Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Basics: The Muddy, Meandering Middle

There isn't anything SPECIFIC I'm addressing today.  Really, this is more of a warning about one of the biggest pitfalls in novel writing -- particularly by those with less experience.  It's the dreaded muddy, meandering middle.

Sometimes it's really easy to come up with a SUPER inciting event.  We're all, "Wow, what if THIS happens, and it leads to THIS! I mean, WHOA!!"

Sometimes it's really easy to come up with an amazing, satisfying ending that began with our super inciting event.  "WOW! It'll all explode and come together JUST LIKE THIS!"

Thus, armed with an amazing beginning, an amazing ending, and some ideas in between, we write the novel.  Heck, we might even have an OUTLINE first.  (Well, not if we're ME, we won't.)

But somehow along the jeweled way, the middle of our story loses focus.  It meanders.  Stumbles blindly along. Rambles about nothing. Expounds on minutia.

In short, it's a train wreck.

And honestly? It's more common than you might think.  More often than not, the author is the last one to realize there's a problem. But when crits come back with comments like, "Huh?" Well, you've got a problem.

So here are some important things to think about:

1.  MOTIVATION  Everything your characters say and do needs clear motivation behind it.  If, for instance, your villain is motivated by an insatiable need for revenge against your main character for stealing his girlfriend, then everything this villain does is going to be motivated by that.  Everything he does will MAKE SENSE.  Without clear motivation, characters meander.  And then the whole story does the same.

2.  LOGIC  This has everything to do with story arc.  Event A needs to lead logically to Event B and so on.  When your story devolves into a series of (albeit brilliant) non-related events, your arc is broken.  Logic is also directly related to MOTIVATION, because a character's motivation makes his actions logical.

3.  GOALS  Your characters--good guys and bad guys both--need clear goals.  And especially from the viewpoint of the main character.  If your MC doesn't know EXACTLY what he wants, EXACTLY what he's doing, and EXACTLY why...well, he's not going to propel the story forward.  At worst, he will utterly confuse the reader, or cause the reader to lose interest.  We can't root for a MC if we don't know WHY we're rooting.  Without clear goals, we won't have a clear story trajectory.

4.  PLOT POINTS--CLIMAX--RESOLUTION  The story tension should build via a series of logically placed events, culminating in a climax that is exciting AND believable.  The tension shouldn't let up until the wind-down at the end, where we get our happily-ever-after (or not).  A quick search on line will reveal a wealth of information, including all sorts of cool graphs and pictures, that will help you *see* the basic shape of a story.  It's fairly fail-proof.

I guess this was more specific than I realized it would be!  Bottom line?  GET GOOD CRIT PARTNERS.  A slumping middle-of-the-story is a diagnosis that will come from fresh, unbiased eyes.  And if the diagnosis does come? Don't despair. MUDDY, MEANDERING MIDDLES ARE REPAIRABLE!

There you have it.  Nothing's impossible to fix when you put your mind to it.


  1. One thing I tend to do, which I guess I learned by looking at the clock or the little bar (if I'm watching on my computer) that shows how far along in a movie I am, while watching movies. In the large majority of movies, there's some big exciting event that happens right at the middle. It's like a mini-climax.

    The difference between this mid-climax and the final one is that in the middle, the bad guys win. It has to be hard for your characters, and if they easily beat the bad guys, they've got no proper opposition. Also, the plot threads aren't resolved in the middle. Not all of them, anyway. Actually...what happens a lot is that some plots are resolved, but in resolving them we find out even more. The problem that the characters have been working towards solving turns out to be even bigger than they had first expected.

    Hopefully some of those barely connected thoughts made sense and were helpful. ^_^

  2. I love the post. And André's comment. I love both VERY muchly. I will save it and use it for reference for ever and ever and ever.

  3. Andre: Have you read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder? If not, YOU MUST!

    Constance: You are adorable. Truly. :)