As a followup to last week’s Great Beginnings post, I figured I’d keep the momentum.
What comes after a great beginning? Well, a drop-kicking, nipple-twisting, hurricane-punching middle – that’s what!
I’ve heard/read many experts on writing talk about the “middle of the story doldrums” or the “transition pages” or some similar term to describe the part of a story that’s usually reserved for mere plot advancement/world development. Well, if you know anything about me by now, it’s these things:
- Plot is a 4-letter word for me
- I don’t condone writing “filler”
- A world doesn’t need to be fully detailed down to the napkins for a story to take place there
- Boston Market makes my boy parts tingly
- God DAMN I love linking Youtube videos
The center of a novel is like the middle of a sandwich – that’s where all the good stuff’s at! Meat=good. Fried things=good. Cheese=good. Peanut butter=good. Barbecue sauce=good. Potato chips=good. Okay, while I cannot recommend all of those things in the same sandwich, don’t skimp on the good stuff! Arrange the ingredients that fit and allow your reader to sink their teeth into the middle of your wordforged sandwich.
Damn… now I want a sandwich.
So, what the frak am I talking about this week? Lemme explain. For me, I usually have a vague idea of a beginning and an end. Those are the easy parts. Then, there’s all this crap that happens in the middle. It starts as a foggy space and our job as writers is to clear that haze. The middle is where I have the most fun as a writer because I just let it all hang out (no, not like that you sick bastard). I let my characters roam free of constraints and death sentences (well, most of them). Here is where I really get to explore them and also add some density to the story. You see, when you start to write without limits a funny thing happens.
Once you get into that story-churning groove, it’s an impressive beast to behold. Characters act naturally and you’ll find that alone generates more story than you can handle. Don’t spend time trying to fit in 100 pages of back story or detailed descriptions of how your universe works. While I guess that’s valid for some fiction, it’s certainly a fart-noise-thumbs-down in my opinion. You’ve built this awesome beginning capable of reaching out and grabbing your reader’s heart. Keep with that head of steam. Keep them engaged. If you are a “story guy” like me, then I believe that task can be accomplished by merely staying with your characters. Let’s see how they react to that knockout beginning. What will they do next? What other hurdles/complications do they face? How will their actions in the “middle” affect the “end?” Where are they going and what do they hope to accomplish?
Juicy questions, all of them. Take your time and explore these questions. Allow your characters to experience the outcomes. Show their reactions. Grow their story. In the end, you may find more than a few surprises along the way.
Of course, you could take the whole “character dive” too far and you’ll find things just drag along as you follow one or more characters around on their daily tasks. While it’s important to see them in these roles, it’s far better to see them challenged. Build up the events that change (or not change) your characters. Don’t drone on for pages about their back story if it has no relevance to the current story. There’s also no need to chronicle every minute of their day working at the Starbucks counter.
A fantastic example of a “character dive” done well is in the movie For Love of the Game. We start with a major league pitcher and his estranged wife. Then, as the game unfolds, we flash back to important moments in their relationship. I believe this is done in a way to build the two characters to a point where you are caring for them and wondering how the end will roll. Everything we see in these flashbacks relates to the climax where we get our romantic payoff. Or, perhaps, I like baseball movies a little too much.
A “character dive” done poorly usually bores me or churns the cauldron of rage within my small, white & nerdy body. The best example I can think of comes from Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth novels. I forget which book it was, but we spent a hefty number of pages with a character who found/stole the sword of truth. This youthful thief was featured for chapter after chapter. I kept expecting to return to the main characters but we didn’t. We stayed with this new character for maybe half the book. We learn all about him and his troubles as a street rat. In my opinion he wasn’t even likable! Then, Richard (the main character) finds him and (I believe) kills him to get his sword back (just like any self-respecting D&D Fighter would do). So… yeah… what the hell was all of that? Why did I spend hundreds of pages with this lame character? Your guess is as good as mine and I encourage you to not leave your readers guessing.
There’s another kind of middle I want to spend a few moments on: the plot machine. Unlike a time machine (or rage against the machine), the plot machine has no useful place in our society. Three traps to avoid:
- Sticking to your outline no matter the cost (hence, my advice to write without one)
- Following the advice of so many “on writing” books: connect your scenes ahead of time (don’t plan all your scenes! and don’t play “connect the dots”!)
- Inventing some device to introduce conflict or dun-dun-duuunnnnnn moments (these things should evolve naturally)
How about a few tricks to help you out if you get stuck or don’t know what you want to do? Ask yourself some critical questions:
- Who’s story is this?
- What’s my end look like at this point in time? (ie – where am I going?)
- What motivates my characters?
Engage your readers with a great middle (packed with character choices, character change & story movement) and hopefully they won’t wonder when things are going to “get good” again. The middle will flow naturally from the beginning and spill into a spectacular ending. But, more on that next week.
A note on trilogies: some would argue that the trilogy is dead. Everyone write’s “sagas” these days. Nonsense! Maybe I’m just “old school” like that, but I’m a huge fan of the trilogy. Like a self-contained story, you have a beginning, middle and end. The above recommendations certainly apply to the middle act of a trilogy as well. My only caution is to keep the story rolling and avoid a “situation chain” with your middle book. It’s almost too easy to fall into the excuse: “well, this is the middle, it’s supposed to be filler and development.” Avoid that trap! Your middle book should continue to address the critical points regarding the main character(s), what their story is about and why they are motivated into action & change. The end of your second book should have a climax all its own and should set the table nicely for act three.
Check out the first part of this series, Great Beginnings.
Also be sure to catch the last post in this series, Awesome Endings.