Something’s been bothering me. I know that the Hero’s Journey traditionally has a clear beginning, middle, and end– but how do we reconcile that structure with Harry Potter’s trip to Diagon Alley, or Katniss’s trip to the Capitol Training Center?
I initially wrote off the “pre-middle” as just step #1 in these Four Steps to Leave the Muggle World. However, the pre-middle is much more than a transition period.
Check out these 5 questions to see why this stage is so crucial to the rest of story.
Question 1: Where are we going?
The pre-middle consists of the time period between receiving the invitation and the start of the “meaty” action. This is a great time for your hero to take a short trip, where he can naturally observe new things without “information-dumping” on the reader.
- Harry Potter takes a trip to Diagon Alley after receiving his invitation for Hogwarts but before the semester begins. (His pre-middle lasts from about Chapters 4 through 6.)
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss takes a trip to the Capitol’s Training Center after volunteering as tribute but before entering the Hunger Games Arena. (Her pre-middle is the longest, from Chapters 3 through10.)
- In Twilight, Bella’s “trip” is her first week at a new school, after she leaves Phoenix but before she discovers the vampires. (Her pre-middle starts the earliest, halfway through Chapter 1, and lasts through Chapter 3.)
Question 2: What the $&*% is that?
You’ve already introduced the reader to your hero and his dreary homeland. Now it’s time to bring in some new information.
While on his trip to a new place (separate from where most of the action will take place), the hero has the need to ask a lot of questions, thus filling in the reader with backstory beyond just present observations.
- Harry Potter receives backstory on Wizards: “So what is Quidditch?” “It’s our sport. Wizard sport. It’s like — like soccer in the Muggle world — everyone follows Quidditch — played up in the air on broomsticks and there’s four balls — sorta hard ter explain the rules.” (HP Ch.5).
- Katniss’s inner monologue offers lots of backstory as she realizes her district token is a Mockingjay. “During the rebellion, the Capitol bred a series of genetically altered animals as weapons. The common term for them was muttations, sometimes mutts for short.” (HG Ch.3).
- In Twilight, Bella’s new classmates fill her in on the backstory of Edward’s family. “Which ones are the Cullens?” I asked. “They don’t look related. . . .” “Oh, they’re not. Dr. Cullen is really young, in his twenties or early thirties. They’re all adopted. The Hales are brother and sister, twins — the blondes — and they’re foster children.” (TW Ch.1).
Question 3: Is that a threat?
In the beginning of the novel, we grew sympathetic and interested in the hero. Now it’s time to use the pre-middle to get the reader to care about the stakes, by illustrating a new threat to the hero.
- In Harry Potter, we learn that Voldemort may still be out there and after Harry. “But what happened to Vol-, sorry — I mean, You-Know-Who?” “Good question, Harry. Disappeared. Vanished. Same night he tried ter kill you. . . .That’s the biggest myst’ry, see . . . he was gettin’ more an’ more powerful — why’d he go?” (HP p.57).
- In Twilight, Bella senses that Edward is a dangerous character. “But Edward Cullen’s back stiffened, and he turned slowly to glare at me — his face was absurdly handsome — with piercing, hate-filled eyes. For an instant, I felt a thrill of genuine fear, raising the hair on my arms. The look only lasted a second, but it chilled me more than the freezing wind.” (TW Ch.1).
- In The Hunger Games, Katniss learns what happens to people who defy the Captiol. “What’s an Avox?” I ask stupidly. “Someone who committed a crime. They cut her tongue so she can’t speak,” says Haymitch. “She’s probably a traitor of some sort.” (HG Ch.6).
Question 4: Will that come back to haunt me?
- Harry learns that he has a similar wand as Voldemort, and it seems they are destined to meet again. “Sorry,” said Harry, “but what’s curious?” . . .“I remember every wand I’ve ever sold, Mr. Potter. Every single wand. It so happens that the phoenix whose tail feather is in your wand , gave another feather — just one other. It is very curious indeed that you should be destined for this wand when its brother — why, its brother gave you that scar.” (HG Ch.5).
- Bella already realizes that she and Edward live in different worlds. The intersection of these worlds will soon cause more trouble. “I was still frightened of the hostility I sometimes felt emanating from him, and I was still tongue-tied whenever I pictured his perfect face. I was well aware that my league and his league were spheres that did not touch.” (TW Ch.3).
- Katniss and Peeta discuss bending the rules of Hunger Games, which they figure out how to do in the climax scene. “I can’t go down without a fight. Only I keep wishing I could think of a way to . . . to show the Capitol they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games,” says Peeta. “But you’re not,” I say. “None of us are. That’s how the Games work.” “Okay, but within that framework, there’s still you, there’s still me,” he insists. “Don’t you see?” (HG Ch.10).
Question 5: Can I turn the page any faster?!
- Harry gets the first of many clues about the Sorcerers Stone: “What’s the You-Know-What in vault seven hundred and thirteen?” Harry asked. “Can’t tell yeh that,” said Hagrid mysteriously. Hogwarts business. Dumbledore’s trusted me. More’n my job’s worth ter tell yeh that.” (HP Ch.5).
- Bella gets a clue that Edward is not quite human. “In fact, I was sure there was something different. I vividly remembered the flat black color of his eyes. . . . Today, his eyes were a completely different color. . . . I didn’t understand how that could be, unless he was lying for some reason about the contacts. Or maybe Forks was making me crazy in the literal sense of the word.” (TW Ch.2).
- Katniss is left wondering whether Peeta is a friend, foe, or something more. She can’t seem to help trusting him, which is dangerous. “And then he gives me a smile that seems so genuinely sweet with just the right touch of shyness that unexpected warmth rushes through me. A warning bell goes off in my head. Don’t be so stupid. Peeta is planning how to kill you, I remind myself. The more likable he is, the more deadly he is.” (HG Ch.5).
We’ll talk about weaving in more mysterious clues in a future post. For now, head over to the master outline, where you can see I’ve labeled Chapters 3, 4, and 5 as the “pre-middle.”
You’ll find the Trip card and the Clue #1 card in Chapter 3; the backstory card and the foreshadowed climax in Chapter 4; and the anticipated danger card in Chapter 5.
Do you have any experience grappling with the pre-middle? Please share in the comments!