Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Guest post: Mistakes We Make With Middles

One of the most popular and most-visited posts I've ever had on my blog is the one on beginnings by YA author Janice Hardy, called Something to Get Inciting About. Today I'm really excited to host another guest post from Janice on middles. I learned a lot from this, and I hope you do, too.

Also, I must take a moment to say that Janice is one of the most generous mentoring writers out there, and has consistently been awesome to other writers (like moi).

I'm honored and pleased to welcome Janice as a Maternity Leave Guest Blogger ( MLGB).

Mistakes We Make With Middles

by Janice Hardy

We almost always know how to start. We usually have a general idea where we end. But the middle? That can leave us wandering around and looking for a way out of the whole mess.

Like many writers, I struggled with middles when I was developing my skills. I probably made all the same basic mistakes, took the same wrong turns, and wound up at the same dead ends. After enough frustration, I decided it was time to kick some middle butt and figure out how to get through them without wanting to tear my manuscript apart.

Mistake #1: Just add stuff to make it harder
The plotting advice I’d read said I needed to complicate my protag’s goal and up the stakes. Okay, good advice. I’d make things happen and cause trouble and put more and more lives at risk. I had all kinds of cool stuff happening. So why wasn’t it working?

The Likely Problem: Plot that wasn’t advancing the story
Just adding scenes wasn’t working because they didn’t move the story ahead at all. The stakes never rose (so no tension ever built up to hook readers) because nothing mattered to my characters. They were just dealing with all the junk I was throwing at them.

Mistake #2: Add an extra subplot
I needed something happening in the middle to take up time between the beginning and the end, so why not add a cool subplot that plays out in the middle? My protag can solve this extra problem and then get back to the main plot of the book. So why was I confusing my beta readers?

The Likely Problem: An unconnected plotline
My subplot might have been cool, but it really didn’t have much to do with the plot and took the story in a direction I didn’t want to go in. It felt almost as if I’d started another book right in the middle. That left my readers wondering what I was doing and where the story was going.

Mistake #3: Stretch out the beginning and the end so they meet sooner
Well, since I liked my beginning and my ending, and I kinda knew a little about what happened between those two major events, why not just shove them closer together? Some extra backstory and a few “get to know everybody” scenes added a few chapters, and a few more obstacles before the climax added a few more. So why did my pacing slow to a crawl?

The Likely Problem: Adding too much filler
Backstory and cute scenes don’t make up for the lack of a plot, and without something driving the story, my novel wandered aimlessly and bored readers. My beginning and ending worked because the story moved forward.

My Fix for All These Mistakes: The Mid-Point Reversal
Mistake #1 taught me I needed to have things happen in the middle, but that they had to matter to the plot and advance the story. Mistake #2 taught me my instincts were right and subplots were the right way to go, I just had to handle them better. Mistake #3 taught me that connecting the beginning and the end was important, but the scenes I chose had to be doing the connecting for me.

What I needed was something happening in the middle that related to the plot, allowed my subplots to flourish and be further explored, cause a problem that would set up my ending, and do it in a way that kept the stakes escaping and the story moving.

So I added a major event that happens in the middle of the novel. Something that shakes up the story, surprises the reader, and changes the status quo. That gave me:

• A goal to work toward so the first half of my middle felt like it was going somewhere.
• Something major happening in the middle to keep readers interested.
• A plot-changing event that my characters had to recover from and deal with that advanced the story and moved it toward the second half and the climax.

It also broke the story into quarters, so the giant middle wasn’t so overwhelming. Something important could happen in each chunk, growing progressively worse until the last quarter and the climax. Story arcs that spanned six to eight chapters was a lot easier to come up with than ones that needed twelve or sixteen chapters to fill. It was easier to see where the stakes had to go up (at the end of all those quarters).

How Might You Find Your Mid-Point Reversal?
The mid-point should be something that works with your story in some way. It should enhance it, but take it in a new or unexpected direction, while still building on what you’ve already done. Sending the story sideways is great, but you don’t want to make it feel like a whole new novel. Craft something that is a shocker, but then you see how it couldn’t have gone any other way by all the subtle clues that led up to it. Think about:

Your character arcs
Your character is growing over the course of the novel. Is there something that might happen that moves them forward or shoves them backward on this arc? A step they need to take but might not be willing to take on their own? A sacrifice they haven’t been willing to make? Perhaps the mid-point is the time to have them grow a little (for better or for worse) or make a necessary but distasteful choice.

Your story arcs
Are there any major reveals planned? Secrets or the discovery that things aren’t what they seem change the story without actually making it different. Previous plots are seen in new lights, clues are reevaluated.

Your plot arcs
Having a character act in ways they usually don’t, but have to, can shake things up. Is there a situation where your characters (good or bad) can make a different choice? Something they’d never do? Maybe it’s time to make them do it.

Your thematic arcs
Themes are a great unifying force for a novel. An event that ties into your plot thematically can be used to foreshadow or mirror a later event. Or it can put a character into a situation where they can test out a choice they’ll need to make in the climax—and make the wrong choice. Seeing them fail here makes the stakes that much higher when faced with the same thematic problem again.

There are all kinds of ways to craft an interesting mid-point reversal. Look for situations that give you a lot of conflicts to play with, as these typically offer the widest array of plot possibilities. Situations where there is no right or wrong, where one choice affects multiple characters in different ways (so if someone wins, another has to lose).

A mid-point reversal is like a sign in the middle of that boggy marsh. It’ll help keep you and our plot on track.

About Janice: A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy THE HEALING WARS, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her books include THE SHIFTER, and BLUE FIRE. DARKFALL, the final book of the trilogy, is due out October 4, 2011. She lives in Georgia with her husband, three cats and one very nervous freshwater eel. You can visit her online at or chat with her about writing on her blog, The Other Side of the Story.

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