Thursday, March 24, 2011
No More Sagging Middles
Right now I’m in the middle of my fourth book and I’m getting nervous it’ll sag. And unless I think this through logically (and then write emotionally!) it will sag. That’s my experience with middles. I seldom have a problem dreaming up a beginning or even an ending. If only they’d come together I’d whip right through my manuscript. But the middle consists of about half the story, so I absolutely can’t neglect it. In Gone With the Wind the middle takes up 86% of the book. Margaret Mitchell obviously conquered the technique of writing fascinating middles. Right, Julie?
Here’s a true, but not a terribly helpful definition: The middle can be defined as everything after the introduction of the main characters/conflict and before the climax.
Another definition that’s a little better: The function of the middle is to develop the implicit promise made by the story’s beginning. You do this by dramatizing incidents that increase the conflict, reveal character, and set up all the different forces that will clash at the story’s climax.
The middle is a bridge. As your characters move across the bridge they probably will change—or at least some of them will. In a romance I think it’s safe to say both the hero and heroine will change, maybe drastically. Conflicts deepen and characters become more emotional especially as they get involved in difficult situations. The stakes will rise.
When you come to the middle you might want to answer these three questions. You probably already have at the start of your manuscript.
1. Whose story is this?
2. Who is the point-of-view character?
3. What is the throughline?
In a romance the story often belongs to both the heroine and the hero. His part may be smaller than hers. So usually the story is written from both POVs. But some stories are written in first person so we only get one POV.
The throughline answers the question: What happens to the protagonist?
In Love on Assignment the throughline is: At the turn-of-the-century an ambitious lady reporter goes undercover to find dirt on a professor and quickly falls in love with him.
In my new manuscript, An Imperfect Match, the throughline is: A young widow returns home to discover she can’t outrun her past. Obviously, the story is a lot more involved, but I think if I remember this it’ll be easier to stay on track.
Hopefully you’ll have answered these questions in the beginning. But it’s good to look at them again and reevaluate.
Then list chronologically all the events that take place in your story. I use my synopsis for my guide. Then I divide the events into beginning, middle and end.
Here’s the partial list for Cinderella:
1. A man has a wife and a daughter
2. The wife dies.
3. After a while the man remarries a miserable woman with two daughters of her own.
4. The stepmother and stepsisters treat Cinderella badly.
5. The father dies.
6. The stepmother and stepsisters treat Cinderella even worse.
7. The king is distressed because his only son isn’t married.
8. The king decides to hold a ball and invite all the eligible young ladies.
You wouldn’t dramatize the first three events in my Cinderella list. You’d summarize them.
You could either dramatize or summarize event 5. It’s your choice. But you might give event 6 several scenes because it’s interesting and important.
After you’ve listed all the events you can think of, go back and cross out those that aren’t happening to any of your POV characters. You’ll have to discover another way to let the reader know about them.
Decide which events should be dramatized and in how many scenes and which can be summarized. Think in terms of scenes because most of your story will take place in scenes.
The scenes you spend the most time on should be those that relate directly to your throughline. If you remember this you should stay on track.
Using the event list, make a scene list. Now eliminate any scenes that don’t seem important and possibly combine a few.
Another thing I do now is look at my story threads. I make sure I don’t forget to include any of them. It’s so easy to drop a thread, especially if your story is complex.
Here are a few of my story threads:
Romantic threads for both hero and heroine
Spiritual threads for both hero and heroine
I’ll write a few sentences or a paragraph for every thread in the each section of the book—beginning, middle and end. The story has to advance and no thread can be dropped accidentally or just fade out. Make sure all your threads are incorporated in your scenes. If you see you have too many threads to handle, you might consider simplifying your plot.
Writing certainly isn’t as easy as it looks!
Much of my information came from the book Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress.
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