Monday, September 2, 2013

In the Midst of the Middle: The part that makes the story a story

Okay, so after last week’s post on starting with a bang on that first line you carried on and your first few pages are done right? If not, you need to get going. While the story juice is flowing keep that momentum. That is one of the keys to writing a novel, momentum. Once the story starts the reader needs to be kept interested throughout the rest of the book. Many writers start off with a strong picture of the beginning and the ending of their book, but have no clue about what to do with the other two or three hundred pages between that first and last chapter.

It doesn’t matter if you have a great beginning and a spectacular ending, if you don’t have a middle that people want to travel all the way through, you don’t have a story. So just how do you go about building the middle of the story without muddling through a wasteland of description and unnecessary fluff?
Some writer’s guides extol the virtues of a three-act play, some prefer a five-act set up. Either are basically the same thing done in different manners. Chiefly you need the following elements in your story:

1.       The setup or Act 1
This is the part we talked about last week, those first lines and that first chapter that gets your audience interested in the characters and wanting to find out what is going to happening to them next. This part of the story includes those first lines and the first chapter or two in which you take the reader out of their everyday world and make them see some cool new world in which they can live in their imaginations for twelve to twenty hours or more of reading. Once you’ve hooked them on this part of the story and they delve deeper you need to make sure it stays interesting.

2.       The Middle, aka Act 2 thru however many acts you use before the end

Keep the action going like a rollercoaster. A key to keeping your readers interested as you develop your characters is to build tension throughout the story. Whether you are building a taut psychological thriller, an action packed anti-terrorist thriller, a dark crime noir novel, a sci-fi / fantasy epic or a cozy mystery you need to keep some level of tension moving through each and every chapter. And all of that tension must lead toward the ending you as the writer can already see.

3.       The Ending, Final Acts

This is your wrap up. This is where you pull it all together, make the big fight scene / discovery moment / nabbing the bad guys. This is where it all comes together. And this is another blog post, because we’ve got to get that middle built first.

On the Middle

There’s a lot of debate on how to get from 1 to 3. Do you build an outline that details out the steps you need to take to get from the beginning through the middle to the end? Do you just write by the seat of your pants and hope it all comes together in the end? To be honest there are a lot of big name authors on both sides of the debate. The choice you make as to how you will get from Point A to Point C all depends on your personal style.

My first four novels were all written via the “seat of my pants” method. In this style of writing you start off with a premise and just go forward with little or no pre-planning and let the story unfold on the page as it happens in your head. This can be a very exciting way to write, because even as the author you don’t know what’s happening next. Characters suddenly pop into the story out of nowhere, and events unfold before your very eyes surprising you, even though they’re coming out of your own head. The plus side of ‘seat of your pants’ writing is that the story is fresh and exciting as you put it on the paper. Basically, the story tells itself. Most new writers start with this method and quickly discover the down side to being a ‘pantser’. If you are not a naturally image centric person with a very sharp sense of improvisational imagination that can change directions on a dime without losing the focus on the end goal you will likely get lost in the story and find yourself unable to wrap up the ending in any form that makes sense.

Outlining on the other hand is a much more scientific path to take, and while it may seem like a lot of work…okay…it is a lot of work…it can make the story very strong and coherent. It is easy to feel overwhelmed at the thought of outlining the entire novel in advance. But as I have gained experience in writing I can honestly say it is a much better way if you can do it. Sadly not all of us can do a straight outline before writing the parts of the story that are popping out to us. If like me you are easily distracted by shiny things and your muses are a constant source of brain chatter (click here learn what I mean about my muses), trying to get the whole book outlined before writing the cool parts is daunting indeed. Therefore I mix it up a bit.

My latest novella, Blade of Hearts, and my current work in progress (aka WIP), working title “ICE HAMMER”, I used a combined outline / seat of the pants styles. In other words, after agreeing on the beginning and end points of the story I did an outline of the first fifty percent of the story before writing anything else. Then as it got going I put any changes I saw coming into the outline before I reached that point. Kind of like that 80s episode of the Twilight Zone ‘Matter of Minutes’ where a couple discovers that all the events of time are set up by a bunch of blue men just an hour or so ahead of them actually occurring.

In doing a running outline ahead of time you can keep track of where your characters need to be heading from one scene to the next and keep them moving to the fixed end point. You don’t have to outline every detail of every scene. The outline can be as simple as a general path toward the end. On the other hand, it can be as complex as you like if you are a more detail oriented planner. The key is not to get muddled in the middle of the story, to keep flowing, and keep the tension ratcheting up gradually so as to hold the reader in the story until the big ending.

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  1. Basil, I read somewhere--I think it was Larry Brooks--that there are really TWO stories going on: One for the Writer, and One for the Reader. Well, that just blew my mind at the time. And I've gotta tell yuh that I find Larry extremely difficult to read and comprehend. But this one just jumped right out there and grabbed me. Essentially, he was saying that the Two stories get intertwined when we write. The part for the writer has all kinds of meaning and purpose that--well--only the writer or the writer's mother can appreciate. Like the reader could care less. So once you remove the story for the writer, you're left with the story for the reader.

    For me, that explained the weirdness and stuff readers skip over and go "Huh?" This stuff is ruination and's gotta go. Yunno?

    Write off (or Right off) I'm looking for the story. It like recon, where you go creeping around out there in dark and spooky places searching for "signs" or crumbs to follow. I explore that by Pantsing. I'll get some thread or idea or a character with some kind of bone to pick and then run with it for awhile. Then I'll do the "What if's?" Eventually, the big parts and threads start to coalesce (thank God for spellchecker). Then the shape of an outline begins to form and I think about getting from one scene to the next, building conflict, yadda-yadda.

    But I thought this Two Stories thing was a revelation to me. Once I get that one straight, then I can get on with the work of turning the piece into something that will be interesting for the reader. Duh-duhhh!

  2. Huhn...that is pretty deep, and yeah. I can see it.