Monday, 20 January 2014

The Long and Short of Writing the Middle

For most of us writing the middle of the story is the most difficult part.

The middle is where insecurity tends to rear its ugly head. Is this story going anywhere? Are these characters going to hold anyone’s attention? Is it believable what I’ve got them doing?

Regardless of whether you’ve planned things out meticulously or are winging it, these insecurities usually boil down to one of two concerns:

1) Is it too short?

2) Is it too long?

It may appear that feeling the bulk of the story is rushed or that it is too drawn out are completely separate and opposite problems, but in fact they stem from the same root cause: what you’re writing isn’t holding your interest.
This is a good thing. It’s not easy to identify why the middle isn’t working, and any indication (even if it’s a vague uneasy sensation in your gut) is helpful.

The start of the story tends to be concise and clear. You know you have to introduce certain elements and set up the premise. It may not be that easy to execute, but at least you have an idea of what you’re shooting for.

At the end of the story there will be some sort of resolution. You might have a clear idea of what it will be or you might not, but even if you don’t, chances are you’ll know it when you see it.

Both the start and the end of a story have particular functions and although you may not use all of them, or you might subvert them, knowing what the general expectation is helps guide you in terms of form and content.

But the middle, what exactly is it? How would you sum it up? This is the bit where we get from A to B? Not exactly something you can print out and stick on the wall for inspiration.

Sure, you want the protagonist to encounter obstacles, for new problems to arise and for the stakes to get higher, but how much is enough? And how much is too much? It can be hard to tell, especially if you’re up to your neck in storylines and subplots and characters and twists and turns.

Which is why that feeling that the middle section is too long or too short is worth paying attention to.  It’s  your subconscious’ way of letting you know that whatever the middle is supposed to be, this isn’t quite it.

This isn’t to be confused with the idea that certain types of books have to be a certain length and yours might not fit the industry standard. You won’t find many agents or publishers who’ll say they loved the story and would love to sign you up, only you were 5,000 words short of what’s they’re allowed to sell. That’s more to do with avoiding having to read so many manuscripts.

A story can be whatever length it needs to be, but the middle is going to be where most of it happens. And the middle is going to be the hardest to evaluate because there’s just so much of it, doing so many different things.

What you have, once you’ve got the start of the story out of the way, is a character with a goal. You know you can’t just give him what he wants because that would be very short and very dull. So he’s going to face a bunch of problems.

A detective who needs answers can’t just call people and say, “Do you know who the murderer is? Oh really? I’d never have guessed it was him. Do you know where he is now? And how do I get there? Hold on, let me just get a pen.”

So you create obstacles, which lead to conflict, which leads to drama. But having the witness refuse to cooperate until the detective threatens her with deportation isn’t much better.

What has getting what he wanted cost him? How much effort? Did things go as expected? Were they well within his field of expertise? Did he have the tools conveniently within arm’s reach?

These sorts of things that enable a character to overcome a problem five seconds after the problem arises will make scenes feel too quick and easy, even though the basic structure (a goal, an obstacle, a solution) would appear to be in place. No matter how big the stakes or how immediate the danger, if the solution is reached with little to no fuss, all you’re doing is kidding yourself that a dramatic incident has occurred. It has not.

What actually occurred is that the main character has intersected with a secondary character, and that secondary character has simply fulfilled a function (giving the main character something they require in order to move on to the next stage of the story). And as the hero unlocks one door after another in rapid succession, it doesn’t provide a satisfying narrative experience.

Bu that doesn’t mean you have to come up with ridiculously intricate plotting. The issue tends to be with the people in the story.

Drama is about people interacting with other people.  The kind of secondary characters that simply provide the main character with what he needs tend to be very bland. The less resistance they offer, the blander they are. They offer very little in the way of interest, but they do keep things moving along.

On the other hand, if the secondary character is being unreasonable for no good reason, if the clerk at the DMV is insistent all forms are filled in triplicate, if the gate steward refuses to let anyone on the plane no matter how urgent, if the baby won’t stop crying because it’s a baby, the reason scenes like this can feel long and dull is because they are clichéd.

They may make sense and be based on reality, but they are also the most common and familiar character types for those sorts of character. They play out their roles in a standard way. Even with some adjustments to flesh them out they still feel like listening to an old relative tell that same story about the time they went to blah, blah, blah. In fact the more you flesh them out, the longer and duller the story gets.

Bland characters make stories feel too short, clichéd characters make stories feel too long.

The fix for both is to consider each scene from the secondary character’s perspective. That’s not to say you have to write a full bio for every minor character, but if you go beyond them just serving a function and think of them as an individual then they will contribute both content and pacing to the scene. What is their view of situation? How do they see the protagonist? What do they hope to achieve by acting how they’re acting? What do they want?

Once you think it through from their POV it will be much easier to tell if a scene is living up to its potential. And it will also be much easier to rewrite scenes to make them feel more dramatic and more entertaining.
If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Make each character count.
I've heard the secret to a great middle was to write a great beginning and a great ending with very little in between.
Beginnings bog me down more. Once I get going, it's like I've picked up steam and just sail through to the end. It's the going part that is sometimes dull.

mooderino said...

@Alex - once you've got the reader through the beginning it's more a question of not losing them.

Karen Lange said...

I like what Alex said - never heard that before but I can see where it has merit. And like you said, if you have them in the beginning, well, that's the best way to start. I was just thinking about this the other day while reading a novella. I like it (and know it can be tricky in these shorts) but was debating whether it was lagging or it was just me. I've picked the book up off and on in between a bunch of projects, so wasn't sure if I just wasn't focusing on it enough to follow well. Still not sure but going to hang on till the end, for I like this writer. :)

This is great info. I appreciate your insightful posts and always find myself comparing the WIP to them. Thanks a bunch.

Have a great week! :)

Unknown said...

Excellent post as always! I find the hardest part for me is always the first third where all the backstory, relationships, and set-up have to be squeezed into the action. Ugh. I hate the first third. After that, it loosens up for me and gets easier. BTW, I gave you a shout-out on my blog this week! :)

Jay Noel said...

Especially in the middle, bland characters make for a bland story. I've found myself bored quite often smack dab in the middle of a book unless there some dynamic characters in there.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for this. I have problems with middles, because I'm always hung up on word count. I know I shouldn't be, but I find myself padding the middle with pointless nonsense just to make the story longer. It's something I've vowed to work on.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently working on shoring up the middle of my novel. I'm a sparse writer. *shrugging shoulders*

mooderino said...

@Karen - I think most books will vary depending on the mood of the reader at the time, but a really good story will still be able to hook you and make it hard to put down.

@Lexa - thanks for the shout out!

@Jay - the middle is where blandness gets exposed the easiest.

@Jennifer - I know what you mean, it can feel like there's nothing to add to the story but usually it's because characters aren't carrying their weight.

@missy - nothing wrong with a lean writing style, just have to make sure the content has some emotional resonance.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Most of my troubles come with endings. I don't plan them out enough because I'm too eager to start writing the story.

Rusty Carl said...

Thanks a ton for the tips here. I'm stuck in revision hell right now, as my middle has kind of fallen apart on me. And it's been a slog and a half trying to get it right. So, maybe I can glean some wisdom here and carry on.

Nicole Pyles said...

It's definitely the middle where you begin to find flaws. I recently started a novel but by chapter 3 I realized...wait, I know absolutely nothing about my main character and her life. How can I move forward? I have shelved it until I get a clearer idea of her, but it reminded me that even if you are a pantser, some preparation DOES help.

mooderino said...

@Lynda - it just so happens my next post is on that exact subject. What are the chances?

@Rusty - Not sure you'll find any wisdom, but carry on!

@Nicole - Whenever I rush into a story hoping inspiration will carry me, it never does.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Middles are difficult. But building the right tension and obstacles really does help. As long as you know where your storing is going, getting there isn't too difficult.

Thanks for your insight, Mood!

mooderino said...

@Micheal - knowing where you're going (even roughly) helps a lot.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I just finished reading the galleys for my upcoming novel and realized I did a pretty good job on the middle and also realized how much work I have to do on my current WIP.

mooderino said...

@Susan - always best when you know what needs to be done, even if there's a lot of it.

Unknown said...

Great tips :)

Some of the best stories that keep me engaged is to have the MC make a mistake during the second act that costs them. This'll highlight their flaws and allow for development without bogging down the plot.

Kate Larkindale said...

Maybe that's why I usually start writing books somewhere in the middle.... I then work both ways from there as the mood hit me. Yeah, I know I'm weird. I also always write the ending before I write the beginning. I don't know how the story begins until I've written the middle and the end. If I start where I think the beginning is, I usually end up scrapping 10K or so that I didn't need to write.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Hey! Stop pointing at all of our saggy middles! We can get them into shape, seriously.

Shallee said...

The middle is my nemesis. :) But that's what revisions are for, right?

LD Masterson said...

Sometimes I have trouble figuring out where the end of my beginning stops and the beginning of my middle begins. One sort of flows into the other. I wonder if that's a bad thing?

The Armchair Squid said...

It's not the destination. It's the journey.

cleemckenzie said...

I know we must have secondary characters, but in my mind all of the characters are essential. Sometimes for me the "secondary" ones are the most exciting to write and I love that you mention having them as a sturdy backboard for the MC. Super advice.

D.E. Malone said...

When I read Blake Snyder's Save the Cat, many of my questions about writing middles were answered. I can't recommend that book enough. I still struggle with them, but it's usually because I haven't thought through the plot enough before I begin to write.

Anonymous said...

I like to think my middles are okay since the outlines for them seem solid, but this post has me thinking.

Unknown said...

I can see why the middle can be super difficult. It is easy to think of a beginning and ending but how to get there can be tricky.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post as usual Moody. Earlier I used to get badly stuck in the middle. But not so anymore, as I start introducing more obstacles and complicating things for my main character in the middle.

mooderino said...

@Jamie - the problem for most writers tends to be that the middle is so big you need to keep the mistakes rolling to get from one end to the other.

@Kate - that's an interesting approach, not sure I could keep both ends in my head at the same time.

@Michael - a six-pack story middle is just a couple of sessions away.

@Shallee - a good enemy defines the hero.

@LD - sounds perfectly reasonable to me.

@Squid - an interesting destination doesn't hurt though.

@lee - cheers.

@Dawn - been a while since I read it, will have to take another look.

@Medeia - my problem is always getting from the outline to the full version. never seems as brilliant as i thought...

@Lilith - Very true.

@Rachna - Always helps to keep the protagonist busy.

Sarah Allen said...

One of the most helpful things for me as I was writing the last novel was that in my head at least the middle was divided up into three sections, so rather than looking at this big mushy middle, I could just think, okay, just need to get from here to point A, then from point A to point B, etc. It worked nicely, at least in my head.

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Marty said...

Great post. Writing is like cooking for me. I start off strong then in the middle get kind of busy and struggle hoping everything comes together in the end!

mooderino said...

@Sarah - things have to make sense in my head first too. Can't trust it to all just come together on the page, although it would be nice if it did.

@Marty - I like your cooking analogy. I've burnt enough toast in my time to know exactly what you mean.

The Armchair Squid said...

The destination has to be one the reader cares about, too - absolutely.

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