|Cara Lynn James|
When I start a new novel, I know what the story is about and I have a good idea about how it will end. For me, the first three chapters are the fastest to write because I’m enthusiastic about my characters and my plot. Everything seems fresh and doable. Even though the ending might be a little foggy at first, I’m always confident things will clear up somewhere before the Black Moment in Act 3. I never worry about the ending. By the time I finish the middle section, I know my characters well enough to understand what should happen to them.
My major problem has always been the middle, what needs to happen there and how do I keep it from sagging? It’s a really long way from Act 1 to Act 3 and you just can’t expand the beginning and the end enough to have them meet in the middle. No, you have to write Act 2 and keep the reader hooked so she doesn’t put the book down or throw it in the corner. This can be a difficult section to write. It’s long and often feels endless, with about the same number of words as the beginning and the ending combined.
I know where I’m going but I often don’t have a clue about how to get there. Where should I put the first kiss? Does it really matter where it goes? At what point should the hero and heroine grow close enough to confide their deepest feelings to each other? I’ve read plenty of books on plotting and I should know how to answer all the questions I have. Yet somehow the muddled middle seems vague and always a huge challenge to conquer before I arrive at Act 3.
The hero and heroine are also confused and lost at this point. Their lives are changing and they have many things to learn about themselves and each other as they move forward.
In Act 2, the heroine has challenges and choices she has to make which are determined by her values and goals. These will have both consequences and obstacles. The road through the middle is never straight or smooth, but that’s what makes it interesting and keeps us reading. Disappointments and Y’s in the road (and how the characters deal with them) cause us to turn the pages as fast as we can and sometimes ‘force’ us to stay up half the night reading.
I recently discovered Conversations with a Writing Coach by Susan May Warren. It really helped me take the muddle out of the middle. She divided all the elements needed in this section into four easy parts.
Part 1: The Attempt and Failure of the Goal
The character’s GMC — goal, motivation and conflict — is worked into the beginning of the story in Act 1.
But in the second act the hero discovers attaining his goal isn’t as quick and easy as he expected it would be. He fails to reach his goal at least once and that failure makes everything worse. He’s now worried about the possibility he might not reach his goal. He’ll get discouraged and wonder if he really wants to go on this journey after all. If he doesn’t have the gumption to continue, his story ends prematurely.
So the writer ensures his hero has fortitude and determination, qualities we expect to see in a hero.
Part 2: Cost and Consideration and Rewards
In this part of the story, the character changes. Right after she fails her first attempt to reach her goal, she realizes she’ll have to regroup, and take a good look at her weaknesses and realize the truth. If she wants to reach her goal, she’ll have to change. If her goal is worth fighting for, it’s going to cost something she doesn’t want to give up.
Give her time to reflect on what character change will cost her. Have it be extremely important to her, even brutal, something that is a true sacrifice.
Remember, if the goal and the sacrifice aren’t very important to the heroine, they won’t be to the reader either.
Now that she has made a first attempt and failed, and you’ve given her a glimpse of what it will cost to succeed, she has to see past the Costs to the Rewards. She must believe she can achieve her goal and it will be worth it despite the difficulties getting there.
This is a wonderful spot for the heroine to put her trust in the Lord and ask him for guidance and strength. She realizes reaching her goal might very well be too difficult, or even impossible, to attain all on her own.
Seeing the costs and rewards will make her look inside herself, to ask why the reward is worth fighting for. She’ll question the strength of her motivation. If it’s not strong enough, then the story will come to an abrupt and unsatisfying end. The heroine has to believe her attempt and cost is worth the struggle. A heroine doesn’t give up at the first challenge or roadblock she encounters.
Part 3: The Man in the Mirror
Just how much is the heroine willing to pay to reach her goal or dream? When she tries to balance the cost against the reward, the heroine will discover the crux of her hero’s journey and her true desire.
She has to decide if her goal is her own or if it’s someone else’s goal for her. Maybe she’s a ‘go along to get along’ kind of woman. Her well-meaning but misguided mother may be setting the agenda. Or the heroine might not want to cross a manipulative acquaintance who might be vengeful.
So she has to look deep inside herself to understand what she really and truly wants or needs and not let herself by swayed by others who don’t have her best interests at heart. She knows her own mind and heart, they don’t.
This is where true change begins to take place. It’s all about the person she wants to be. When a character looks inward and asks, “Who am I? Am I willing to change to get what I desire?” then we begin to see true change.
After the heroine takes a good look at herself and what she wants, she will try to reach her goal again. This takes a lot of courage. But now you’ll let her succeed in her quest, just enough to give her a taste of victory. She feels like she’s accomplished something and this gives her confidence to continue on her journey. This happens in about the middle of the second act.
Part 4: Training for Battle
The hero will suffer through a number of tests such as interpersonal challenges, maybe even physical challenges. He’ll encounter obstacles that are difficult to overcome, physically, emotionally or mentally. Again, he’ll look inside himself and learn to adapt to change and conquer the barriers to his goal which he encounters through out the middle of the story.
Follow these principles: Every obstacle the hero faces must make the journey more difficult, causing him to dig deeper. He’ll find a character trait he didn’t have before. He’ll get better at the new skills he’s learning.
Each time the hero improves his skills, he becomes more of the person he wants to be, and he has a glimmer of hope. So give him a glimpse of something he longs for. Let him kiss the girl. (Now I know where to add a kiss!)
When the hero and heroine feel empowered and on their way to victory, you’ll pull the rug out from under them.
And that brings them into Act 3, the final act. But since they’ve grown and matured and developed important skills, they’ll be prepared to face the problems that lay ahead.
Let's talk about your Speedbo project. How's your middle coming along?
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