In a previous post, “Beginnings: How Would You Finish the Story?,” we reminded you that a story, after presenting background information, begins with an inciting moment--an incident that sparks the action that follows (the story proper). Following this moment, the story’s conflict is complicated as increasingly difficult obstacles are thrown into the protagonist’s path until a turning point is reached and the story starts in the opposite direction, ending in a resolution (comedy) or a catastrophe (tragedy). Then, we provided summaries of the way that three well-known horror stories begin and invited you to create your own middles and endings for these stories, alternative to the actual ones that the writers of these stories wrote. We suggested that you then consult an Internet source to see how the actual stories developed their middles and endings. The stories are Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Stephen King’s Needful Things, and The Thing From Another World.
Since you may not remember, in detail, how these stories developed their middles and endings, even after consulting an online summary of them, we’ll summarize their middles in this post and offer some comments upon them. In a later post, we’ll do the same with regard to these stories’ endings.
Let’s start with Psycho:
Let’s see how the screenwriters, Joseph Stefano and Samuel A. Taylor (unaccredited), developed the middle of this story.
Norman panics upon discovering Marion’s bloody corpse. However, he manages to wrap her body inside the shower curtain and cleans up the mess. Placing her body and all her belongings, including the stolen money, which Marion had hidden in a folded newspaper, into the trunk of her car, he pushes it down a slope, into a swamp.
Marion’s sister, Lila, worried that Marion is missing, contacts her lover, Sam, as does a private detective, Milton Arbogast, whom Mr. Lowery has hired to recover the money Marion has stolen. The detective suspects that Lila or Sam knows Marion’s whereabouts. Tracing Marion to the Bates Motel, Milton questions Norman and insists upon interviewing his mother, which Norman forbids. The detective calls Lila, telling her that Norman is not being truthful. Milton then sneaks into Norman’s house, but he is pushed down the stairs, backward, as he climbs them toward the second floor. To finish him off, he’s stabbed to death.
When Lila alerts the local deputy sheriff, Al Chambers, of Milton’s claim to have seen Norman’s mother, the lawman is baffled: the woman was buried 10 years ago, after she’d poisoned herself and her lover.
At home, Norman confronts his mother, urging her to hide out in the house’s fruit cellar to prevent herself from being discovered by those who are hunting for the missing woman, Marion, whom Mrs. Bates has murdered. She refuses to do so, irate as she recalls Norman’s having persuaded her to stay there previously, for a long time. Nevertheless, Norman carries her there, against her will, as she screams, “Put me down! I can walk!”
Sam and Lila conduct an undercover operation of their own. Pretending to be married, they rent a room at the Bates Motel. Norman is careful to assign them to one that is far from the one he’d rented to Marion, but they sneak into Marion’s former room and discover that the shower curtain is missing. Peering into the toilet bowl, Lila notices a bit of paper on the edge, with “$40,000” written on it--proof that her sister had been a guest at the Bates Motel.
Lila sneaks into Norman’s house to talk to Norman’s mother while Sam distracts him in the motel office by accusing Norman of having murdered Marion for the money she’d stolen. However, soon after they begin to argue, Norman discovers that Lila is absent. He knocks Sam out and flees to his house, but Lila, seeing his approach, takes refuge in the fruit cellar, where she finds Norman’s mother. She is horrified to learn that Mrs. Bates is a mummified corpse.
Wearing his mother's clothes and a wig, Norman bursts into the cellar, armed with a knife, identifying himself as his mother, Norma. Sam, having regained consciousness, disarms Norman, tearing his dress in the process.
The middle of the story deals with the aftereffects of Norman’s murder of Marion. This portion of the story includes his murder of several other victims, and the revelation of his secret identity as his deceased mother (and thus his severe mental illness), which is accompanied by his cross dressing. It ends with Norman’s being disarmed by Sam as he attacks Lila, dressed as his mother, Norma. In other words, the middle of the story is logically connected to the beginning and explains the bizarre incidents that were suggested at the outset of the movie more than they were shown. The middle of the story also transitions to the ending, which we’ll look at in a later post. In the process, additional characters are introduced (often victims) as the initial conflict is complicated and the story moves toward its climax, or turning point. This approach is typical to horror story plots. After describing a number of bizarre incidents, the plot explains the cause or reason for these incidents as the main character discovers why such odd things are afoot. This knowledge allows him or her to solve the problem represented by these incidents and to restore order or the status quo, which takes place at the end of the story.
The beginning of Needful Things seems too slight for much development, but, as we mentioned in our previous post, Stephen King manages to get 792 pages out of it, and the movie based upon his novel has a running time of 120 minutes. How does King manage to get so much mileage out of the simple situation of a man with supernatural powers’ opening of a curiosity shop in small-town Castle Rock, Maine?
Let’s start by summarizing the middle of the story:
After the shop opens, the townspeople visit Needful Things, each to buy that which he or she wants more than anything else. Brian Rusk wants a Sandy Koufax baseball card on which the player has signed his (Brian’s) name; Danforth (“Buster“) Keeton wants a machine that forecasts the winners of horse races; others want things that have a special meaning for them. All agree to do a “favor” for the store’s kindly owner, Leland Gaunt, ignoring the warning, “Caveat emptor” (“Let the buyer beware”) posted in his shop. The favor is always a seemingly harmless, if sometimes mean-spirited, prank that is played upon a casual acquaintance. However, the pranks turn out to be anything but harmless, causing the townspeople to turn upon one another in an escalating series of violent acts that threatens to destroy the entire town.King says that this novel was inspired by the greed he saw in the behavior of televangelist Jim Bakker and his late ex-wife Tammy Faye Messner.
The only person in town who is not susceptible to Leland’s powers, because he already has everything he needs, is Castle Rock’s sheriff, Alan Pangborn. During the course of the story, Alan suspects that the series of violent acts can all be attributed to the same source, or cause: Leland Gaunt. The story climaxes when Leland seduces the sheriff’s girlfriend, Polly, by presenting her with a necklace that relieves the pain she suffers as a result of her arthritic hands. Leland’s seduction of Polly forces a showdown between him and the sheriff.
The middle of the story is an outgrowth of its beginning, showing what many of the residents of Castle Rock value above all else and the consequences of their willingness to do harm to others to acquire these material objects. Therefore, it is a logical development of the story’s initial situation and, like Psycho’s middle, the middle of King’s novel also explains the cause of the bizarre incidents that occur in and around the town. Ironically, it is the man who values someone else, his girlfriend, above all merely material objects who can stand against Leland’s powers, and it is when Leland threatens the one whom Alan loves that the shopkeeper sets up the final showdown between the force of good and the force of evil that is played out at the end of the story. In the process, King also introduces more characters (mostly victims), and, by delving into the back stories of the many residents of Castle Rock who appear in this novel, King gives depth (and length) to the narrative. In addition, he provides the motives of, and insights into, his characters, making their choices of Leland’s wares and their willingness to harm others understandable if not always entirely believable.
Finally, we will summarize and comment upon the third story whose beginning we summarized in our previous post, The Thing From Another World, a 1951 science fiction classic film which qualifies as a horror flick, too, because of its chills and thrills:
A team of scientists at a remote arctic research laboratory, investigating a possible aircraft crash, find the wreckage of a flying saucer, covered in ice. Using explosives to free the ship, they accidentally destroy it, but they recover a body frozen in the ice.The middle of this story is also logically connected to its opening situation, as the characters seek both to understand the nature of the creature they’ve recovered and to eliminate it as a threat after an Air Force guard inadvertently thaws the ice in which the creature reposes and it attacks sled dogs and humans. They learn the secret as to its true nature (a plant in human form) and the reason that it needs blood (to survive and to reproduce). Several characters become the monster’s victims. There is a conflict between a scientist’s desire to learn the secrets of nature, as represented by the alien plant-creature, and ordinary humans’ instinct for self-preservation, or survival. The former impulse is shown as being in opposition with the latter--at least when an extraterrestrial plant, capable of moving under its own power, is involved. The middle also transitions toward the story’s end, which we will consider in a later post. This story, incidentally, also makes use of a convention that is common in horror fiction, but effective, nevertheless--the isolated setting in which characters are cut off from the rest of society, from culture, and, indeed, from civilization itself and are stranded to survive (or not) on their own.
As they return to their outpost, a major storm approaches, making communication with their headquarters in Anchorage problematic. Some scientists want to thaw out the creature, but the commanding officer, Air Force Captain Patrick Hendry forbids them from doing so until he receives orders from Anchorage.
Nervous in the presence of the alien body he guards, an airman uses an electric blanket to cover the ice block in which the extraterrestrial being reposes, causing the creature to thaw out, and it revives. Sled dogs attack the escaping alien, biting off one of its arms, which the scientists recover. As the limb warms, it absorbs the canine blood and returns to life. The scientists, examining the arm, conclude that, although the creature seems to be an animal of human-like appearance, it is actually a plant. (Yes, this twist stretches the willing suspension of disbelief to the breaking point.) Despite the creature’s obvious handicap to communication, one of the scientists (probably not a Nobel laureate) believes that they can reason with the creature. By contrast, the Air Force personnel do not believe that the plant can think or communicate with them, and they assume that it could be dangerous. (See, there is such a thing as military intelligence, on rare occasions.)
To survive, the plant-man attacks and kills other sled dogs, living upon their blood. When Dr. Carrington discovers a sled dog’s body, devoid of blood, hidden in the outpost’s greenhouse, he has volunteers among his team stand guard. The creature later kills several of them before it is lured into a trap inside the greenhouse.
Having determined that the creature needs human blood to reproduce, Dr. Carrington sneaks plasma from the base infirmary, using it to incubate the seeds he’s extracted from the creature’s severed arm.