Wednesday, August 22, 2007


Every writer has his or her Achilles' heel. Some have far more trouble beginning or ending a story than getting through the meat of the plot in the middle. I may not be published yet, but I've written six-and-a-half novels to date, and I've noticed my particular trends. I have never written a book that was intended as a standalone, though each book has a complete plot arc. My first chapter of any given series is always the one I rewrite the most. The first chapter of the second book of a series--not so much. For some reason that one always starts easier, even with the "our story so far" woven in as subtly as I can manage.

And then there are middles. (Sigh.)

Some of my middles are no problem at all--plenty of action, no sagging. Other middles tend to have a soft underbelly that I must later trim and tone. The current book, (the title of which I've changed from "Beyond the Pale" to "From the Ninth Wave") is one of the ones that needed to develop a six-pack.

Why do some writers have such trouble getting from Here to There? Depends on the writer, of course, but there are some common pitfalls. One of these I call the Invisible Middle. In this one, the writer has a very well visualized beginning and ending. It's just getting from point A to point B that's a little foggy. It's like starting out from a city on the west coast of the U.S. and trying to drive to one on the east coast without a roadmap. You might know roughly where your destination is, but getting through all the states in the middle...well, let's just say you might end up putting on a lot of unnecessary miles before you triumphantly drive into your final city limits. In my own writing, the cure for this one is to come up with a bunch of possible things that might happen to your characters on the way from point A to point B. The trick is in keeping the most likely events and discarding the ones that just won't work. Unfortunately, the wild brainstorming for filler often results in a bunch of scenes that don't necessarily grow well out of the original plot seed. When laden with too many "filler" scenes to pad out the word count, the middle can get rather heavy.

This brings me to the next problem middle: the Flabby Middle. See? The cure for the Invisible Middle led to a middle that's maybe a little too visible. The cure for this one is harder to come by. Good readers are a must if you can't see all the places where you've put in soft, doughy filler scenes. With the help of people who aren't afraid to tell you at which point your prose made them snooze off, try to identify the scenes you just wrote because you "needed something to happen between the scene where the character does X and the scene where he does Z." Chances are, the scene that should be point Y on the map ended up being a filler scene, full of things that don't really advance the plot. In these types of filler scenes, you're just trying to kill time for your character to make your overall timeline work out right. Watch out; these scenes usually have to be cut or changed substantially. In some ways, it's almost easier to work with a gaping plot hole than a doughy, sticky mess between otherwise lean action sequences. Every scene in the plot should logically follow the one before it and should contain something that advances the plot in some way. Character development is great for scenes with less action, but there should still be tension in them and they should still be important for the overall storyline. Otherwise, what are they doing there? Build your plot one muscle at a time. Construct it, then hone it until it's a lean, strong, beautiful machine. Don't ever pad it with fluff just because you need "something between here and there."

More on middles later....

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