Pushing Through the Middle

The middle is the most challenging part of a novel to write.   For every book I’ve written, the brainstorming process goes something like this:
Seemingly brilliant idea comes out of nowhere.
I spend some time figuring out the concept.  And then I know how it starts.  Yes!
And what if everything she thinks she knows is wrong? Or what if she’s right, but the consequences are not what she expects? Yes!  I know how it ends.
Once I have the concept, the inciting incident and the all important ending, I start writing.  The problem is that this is not a short story.  It’s a novel.  And a whole heck of a lot has to happen between point A and point Z.  Damn those 24 other letters. 

And I seriously get overwhelmed.  Because how am I going to come up with 36 or so other chapters that make up the middle?  And then I discovered a little thing called plot structure.  Yeah, I know, it’s not as foolproof as Muddle-Mend XL, but it helps to have a game plan. 

1.       Know your story problem:  I’m not talking about the literal problem with your story, I’m talking about the main conflict that drives your story forward, that drives your character forward.  What is the external problem your main character must solve?  What is the internal problem?  This is usually tied to your initial concept, and should be inherent in your one line pitch:  A girl who accidentally binds her soul to a boy who is her mortal enemy (Silver).  Until you can succinctly state your primary story problem, you are not ready to think about the middle.   

2.      Steps toward solving it:  Now that you know what the problem is, what steps must your character take to solve it.  In Silver, my main character had to figure out who she was and how to protect herself.  Those general concepts led to more specific scenes.    

3.      Obstacles to solving problem:  No one wants to read a story where the solution is as simple as an internet search, right?  We want our characters to work.  To suffer.  So what characters or situations will get in the way of the main character’s efforts?  This is where brainstorming with a lot of “what if” questions can help you flesh out scenes.  What if the only way to protect herself is to kill the boy she’s bonded to?  What if she falls in love with him?  What if she can’t trust herself? 

4.      Other character’s motivations:  Sometimes it’s helpful to flip the script and think about the story from other characters’ viewpoints.  What is the antagonist’s story problem?  What steps does he take to solve it?  What obstacles does the main character place in his way?  Think about what each character in the story wants, and keep it in mind when you write their scenes. 

5.      Sequences:  This is a term from films that really helped me sort my way through a book.  Coming up with 50 scenes = scary.  Coming up with eight sequences?  Much, much more doable.  Often you can think of the big scenes in the novel fairly easily, those points of major tension that you can’t wait to write, but how do you build to them?  By planning for them.  And building scenes around those big scenes.  Map out the four our five major turning points in your novel.  For each of those, think of what led your character to that point?  Write down four things that need to happen in order for that scene to make sense.  What is the fall out from that scene?  What must your character do now? Now map them out.  

6.      Allow for Surprises:  Having a plan can keep you from getting bogged down or too far off track, but that doesn’t mean you can’t give your imagination some freedom to veer off track now and then.  As long as you know where you're headed, don’t be afraid of the unexpected character revelation or scene that appears out of nowhere. (Someday, when we can have a spoilery chat, I’ll tell you how a character in Silver revealed a huge secret near the end of Act 2 that changed everything I thought I knew about my story).  That’s what first drafts are for.  Just know that if you get too far astray, you can always come back to the original plan.

7.      Keep your Eyes on the Prize:  Remember that awesome twist ending that you came up when you first thought of your brilliant idea?  Don’t lose sight of it.  The difference between a book that you can’t put down, and one where you get halfway through and shrug, is often as simple as plot structure.  Every scene should be moving your character forward in the story.  Meandering off course is an indulgence we can’t afford.  Every scene should tie into the central story problem, and build the tension.  Does your character learn a skill that will be needed later?  Is an important piece of the puzzle revealed? Does the character learn her limitations?  Are the bad guys closing in? Is she running out of time?  Is the problem looming, even in the quieter scenes? 
As writers, I think we suffer as much as our characters in the middle.  It's that point where the initial infatuation with a new project has worn off and you have to find out if this love is real.


I often go back to your Sequences & Setpieces post, Talia, because it does help all that Middle Muddle. And here we get extra help - hooray!

#6 is especially good to remember. Plotters can allow for surprises, just like Pantsers.

Oh this is good! And I don't even have to sell a kidney for it! Thank you so much for all these tips. I think I'm going to have to block out the window with a bulletin board. This has to go on it. Great writing advice!


Post a Comment

Grid_spot theme adapted by Lia Keyes. Powered by Blogger.


discover what the Muses get up to when they're not Musing

an ever-growing resource for writers

Popular Musings

Your Responses

Fellow Musers