Friday, July 08, 2011

Zette's Take: The Middle of the Story

From For Blog

The dreaded middle

How often have you heard the horror of the 'middle' in tales from writers?  They reach this hideous, deadly swamp where far too many stories die, wandering aimlessly through the muck and mud.

It isn't the characters who get lost, of course; it's the authors who lose their way.  Worse, they head into the swamp -- the middle -- without a clue of where they want to go by the other side. 

If you want to survive the middle of the story, you must have a plan.  To have a plan you must know where you are and where you want to go.  Both influence what you do in the swamp.

Past introductions, before wrap up

There are two factors to consider when you look at middles.  The first is to realize this part of the story sits between two important story pieces.  You are past the opening where you have introduced the characters and world and begun the inciting events which you will play out in the rest of the story.  The second is that you are before the end where all the troubles have to be dealt with and the fates of your characters handed out to each in turn.

So where does that leave the middle? 

Wide open to a lot of really fun stuff.

Before leaping into the middle, you need to make a decision about where you want to come out when you've worked your way through the swamp.  This is not a set-in-stone story location/plot spot or whatever, but rather an idea of the 'feel' that you want by the time you get there.  If your story is heading towards a tragic ending, then building up that feeling of hopelessness is going to be an important part of the middle.

If you want your characters to go into the end of the book with blazing outrage over the injustices that have happened, then obviously you're going to have to build on those injustices in the middle. 

A romance will have a different approach than a thriller.  A science fiction novel will have different avenues open than a mystery.  However, there are certain aspects of the middle which can apply to every book.

Quest and Mystery

In the middle, you have room to do things that move you a bit off the settled plotline.  Does that sound odd?  Think of plotlines as roads.  Every now and then it doesn't hurt to take a side trip and explore, as long as you come back to the main road and get where you're going.  And sometimes a character hits a problem and a detour.

It's easy to come up with distractions and problems.  Life is filled with trouble and little things can lead to big troubles.  If you are writing an epic novel, think in big terms.  Put mountains in the way.  Destroy food supplies.  Poison the horses.

If you are writing a romance, bring in bad weather, an old rival, a mistrusting family member, a missing dog, etc.  With a mystery (cozy or otherwise) you can do all kinds of odd things.  Put your detective on the wrong path with a misunderstanding.  Have someone else solve the crime (though, of course, they didn't really).  This is really the easy stuff and they are likely all things you've considered in one way or another, and this is the stuff that builds middles.

Nearly every story is a quest of some sort.  The quest part comes in because characters want something.  They are pursuing something no matter what the genre.  If your character does not have any wants, then he or she has no goals.  Without character goals, you have no story.  Looking at those goals is the best way to come up with middle of the book adventures.  Thwarted goals and subverted goals (your character deciding to settle for less than what he or she really wants) are, again, excellent middle fodder.

There are mysteries everywhere.  Why, how, who?  Those are pieces to remember in the middle as well.  This is the spot where misdirection can lead the readers to believe they have figured everything out, only to have it all change again.

Make mistakes and correct them

Your characters can, and should, make mistakes.  The middle is a wonderful place for this to happen.  Always keep in mind how everything that happens in a book has to relate to the rest of the book.  Nothing can stand completely alone.  No matter what you come up with in this section, always make certain the trouble ties back to the main story.  Don't waste any of your precious story space on material that does nothing but bring up the word count.  Don't annoy your readers.

One of the best questions you can ask at any point in a story is 'What can go wrong?'  This doesn't mean every problem must have end-of-the-world consequences.  Little problems lead to bigger ones.  While fixing a leak here, a dam bursts there.  While dealing with the love interest's problems, the sidekick falls into a dangerous situation.  The MC deals with government officials and something local goes wrong.  The hero finds the dog, but the kid disappeared while going out to look for the mutt.

You get the idea.

Do not forget the antagonist while you're in this area.  Things can go wrong for the bad guys, too.  However, there's something else to consider when you start working on the opposite side of the story.  As you head into the final chapters, you want your antagonist to have the upper hand.  The ending 'battle' should look more difficult than it did at the beginning of the story.

This doesn't mean everything has to go right for the antagonist and bad for the hero in the middle.  A few unexpected gains can help to balance the increasingly bad situations.  Keep the reader in mind as you weigh hope and loss as well as the problems you want to face at the very end.  Too much of anything can start boring the reader.

Failure of nerve or commitment

There is one more important aspect of the middle which may be helpful.  Many characters, pushed into a situation for which they may not feel adequate, may face a failure of nerve.  They may even leave behind the commitments they have made and try to escape what they see as something they cannot control and are not strong enough to face.

Note the word 'try' there.  In real life, people abandon families and jobs all the time.  You might even write a book about someone who takes that route.  However, you cannot irrevocably do so in the middle of a novel which has promised the reader something else entirely. 

With that in mind, you can still work with this idea.  Your MC (or maybe even your antagonist) can decide, for whatever reason, that this is not his or her battle.  And don't take battle too literally.  A person might fight a battle to win the person he or she loves, which is not the same sort of battle as the guy fighting corruption in city hall or the invasion of aliens.  The battle, however, is what is central to the story:  The actions taken to achieve the character's goal.  Different characters have different goals, though for a story they should be related so that when you get down to the end, all your major characters are on the same page, so to speak.  How they got there, and what paths and problems they faced, is up to you.

How many problems?  How few?

How long should the middle be?  It depends, of course, on the book.  The middle should be longer than the ending, though, if for no other reason than you don't want to bog the end down.  Once you get everyone on the path towards that inevitable ending conflict, you don't want to drag things out.  The same is true about the middle, too.

No two books are the same.  I could tell you to start with small problems and build up to the big, final one, but this plan may not work for you.  There is no single answer you can apply to every story you write, let alone something which can work for all the different authors out there.

On the whole, though, you want things to build towards the final confrontation.  A few ups and downs won't hurt along the way, as long as this fits into the feel for your story.  You want the reader to feel that the final conflict is the biggest trouble of the story and that every action -- whether it seemed so at the time or not -- led to this final problem.

The final trick for getting through

One last thing may help you get through the middle of the story with less trouble.

Stop thinking of it as the middle, as though that were something apart from the rest of the story.

A story should flow from start to finish.  I know there are many people who advocate using a three act system (or even more than three), but sometimes tis makes a person think in terms that will not help them.  They can see the opening act of the story and then can see the closing act, but what happens in the middle remains a dark stage. 

If you start considering your novel as a single, flowing storyline and how events build on each other rather than stand alone, you might find it easier to build situations throughout the story.

In the opening you introduce us to the world, the plot problem and the characters.  In the end you have them face the problem that was made inevitable by all the events that led up to it.  Those events are the important part of the story, and they are most often encountered in the middle.  We learn the true depth of the story problem along with their secrets and their weaknesses.

Make the middle work for you.  Don't be afraid to experiment.  You don't have to keep anything that doesn't work, and you learn even by your mistakes

Think of it only as the story you want to tell.Always keep that in mind.  And always have fun.


Raven said...

That's really useful. I've been having the Middle problem with chess lately. I feel comfortable during the beginning because I know what I'm looking for, and I know what to do near the end (look for ways to attack the king directly), but I'm always lost once my position is sound but I have no access to the king.

The thing is, I'm currently interested in chess *because* I think it's useful for writing (every move is, after all, a conflict). I never realized a connection with that feeling of being lost. That's really useful. Oh, and I love the picture. I have a cat that looks just like that!

Zette said...

I can see where chess would be a help, too. Actually, I've come to believe that anything which draws a writer's attention and lets them consider writing in a way that is 'outside the box' can help, no matter what the subject.

Good luck!