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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Prillaman

The Middle is the Hardest Part (Live Thoughts From Writing a Fantasy Play Trilogy)

Updated: Apr 26

Of a play. Not sure about other things. Like corn. Or hot dogs.


fantasy protagonist on horse
No horses are harmed during Part II of this trilogy.

If you’ve ever written any narrative, you’ve likely heard it’s helpful to know your ending before you start.


When drafting a play, if you have a moment or image, a final line in mind to work towards (or backwards from), the rest of the script can almost fall into place. Now sometimes we have this when starting out and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we find it along the way. Sometimes we get close to it, but it looks different from how we first imagined it. There’s no wrong way to write.


Except this.


But certainly, one of the hardest parts of writing is the task of connecting that delicious beginning hook to that striking, closing image that will leave audiences breathless. The middle of the play is uncharted waters. The middle is where we can get lost, where we can start to second guess ourselves, where there’s the highest chance of getting burned out on the story.



For us ADHDers, it’s when other projects and play ideas can overpower us, causing us to abandon the story all-together to the dreaded shelf.


I’d posit that this has to do with the middle of the story being responsible for the work of getting characters to the places they need to go. It must be paced believably. It must make sense. If it doesn’t feel right or genuine, we can tell as readers, much less as an audience. The middle takes the most work. It’s the easiest place to falter. And it’s perhaps the place where a playwright most directly shows their skill and craft.


All this to say that I found writing Part II of a trilogy incredibly hard.



A Trilogy? Why? Why Are You Doing This?

I’m in the process of drafting a medieval dark fantasy adventure for the stage. Rielle and the Owl Hunter is an intended trilogy, consisting of three separate big ass plays. Two of which are written upon the page, Part III is still to come.


If you know me or my work (if you don’t, hi! Woah, thanks for reading this), you know I get a kick out of putting things on stage that we don’t normally find. Often, it results in “genre fiction” like horror, sci-fi, or fantasy, because despite what any gatekeeper says, you can do anything you want in theatre.


The influences, here, are on my sleeve: The Lord of the Rings (I count all three movies as one), Game of Thrones, Shakespeare. I also cannot fail to mention here Mac Rogers’ The Honeycomb Trilogy and Scott Sickles’ Second World Trilogy, two staggering achievements and brilliant examples of theatrical sci-fi.

 

But it was David Lowery’s The Green Knight back in 2021 that really kicked off this journey for me. Pure vibes. I wanted to tell that kind of story for a live audience, to write a proper adventure. However (whoops), after starting out, I realized it might be a little bit bigger than one play. Thankfully, not George R.R. Martin bigger (remember when GOT was just going to be a trilogy of books? Back, like, before many of us were born?)


So. Three plays. Three middles of plays. And during my drafting of Part II, the question naturally arose…



What If the Whole Play is the Middle Part?


My heart goes out to George. Because the first macro realization I had after breaking ground was this: “Fuck.”


I have to get my old characters farther into their stories than Part I (keeping in mind that settings old and new alike required new characters!), while simultaneously not bringing them to an ultimate conclusion, because there’s a whole Part III to come, which I must also appropriately set up. ABOVE ALL THAT, this play has to be a complete night of theatre and story in its own right! Did I succeed? That question that remains to be answered, will let you know. The one thing I do know is that writing it took me a hell of a lot longer than I anticipated and hoped. I allotted myself a month and a half. It took twice that.


Let’s pivot briefly and mention that the best LOTR movie is The Two Towers, and no I will not be taking questions or notes. Gollum shows up, the Ents, Gandalf the White, running! HELM’S DEEP.




But not actually, I guess? ‘Cause this has been going on for a while…

 

I’ve always loved middle chapters of trilogies, because they drop us into 100% character development. We know the stakes going in and can just experience the ride. But if we look closely at the new elements, the ones unique to after Fellowship, we notice that every new character enhances and impacts an old one’s journey. Gollum gets Frodo and Sam closer to Mordor. Shenanigans with King Théoden drive the journey of Aragorn and company. The interaction of Merry and Pippin with the Ents leads to the destruction of Isengard and (metaphorical) neutering of Saruman.


All these elements do the work of putting our heroes into, as Lauren Gunderson says, “character-defining choices,” the things that show audiences who they are (or are becoming). But they also do transition work at the same time. By the close, Gollum is leading Frodo and Sam straight to certain death. Helm’s Deep was but a battle for mankind, not the war. The loss of Isengard means Sauron has one less ally. Everything has a major impact on Return of the King (save arguably that last one, pour one out for Christopher Lee’s deleted scene).



If There’s a Traffic Cone in Act I, It Has to Shoot Someone in Act III

menacing traffic cone
Look at it. It's terrifying.

A good writer knows that everything has a payoff.


It’s proper usage of Chekhov’s Gun, or how practically every line of dialogue in Hot Fuzz sets up a joke or callback later in the film. That’s what writing Lamentations (Part II) was like, except I was obviously in charge of figuring it out myself.


For every decision made, I had to stop first and consider the overall implications for the entire three play story. If this happens here, does that honor and stay true to what came before? If it checks that box, now what does that mean for the script to come? What are the implications of this decision? If this [REDACTED MASSIVE SPOILER] is true, how does that impact who will wind up sitting on the Rivkan Throne? How does it impact the rest of this play?


It makes sense that this writing process took longer than typical for me because it’s bigger. It’s a larger story. And the larger a play is, the more thinking you’ve got to put into it. It was not not massive fun putting together what I think the puzzle looks like (at least currently), but forcing myself to push through and do all that was harder. It was the middle. And I'll admit. I started second guessing myself.


And when we do that, sometimes the only mantra that helps is this: you can't edit anything until it first exists.



So…


A reminder than I’m just some shmuck with a website, so take my words with appropriate salt, but for anybody out there struggling with their middle, no matter how big the play (or story), I empathize. I would then say this:


If you’ve got your ending in mind: Don’t stress about how to get there. That doesn’t mean don’t think or consider, but your characters should work with you, not against you. Just ask, “does this decision feel honest? Is this character doing this because they feel this way, or am I forcing this to fit my outline?” Antagonists should impact characters, not our outlined plot.

If you find yourself struggling too hard with a beat, take that as a sign to go off path and explore. Let a character surprise you. It doesn’t have to look exactly the way we see it in our heads. And we can always just not use something we write if we don’t like it or it doesn’t work.


If you don’t have your ending: Don’t stress about how to get there. In fact, have fun finding it, baybee. It’ll come together. If you’re working with your characters, it’ll reveal itself sooner or later.


Thanks for reading.


If you want to explore any of Rielle, you can find Part I and II over on the Plays page, or at the NPX links below.



What you might also be wondering after all this is, “do I know Rielle’s ending?”


Yeah. A little bit of it.


I definitely have one thing in mind.

 

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