Saturday, August 4, 2012

Writing the Cream

by Stephanie Morrill

If you attended the NextGen conference last Thursday/Friday, you probably already saw this post over there, but I know many of you are older than 19 and were therefore unable to attend. So, as requested, here's my class on those challenging middles.

Also, I'll be gone on vacation next week, but there's amazing stuff lined up in my absence - Jill Williamson will be here as usual talking about short stories, and editor Roseanna M. White has a "fix it or nix it" game that shows what will get your manuscript rejected and what won't. Also, we have two fab guest authors lined up - Heather Burch the author of Halflings and Morgan Busse the author of Daughter of Light.

And by the time I get back, we should be ready for our special contest announcement...

Anyway - middles!

The middle of the story should be the best.

This thought that plagued me as I worked on a story last year. It was a typical Stephanie story. The kind that's about a girl ... and it's summertime ... and she has this Big Problem ... oh, and there's this guy...

Also in typical Stephanie fashion, I wrote the first couple chapters without a hiccup. But as my main character (MC) made the choice to go on The Journey, the one that would lead her to The Ending, I ran out of steam.

For the first time (and this was the 11th novel I'd completed) I had a disturbing thought going on in my head - the middle is where all the story stuff happens. It should be the best part of writing. Why is it the part I dread?

Then one day, weeks later, it finally clicked for me - Middles are hard because that's where all the story stuff happens! And coming up with all those ups and downs, those twists and turns, takes work!

When I think I have a story idea, what I really have is a story premise.

Say my idea is for a book about a modern girl whose parents are discouraging her from going to college. That tells me two things about the timeline. I'll need to start with my character at home, still at the age where she would be making college decisions. Those will be my first couple chapters. I don't have to follow through on anything quite yet,  just show you my MC's world, do some foreshadowing, and get her ready for her journey. And then I know I'll be ending with her going to college. Or maybe not. Regardless, I'll just be tying up loose ends. 

The beginning and the ending must exist, of course, and they have their own unique challenges, but the middle is where your characters will spend most their time and energy.

It's like an Oreo cookie - a DoubleStuf, preferably. 

The beginning and the end are those chocolate wafers, and if they're not perfect, you can tell the balance is off. But what's an Oreo without cream, and what's a story without a middle? The cream isn't only delicious, it's what binds the chocolate wafers together. They all work together to make one amazing bite, same as your beginning, middle, and end must all work together.

The first element you need for a strong middle is a strong, clear goal for your main character. Usually we think about that being something that deepens our character or our conclusion, but your character having a goal they're striving for is key to a successful middle.

When they have a goal, it means they're invested in the journey and you have stuff you can take away. They want to attend a fancy university? You can take away their financial resources, their straight As, their college counselor. They want to stop Evil McVillian from taking over the world? You can trap them or immobilize them somehow.

It's also a good idea to give your character several things they love. Again, we usually think of that being a character-enriching exercise, but if they have at least two things they care about, it's easier to build conflict within them.

For example, when my son was about 15 months old, he had two great loves in the world - me and his pacifier. (I learned last time I referred to pacifiers that they go by many names - binkies or dummies. That green thing in his mouth.)

One night we were on vacation and Connor was exhausted. I was on one end of the room, and he wanted to be with me ... but his pacifier was on the opposite side.

Poor Connor would start walking toward his pacifier, then remember I was the other way, then start walking to me, then remember he wanted his pacifier, then turn and walk the other way... Bawling the whole time.

You want to create this kind of conflict in your plot, but you can only do that if you've given your character multiple things to love and care about.

Too many good things happening to your character will drain away the conflict, yet too many bad things will make the reader feel discouraged. How do you balance it? You use what novelist Angela Hunt refers to as "the pendulum" where you swing from good news to bad news to good news and back again.

The pendulum is done very well in The Hunger Games, particularly when Katniss is in the arena. Consider this scene:

Katniss is found by "the careers" and runs for her life - that's bad.

She climbs a tree and it turns out they can't - that's good.

They decide to wait her out at the bottom - that's bad.

In the morning, Katniss discovers a hive of "tracker-jacks" hanging on a nearby branch - that's bad.

She cuts it down and it explodes where the careers are sleeping - that's good.

In the process, she gets stung too - that's bad.

See what I mean? When the balance is done well, it makes those rays of sunshine so much brighter and those rain clouds so much darker.

The middle of the book is also a great time to add or subtract a character. Does your character have someone they can depend on? Someone who's always on their side? Try taking them away. If it's not the type of book where you can just "off" characters, take them away in a different sense. Like that person is absorbed with a new romantic relationship and no longer has as much attention for your poor main character.

For adding a character, can someone new move to town? Or get assigned to your character's project? Or maybe you're not adding a completely new character, but just moving a character on stage. Like in Pride and Prejudice where we have Mr. Wickham coming into town (brand new character) but later we also have Georgiana Darcy, whom we've heard about but we don't see her until much later.

And there's nothing I love more in a novel than a Big Reveal, which has a variety of forms:

  • a misunderstanding coming into the light. ("All this time I thought Adam was the bad guy, but it turned out he was actually trying to save the main character's life! Who knew?!")
  • a secret past. ("Oh, wow, Jake has already been married once before?!")
  • that secret the main character has been trying to keep finally exploding. ("What's gonna happen now that they all know the prime minister is her father?")

Here are some ways you can apply this lesson to your manuscript:

  • Think about your main character. Does he or she have a goal? Characters can have goals they know about (to see the floating lanterns that mysteriously appear every year on their birthday) and goals they don't know about (to experience true love and acceptance.) Both are important to the richness of the story, but if you're wanting to lock your main character into their journey, they need to have a clear goal they're chasing, and there need to be some serious consequences if they fail.
  • Are there multiple things your character cares about? If the main character had to pick, which would it be? How can you make it to where keeping one means losing the other? What are some ways he/she could wind up with both and what are some ways he could wind up with neither?
  • Examine several key scenes from your manuscript. How's the balance of good events and bad events?  Are you hammering your main character with bad news or making their life too easy?
  • At that dull section about 40,000 words in (that's often where mine happens, anyway!) can you add someone? Can you take someone away? Brainstorm specific characters and write scenes with them just for fun. Keep what you like and toss what you don't!
  • Are there actions the other characters are taking that your main character can misunderstand? What kind of pasts do your other characters have? Is there a way their pasts can somehow ensnare your main character? (The show Downton Abbey is masterful at this!) What about your main character? Is he or she holding a secret, and when would the worst possible time be for it to come out?


  1. Like I said at the conference: Great post! Thank you ever so much, Mrs. Stephanie! I appreciate everything you all are doing here so much!

  2. Yay for double stuffed! :)
    Stephanie you are killing me making me wait a week for the big surprise contest. I could hardly stand to wait the few seconds it took last night at the conference to see who won stuff.
    Great post in both locations;)
    Have a fun vacation!!

  3. WHAT? Big surprise? *groans* You may have officially killed me... :P

    Thanks for the post! :D

  4. I absolutely adored this article! Super great tips with well put examples. I loved the analogy of your son and his paci! That was perfect!

  5. Same! I enjoyed reading this at the conference too.

  6. Now I want Oreos :). Really great post!
    I think I tend to come up with premises too & hopefully this'll help me develop them more.

    I know your going on vacay (have fun!!) but just in case someone who knows reads this, I've been wondering about this the past few days:
    How do you deal with the fact that right a book takes so,so much work but theres no garauntee they'll be published?

    1. For me, I write because I enjoy it, and I'm sure you do, too. ;-) When it comes to the whether-or-not-this'll-gets-published, I have to remember that I still need to make the WIP the best it can be, knowing that if it doesn't get published, perhaps it'll touch the handful of people who read it (family or friends) in some way. Also, you have to rest in knowing that God has a plan in this area of life. If it gets published, it's going to be on His timing. The main thing is to stay faithful to Him, and rejoice and be grateful always! (Check out Jereimiah 29:17-"'For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.'" :) I love that verse!)
      Hope this helps!
      Oh, and I'm on the premise bandwagon, too. ;-)
      P.S. Great post, Stephanie! Have fun on vacay!

  7. Loved the Tangled reference... and those beautiful Oreos (where's the peanut butter???). The part I struggle with most (lately) is the beginning. There are so many ways you can start a story, I'm just too much of a perfectionist to settle for my second-bests (says the girl who writes 4-6 prompts with alternate plots for every contest you post.... which reminds me, you're killin' me here with this whole 'surprise thing'!!!)

  8. Thanks! This was something Ially struggled with with my last manuscript. However, I have more of a plan, ad I'm going to try to make it -gasp- interesting (for once:) ), as well as follow these very helpful and clear guidelines. When does the writing prompt come out? It's going to be my first one, and I'm excited.

  9. Oh, this article is so, so helpful! My first manuscript fell through because I didn't really have a middle, just the beginning and the end. My current WIP is in the middle of revisions! I actually finished the first and second drafts, because I actually had a middle this time...
    Also, I am excited for the writing prompts!

  10. Thanks so much Stephanie! That's great advice, next time I hit the dull spot (Which is for me, 30k.) I'll start taking stuff away from my MC. :P
    And now I want Oreos. :P

  11. I've heard of the concept of The Choice, but I've never had it explained like this--and it really helps. The next middle I write, I'll definitely refer back to this. Thanks for this post, and have a wizard vacation!

  12. Gosh! Connor made me crack up about the thing where he went back and forth! TOO CUTE!! :)

    This post was really informative. Thanks so much! The middle parts of my novels always intimidate me. I just lose interest. This post helped a lot! Thanks.
    BTW: This surprise contest thingy is literally KILLING me! I want it now! :)

    Have a great vacation and eat MANY, MANY Oreos! :P

  13. Wow! I loved this post! Full of great ideas to keep you going. The beginnings are my worst. I LOVE getting to 50k because that's when I really start rolling. I stop fussing around. And just write!

    Have a great holiday! And Connor is super cute!! :D My nephew has the same problem (mummy or dummy?! How to choose?!)...

  14. This is a wonderfully helpful post. I am just writing the first few chapters of my novel, but the middle already seems so daunting. This will definitely help make the process of writing it much smoother. Thanks again!

  15. I love the Connor going back and forth analogy -- totally helped me to understand exactly what you were saying!

  16. Stephanie! I knew I liked you! Double-Stuffed all the way!

    This is one of those posts that's being bookmarked, printed, saved, copied, referenced to, oh, a bazillion times. :)

    Thank you!

  17. Stephanie, excellent post! So helpful when dealing with those dragging middle sections. The Connor story too, was so precious - poor little lamb - but such a great illustration! :) It reminds me of a line from Les Miserables when Javert is pondering the great mystery that is Jean Valjean. I can't remember exactly what he says, but he talks about two competing yet equally powerful choices, and how is a man to choose? Internal conflict at its heart, right there.