by Stephanie Morrill
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?