Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, June 19, 2012 14 comments
There are a number of reasons a novel's middle becomes muddled during the drafting phase. One can lose the protagonist's "throughline"--that is, his or her desire or need that fuels the story action. Or perhaps a secondary character elbows out the protagonist and POV suddenly shifts. Most likely, however, the directions a story could go seems infinite and both plot and subplot sputter out or spin wildly out of control.

You might handle middle muddle by trying to write through it. But it's likely you'll write a whole lot of uninteresting garbage you'll have to jettison later. Better to pause for a time to do a little planning.

In Beginnings, Middles and Ends, Nancy Kress recommends making some key decisions before you delve too deep in drafting your novel's middle.

Start by listing all the events that happen to all the characters from the beginning to the end. This might include things going on simultaneously in different places. It might help to make your list in columns by location or main actor. Throw in anything that's interesting and relevant to moving the story forward, keeping in mind the protagonist's throughline (goal, driving desire).

Now, mark with a highlighter all those events that occur somewhere other than in the POV character's presence. You will have to figure out how to let the reader know about these events--an act of discovery will be needed in scenes to cover offstage events.

Once you've adjusted your list of events for point of view, you'll need to whittle it down further. Which events actually merit being dramatized into scenes? Might an event need multiple scenes to fully dramatize it? Might it better be handled in exposition? Some seemingly pivotal events might get the most dramatic bang when handled indirectly in a reaction scene. But you absolutely should not spend time trying to dramatize every last event that happens, only those that are interesting.

Kress's rule of thumb is that scenes you give the most attention should relate directly to the throughline. A story can often be sharpened by concentrating its events and emotion into the bare minimum of scenes. Some of the "stage business" of getting characters from here to there can still come into play, but these details are best digested by your readers if throughline-related changes occur at the same time. Characters might argue during a car trip, the heroine might uncover surprising information eavesdropping while waiting for her date to arrive at the restaurant.

So, to sum up, prepare for your middle by deciding every story event--what happens to every character in every place during the story's timeframe. Then organize the events into the minimal number of dramatic scenes (and narrative summary scenes) that keeps the protagonist's throughline front and center.

Do you struggle with story middles? What things have bogged you down? What tips have helped?

14 comments:

  1. Even though I'm a seat-of-the-pants writer, I think a lot of what you've said is true for us "pantsers" too. It's too easy to go off on a rabbit trail and end up with a bunch of stuff that just needs to be deleted. I try to avoid that by always asking myself "how is this getting me to the goal of the novel."

    Plus, I've found that keeping a plot outline of what I've written thus far helps keep me on track so I don't chase those plot bunnies. No matter how cute they are. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Kress's book explains how to make this idea work for "pantsers" too. You don't have to think of it as an outline, but thinking out all the story events helps clear some clutter so you can more easily find the most exciting things to dramatize in scenes.

      Delete
  2. This is such good advice. Thank you. I'm working on my middle right now (of draft 3) and I think I can put a lot of these hints to good use.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm in the middle of a first draft and have had a bumpy time moving forward. Kress's method helped me get unstuck, so I had to share!

      Delete
  3. Great post on middles. I do sometimes struggle with middles but outlining with a beat sheet definitely helps. When I use a game changing midpoint that changes the direction of the novel or introduce something new that really helps me.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think Kress's method is a good complement to what sounds like Blake Snyder's method. What I liked is that it can be adapted to both pantser and planner styles.

      Delete
  4. Yes, great advice. (I love Nancy Kress's book, too.)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Funny thing is, I've never read any of her fiction, but I just adore everything she's ever written on writing. She makes ideas so clear and uses awesome examples.

      Delete
  5. That is definitely what I've learned is if you pause and do some planning, you don't waste as much time.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As Ben Franklin said, "haste makes waste." :-)

      Delete
  6. This is a great post. I really like the way you write.

    www.modernworld4.blogspot.com

    ReplyDelete
  7. Great thoughts. I may be having this problem with a sequel, so this is helpful. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Best wishes for a muddle-free middle!

      Delete