Showing posts with label middles. Show all posts
Showing posts with label middles. Show all posts

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Keeping Pace in the Middle

It's probably poor form to write a post that's basically "what she said" and point at Sarah's latest post, so that's where I'm starting. So, "what she said".

Now to get into the meat of things - every story has its own rhythm, but there are quite a few things most of them have in common - unless you're writing "literature" of the suckitudinous "crap happens, but you don't care anyway because there's nothing admirable and nothing really matters" Pulitzer Prize-winning flavor (Seriously? Has anyone ever read a Pulitzer-winning book? The titles are enough to make me gag).

Think of your plot kind of like a backwards rollercoaster, where the lows are the quiet points, and the highs are where stuff really gets going. The beginning introduces the characters and problems, kicks the characters out of their normal life, and gets things rolling. This is the only place where you're allowed to use Deus Ex Author, although it's better if you can do it by Act of Antagonist or Act of Dumbass Character. If you do use Deus Ex Author, try to make it something that's a more or less expected or predictable thing in the universe of your story.

Everything after that should be caused by one of your characters, however indirectly, and there should be a series of heights and lulls. The slower sections are where character development and even stopping to admire the scenery can happen (although it helps if the character admiring the scenery is doing so for a purpose, like scanning for enemies or admiring the lady who's providing human scenery). They're also where you drop in the foreshadowing and the threads that push towards the next height.

What I've found is that there's usually a semi-climax partway through - anywhere between 1/2 way and 2/3 of the way through. Up until then, the heights get higher and more intense, and the lulls get shorter and offer the main character less respite. Typically, the semi-climax should be the most intense point apart from the climax, and the drop after it should be pretty steep and leave the main character in a state where there seem to be very few choices. This isn't what the Hero's Journey terms the Black Moment, but more of a pre-taste of it. Things are bad, there doesn't seem to be any hope, but the main character pushes on for whatever the reason. He/she should lose something that matters here.

After the semi-climax and the Swamp of Despair, there's a longish lull - not as long as the start, but longer than there's been for a while, then the cycle of ever-increasing heights and shortening lulls resumes, usually with steeper downslopes after the heights, and dips back towards the Swamp of Despair. Meanwhile, the climax looms ever-larger - it needs to start looking steep and ugly during this section.

Somewhere around the last 1/4 to 1/5 of the book or thereabouts, you move into the part where all hell breaks loose. This is the Black Moment where everything seems lost and there's no way out. The undead are everywhere, the cavalry's not coming, and you're alone. You get the idea. Here your character decides that he/she can't back out now, regardless of the cost. In romances, it's when it seems impossible that the couple can ever be together.

Then the climax should hit, hard. You're into the final battle and there's no time to breathe. This is the highest peak, the big climb, and right at the top is when finally it goes right. The rest is rather the like the afterglow, where you tie up the loose ends, clean up the mess, and leave everyone satisfied and - hopefully - happy but wanting just a little bit more. For sequels, rinse and repeat, but with higher stakes.

A few good examples: the first three Anita Blake books. The pacing in these is pretty much dead-on, if a tad predictable (Yes, I looked at how much book was left and figured all hell would be breaking loose within the next few chapters). Dave Freer's A Mankind Witch - note how the crises get bigger, and how Dave handles the quiet times. The first three Harry Potter books.

I should add that I haven't really studied this kind of thing: for me it's more of an instinctive thing. I can feel when I need to up the pace, and when I need to slow down and take a breath. I suspect it comes from reading damn near anything I could get hold of and absorbing plot structure more or less the way I absorbed spelling (one of my nicknames is 'walking dictionary' - but I sometimes need to see the word to know if it's spelled right). It's a bit like riding a bicycle or learning to drive - after a while you build a feel for it and your subconscious can short-circuit the conscious reasoning and just do the thing (Yes, I also have a lot of practice writing crap. I suspect most of my million words of crap were written before I ever got hold of a typewriter, back when I was writing longhand in notebooks. And going through pens like they were going out of style - and yeah, it is crap. I was cringing less than six months after writing a lot of it).

So does this way of looking at it work for you? Who else do you think handles middles and pacing well?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Firm Up Your Middle

Most writers I know are sure upon starting out of what they want to do with beginning and ends, but have clue zero what goes in the middle.

In fact, in all my years of mentoring, I can honestly say I have never, ever, ever had a beginner come up to me and say “I have this great idea for a middle. Now if I only knew how to begin and end it.”

I think to most of our brains, novels are like a journey and in journeys we usually know where we’re starting from and where we end. And then the middle somehow connects it.

Unfortunately, particularly in raw beginners’ novels, but sometimes in pros’ , what connects it is to some degree or another mush.

Say your character arrives at a planet. You know in the end he’ll be crowned king. What goes in the middle? Some of us read enough myth and fairytales as very young children that we have a vague idea he should make a pattern of increasingly more important acquaintances until, finally, he is in a position to claim the throne. Others might be political and/or social science mavens, who merrily will set about replicating some ascent to power. (This second is dangerous, unless you’re good at knowing how to isolate the essential in a true story to make it a good fictional story.) But most of us will fill it with the equivalent of “Alarums and excursions.” And count ourselves lucky if we reach the planned end.

Now, I’ll admit, as with a journey, the middle is not as set in stone as the beginning or ending. You can take the highway, the scenic route or the mountain curvy path and still get at the same end, faster or slower, and still get there.

However, in a novel, the middle ends up being most of it, and therefore most of the experience the readers pay you for. And a mushy middle can be the difference between another sale or the person never reading you again.

So, how do you firm up your middles?

A) avoid repetition. If you consider the middle unimportant, you will find yourself having endlessly looping incidents, some of which will resemble the others.

B) make sure whatever happens is motivated by your character. I.e., no elephants suddenly falling from the ceiling and crushing the poor critter flat. If you must have externally-activated events, then make sure you foreshadow. A lot.

C) Build – this means there should be a crescendo in the challenges your character meets, leading to the climax.

For extra credit
D) make one or more of the incidents in the middle serve as foreshadowing for the big battle.

E) thread the theme of your novel into these incidents, reinforcing the impression you want your reader to take away.

F) use this time to grow your character to face the big bad.

G) lay clues as to who the big bad is, if there is a doubt, and shows us the worst he can do, so we’ll be anxious for the character.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? What do you do with your middles?

* for a good exercise take your three favorite books and make a plot outline from it, chapter by chapter taking note of what facts/clues/plot work is advanced in the chapter, and what other subplots and introduced or disposed of. I bet the structure will surprise you!