out first. Only when the middle is as structurally sound as the beginning and ending will I start developing the story as a whole.
So, to make things perfectly clear, the objectives that I want to achieve with my middle section are as follows:
- Escalation of danger and tension
- Sense of utter exhaustion by its completion
- Occasional hints at the history between Oscar and Harry
- Showcase Oscar’s excellent seamanship, but also how it isn’t enough to save them
Whether I keep all of my previous elements or throw them out and start from scratch doesn’t really matter, so long as I’m achieving each those objectives.
Next up, here are all of the elements that I currently have in my most recent draft.
Current Sequence of Events)
- Oscar and Harry tether the boats together
- They go against the waves sideways and the rudder arm gets bent
- They try to turn fully into the wave, using the water sloshing in the hull to accomplish it
- Caught on the top of the wave, Harry’s boat pushes Oscar’s through from behind
- They are low on fuel and refill their tanks
- Oscar’s boat tilts into a wave, he is swamped, and he must hold on for dear life
- Oscar regrets having not quit before James’ death
- Oscar rights his boat by throttling the engine and swinging boom to side
- Oscar tries to stifle a nervous breakdown
- They turn their boats, putting their backs to the waves
- They watch for rocks or the lighthouse
- They go slantways ahead of the oncoming waves
- Harry’s engine cuts out and they have to go slower
- Harry starts to roll and Oscar pulls him back
- They lose all control in the competing forces, are now entirely at the storm’s mercy
- Harry makes his confession
That’s quite a lot of segments, far more than I had anticipated. Harry’s confession marks the transition to the final act, and from that point on I think I can keep the structure as it already is, so it’s only these fifteen other points that I need to refactor.
Next, I want to create two high-level outlines for what the flow for this middle act should be. The first is logistical. After they tether their boats together, what path should their journey back to the shore take? In my latest draft I contradicted myself a couple times on what it was they were trying to do, and I need to make their journey clear and consistent.
The second outline is for the tension and character development. When should the level of danger escalate? When should there be a moment of introspection? And I want to have this second outline seamlessly blended with the first, so that the emotional beats drive the change in the logistics and vice versa, such as when Oscar says they should retreat from their current course because he has had an emotional breakdown.
- Oscar and Harry head up the waves
- They try to drive through the eddies, but can’t break through
- They decide to move further up the waves, then they will turn around and use the extra speed to push at the eddies again
- Sudden gusts of wind eventually make forward progress impossible
- They turn around and pull sideways across the eddies
I want to be cautious to not make the story too complex, but I felt it was a bit overly simplistic with them moving up waves, at a slant to waves, and with their backs to the waves. I’m adding in two new features with the gusts of wind and the intersection of the storm’s waves with the crosscurrent of the eddies. The interplay of these competing forces ought to allow for a much richer, chaotic second act. I’ll just need to take care to not lose the audience along the way.
Escalation of Emotion/Tension)
- Slow accumulation of stress through each wave moved up
- Attempt to break through eddies but can’t build up enough speed because of Harry’s engine trouble
- Swamped in the cross-current, drastic maneuvers to turn head-on into the waves
- Mournful introspection
- Gusts of wind result make it challenging to keep a straight line. Try to hold it for a while, but eventually give up and decide to turn around
- Oscar tries to hold back his nervous breakdown
- Building up speed, Oscar knows it is time to try breaking through the eddies once again, but is terrified of it
- Finally throws in, everything is a froth, they lose all control
- Harry’s confession
What I have done is taken this middle act and tried to divide it into another three smaller acts, each of which ratchets up the tension and danger.
The first section will be trying to break through the eddies while moving against the storm, which failure will cause a moment of mournful introspection in Oscar.
Then will come the sudden gusts of wind, and Oscar will see the first signs of a nervous breakdown mounting within him.
Then comes the moment where they dash fully into the fray, all control is lost, and Harry makes his confession.
This clear-cut structure will hopefully help me to alternate between physical and emotional danger, increasing each at every step of their journey. My previous iteration had a problem with front-loading too many physical dangers and emotional crises right at the start, which then overshadowed what was supposed to be the climax of the story.
I also like how breaking through the eddies becomes allegorical for the wall between these two men’s relationship, and how Oscar has to drive into the chaos of each, though he doesn’t want to, before things finally work out.
And there it is. My roadmap for the reworked middle act. Honestly, I was getting pretty worried about whether I would be able to work this out, but this is giving me a lot of hope. This middle act is strongly informed from my previous work, and much of it will be reused for it, but now I have a clear sense of what was previously missing and what to change. Everything might still be chaos for my poor sailors, but at least for me it will all be according to plan.
Next week I am going to take my outline and add one more layer of detail to it. Then I should be ready to get started with some actual drafting the week after that. See you then!