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Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Sagging Middle

The middle of the book is a series of "scenes" and "sequels" as discussed earlier in Scenes and Sequels. It's action-reaction. The important thing to remember is that those action-reaction scenes-sequels should be carrying the protagonist forward toward the climax.

The middle can be broken down into:

--Protagonist breaks down his over-arcing external story goal into a plan of action. For example, Joe needs to solve the murder case, so his plan of action is to first question the prime suspect, the victim's wife.

--The protagonist's plan-of-action goal is thwarted somehow. The Mrs. is missing.

--The protagonist changes his plan of action and continues forward.

--Rinse and repeat.

Here are a few guidelines for the middle section:

1) Every scene should be important.

Everything that happens--every piece of information the characters learn, every obstacle, every conversation--should have the primary purpose of propelling the story toward the conclusion. The story should be constantly CHANGING.

If the scene doesn't directly impact the conclusion, ask yourself if you really need it, or how you could change it to make it important. Can you change characters? Setting? Does the scene have a goal or a point? How will each character react to what happens in the scene?

2) Keep your character's story goal in mind.

Everything should impact the main character somehow. If it doesn't, rethink the purpose of the scene.

3) Make things worse.

Make sure that all the changes that happen complicate things for the protagonist. Box your character in. Pull him further away from his story goal.

For a deeper discussion, see the sequel, "The Sagging Middle 2: How to Make Things Worse."

4) Balance action/peaks with reaction/valleys.

Hook the reader with action but allow them to breathe. Then drag them back into the thick of things.

You want this type of rollercoaster movement to your story that will keep your reader from becoming too tired by extended periods of heightened tension. At the same time, keep a low level of tension flowing through your valleys so that the reader isn't tempted to put the book down.

Peaks:

Make each scene powerful and packed with stuff. Don't be tempted to use trivial scenes to get the information across. Put everything into a scene filled with conflict and ending with a huge disaster.

Make the situation demand action. Put the characters in danger--physical or emotional--that demands they do something equally drastic.

Use the clock and increase time pressure. It could be three minutes or three years, but give the character a time frame to accomplish their goal. Just the existence of the ticking clock will increase story tension.

Foreshadow your story's climax. Remind the reader of the impending showdown between the hero's desire and the danger.

Valleys:

Slow the pace with longer sentences, gentler story rhythm. Choose your words carefully, and contrast them with the tension of the peak that happened just before.

Keep a thin thread of tension through this valley "sequel." There shouldn't be too much action, but there should be something to keep the reader invested in the character. You don't want to give the reader a "big sigh" section that lets them put down the book and go to bed.

Give the character something to decide. After the action of the previous scene, make the character figure out what to do next. This will not only propel the story forward, but the decision and the process of making it will reveal the character's personality. You can use this down-time to ground the reader back into reality, to make the characters more three-dimensional.

The character should have a little more time here. There might still be an over-arcing story time frame, but there shouldn't be an immediate "gotta get something done before such-n-such happens" kind of feel.

You can also change point of view in this scene. Change of viewpoint usually dissipates tension, so you can use it to drop the reader into a valley and develop the other character at the same time.

5) Bind up any subplot threads.

Near the end of the middle, tie up or taper any loose subplots. The ending should be just the hero and his goal, so if the subplot affects that goal somehow, this should be revealed BEFORE the ending happens. This will clear the stage for the big climax, and focus the reader's attention on that climax alone.

Say you have a romantic subplot, and it's related to the hero's goal in that the girl has been helping the villain all along. Reveal this information at the end of the middle section, before the dramatic climax between the hero and the villain.

6) DON'T REPEAT YOURSELF.

If you've already given a piece of information once on page 109, don't rehash it again on page 209. Readers remember more than you give them credit for. There's a whole psychological explanation for how the human brain is automatically wired to pick up on redundancies.

The cure for repetition is CHANGE. Keep the story changing.

Exercise:

Okay, checklist: Go through your own manuscript's "dreaded middle" and check for the six things listed above.

Next: How to Make Things Worse

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic "Techniques of the Selling Writer" by Dwight V. Swain.

Back to Articles from Swain

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