Middle-of-the-Novel Mud:

How to winch your way out and stay out

The middle of the novel is, notoriously, a place where writers get bogged down. When I’m critiquing, I can usually see why they’re spinning their tires in the middle of the story. And generally, it’s either because they don’t have a big enough problem to drive a whole novel or because their main character is just wandering around while the story happens to them.

I used to try to explain how central story structure works with metaphors: that each scene is a train car, pulled along by the car in front of it, and all of them moving uphill. A friend of mine described it as blocks resting one on the other. And no matter what metaphor I used, people couldn’t see how it applied to structuring their limping plots differently, until I (duh!) finally managed to articulate my abstract metaphor in concrete directions:

In the beginning of the story—at least by the end of chapter one, if not in the first paragraph—you introduce the main story problem. This must be something that the character feels so strongly about that they will act to change it.

(I dislike it when people put words in all caps, but I have to admit I’m tempted to do it with the word “act.” I cannot overstate the need for the main character to be proactive throughout the story. So whenever the word “act” appears, please hear it in all caps. It’s important.)

The character’s action changes the situation, not by solving the problem, but making the situation more complex, or worse. This forces the character to act again (preferably trying something different) and again the situation becomes worse or more complex. The character acts again, with increasing desperation, and again their actions make things worse, harder, more complex and the stakes rise. This sequence of action, increased difficulty, and more action, continues to the climax, where the character summons every bit of whatever quality they need to resolve the problem and finally succeeds.

Another point I want to stress—it is the character’s actions, either directly or indirectly, that complicate the situation. Sometimes, by provoking the antagonist to act in turn, sometimes simply by creating chaos, or producing a result they didn’t intend. Sometimes their actions may even succeed, allowing them to reach a short term goal. But if they do, reaching that goal will reveal that they have an even worse problem to overcome before the final story problem is resolved.

When people tell me the middle of their story isn’t working, and I ask them what their central story problem is, they tend to reply with character traits: She’s having trouble in school because everyone teases her about… He’s been traumatized by X, and drinks, and can’t hold a job and… Her planet has been invaded by aliens, but she doesn’t have the courage to…

None of these things are story problems—not even the alien invasion—unless the character acts to change the situation.

Let’s work through an example. 12-year-old Julie and her friends are broke, and they desperately need money for new bikes. Julie says, “Hey, let’s put on a show!”

But the only barn big enough to hold their show belongs to widow McClosky, who hates kids. So they decide to try to charm the widow by…singing Christmas carols outside her house. Mrs. McClosky is so upset at being awakened from the first sleep her bad cold has allowed her in days, that she sets her old toothless dog to run them off the property.

Fleeing Old Toothless, they manage to knock over and break a valuable lawn statue, that has been in the McClosky family since the civil war. (Lawn statue & barn? Don’t be so picky!) Mrs. McClosky wants to sue them all for trespass and vandalism, but she settles for getting Julie’s dad fired from the bank where her son (who just worshiped that statue) is Julie’s dad’s boss.

Now Julie needs the money for more than a new bike—but her father has forbidden her to go within 200 miles of Mrs. M., despite the fact that they live in the same town, and it’s only two miles long and four blocks wide.

Julie decides she has to replace that statue, even if she has to steal its identical copy from the lawn of the courthouse in the rival town in the next county. And one of her friends knows how to drive her dad’s tractor…

OK, it’s as corny as I can make it—but you’ll note that the plot isn’t bogged down? In fact, it’s full of vivid, active scenes, and crammed with conflict. All because Julie decided to act to gain her passion—and I didn’t let her succeed.

You can also see how character arc works into the process, as Julie’s impulsiveness, or teased-in-school’s shyness, or traumatized-and-drunk’s aimlessness get in the way of their success, until they finally learn/change just in time to bring about their success in the climax.

(In jail in that rival town for statue theft, Julie uses her people skills to find out why rival town has always hated her town. She steadies down, does the research/homework to learn how to make peace between the two towns, and does so—getting the statue as a reward. Julie’s Dad’s boss is so impressed with Julie’s wheeling & dealing that he not only rehires Julie’s dad, but talks his mother ((who is so grouchy because she gave up a concert cello career to marry a small town banker)) into not only lending their barn for the show, but starring in it.)

But climaxes are the subject of my next writing tip.

Winter 2007