Mapping the Middle

Once again this year, I have a new author to introduce to you! I met Alexandra Ely online and I’m so pleased to have her thoughts on mapping the middle. When Alexandra refers to the second act, she’s talking about using the three-act structure to craft a plot. If you’re unfamiliar with this kind of plotting, you can read this post which will give a basic description.

Writing a story is much like mapping a new territory and it’s just as easy to get lost in your own world as it is in the real one. It’s especially easy to get turned around in the middle section of your novel if you’re not prepared. In this post, I’d like to share with you some of the tools I have learned to bring with me when I venture into a new story. 

When you reach the beginning of act two, it’s as if you’re standing at a crossroad with multiple options. It can be overwhelming because many of them are plausible paths your characters can take to get them from act one to act three. This was an element of writing that surprised me when I first started. 

It was frustrating and slowed me down considerably. I was uncertain which was the “best way”. So many ideas could happen and many of them worked equally well. Often, writing can feel like a waste of time – something we all want to avoid – causing a sense of pressure to get it right the first time. However, I have found this feeling to not be true. The scenes you don’t use are the ones you learn from the most. Not just about the mechanics of writing, but of your characters and story’s world.

Navigating the Middle

Here are two things I have learned that help me navigate and map the vast middle portion. 

  1. Brainstorming and outlining: Enjoy the endless possibilities the middle has to offer instead of being overwhelmed. Start by choosing an idea, any one works for brainstorming. See where this path leads. Jot down big picture notes along the way in case you like something specific. Try this with each idea. Soon you will have a map of the many routes your characters could take from act one to act three. The choice then comes down to your favorite. I have found that embracing and exploring the options -instead of being locked into one immediately – makes writing the middle flow smoother.
  2. No scene is a waste of time: Some ideas will lead you to dead ends. I recently wrote such a scene and felt deflated and frustrated afterward. However, I realized that it was as if this idea led me to a vista. Here I could see where I had been and where I wanted to go. It was a vantage point! I was able to identify what didn’t work and why and was able to apply that to the next idea, which ended up working quite well.  

Even if an idea leads you down a dead-end path, sometimes we just have to write them for ourselves. This information will not go unused even if it doesn’t make it into the final cut. There is a depth of complexity that aids us as creative writers when we can see any scene from multiple angles. The more you write about your story’s world, whether it be a fantasy realm or not, the stronger your knowledge of it becomes and it will show in the final draft. 

While the middle is the largest chunk of your book, I encourage you to tackle all that it has to offer. I hope this helps you to face your current writing struggles and that soon you will find the best-suited path to get you going again. Writing a novel is a journey and adventure like hiking any trail. 

For more tips on writing the middle of stories, click here.

*****

Alexandra Ely grew up in the High Desert of California where she played outside, cultivating the imagination she uses for her creative writing to this day. In high school she studied under an old Russian playwright who taught her the delicacies of storytelling. She continued to pursue novel writing in college.

This September Alexandra and her husband will celebrate their ten year wedding anniversary and expect their second baby a few weeks after. Alexandra loves sewing historical fashion, baking sourdough bread, and would like to teach herself calligraphy someday so she can write epic Christmas cards. 

Much of her nonfiction writing has been published in both local and national magazines and a prologue to an anthology published internationally. Publication for her fiction work is close at hand. Currently, Alexandra and her writing partner are querying their manuscript and on her own she is editing a second book with intentions to publish as well. You can hear a sample of her novel, The Mermaid Bride, on the Happy London Press podcast and find her personal instagram account @ely_landing and her collaboration account @loftonauthors.

Keeping the Middle Moving

Every piece of writing advice warns against letting the middle of your story sag. I understand the danger. Deep in the heart of my story, I’m writing page after page of fun character interactions and sparkling dialogue and then it hits me. I’m lost in my story. I don’t know why I’m in this scene or where it’s going. Scenes like that work against the idea of keeping the middle moving.

A variety of approaches can help you structure the middle. Below are three metaphors that might help you keep the middle moving.

The Domino Effect

One metaphor is the domino effect, an idea found in this excellent post by Denise Hunter on the blog for American Christian Fiction Writers. She writes about how conflict should move the story forward.

I think of the domino effect as every action scene should advance the story. If Rae, my main character in A Shadow on the Snow, visits her great-grandfather, it can’t just be for a pleasant conversation. She learns a clue to the mystery she is trying to unravel. That clue leads to another and another. Or the clue may turn out to be a red herring, but it still has to knock over the next domino and keep the story going.

A Line Graph

Another way to visualize the middle is a line graph. I learned this technique from authors James Rubart and Cara Putnam at the ACFW conference in 2017. They used the line graph to demonstrate how the entire plot unfolds but it still works for analyzing the middle. The dips in the line are obstacles the main character encounters while trying to achieve her goal. The peaks are victories.

For a mystery, a line graph could resemble the image below. The obstacles and victories grow more intense as you move toward the climax.

keeping the middle moving

Piloting a Glider

A third way to think of the middle is like the flight of a glider. The glider goes up and down while riding air currents, but it must always move forward. If it stops, it drops. The same is true for the middle of a story.

If I get lost in a scene, I have to discover its purpose. What is the point of this scene beside giving me a lot of enjoyment as I write it? Often I find I can combine several points into one scene giving it multiple purposes.

In the scene with Rae and her great-grandfather, their conversation reveals a clue to who is stalking Rae. It also gives readers another chance to get to know the great-grandfather character and to learn about an uncle who doesn’t like Rae’s father. Giving my scene several purposes keeps the middle moving.

How do you tackle keeping the middle moving? I’d love to learn from you!

This is a repost from 2020.

Patchworking  the Muddy Middle

My friend and fellow Mt. Zion Ridge Press author Bettie Boswell is back for another guest post, “Patchworking the Muddy Middle”, explaining how she overcame obstacles in the middle of her latest novel. To learn more about that novel and how to connect with Bettie, read her blurb and bio at the end of the post. Thanks for coming coming back, Bettie!

One method that recently worked well for me is to patch that muddled manuscript middle together like a quilt. This was a strategy I used when writing my newest book, Free to Love.

Warning:

You need to kind of know where you’re going before you start working on your patchwork blocks. When I reached the point where I struggled to keep things moving, I sometimes skipped ahead to an idea that I thought would eventually be a scene in my story. 

I would jump into that scene and fill in the conversations, stitching them together with setting, tags, the five senses, conflict or tension, an arc, and any other good writing tactics needed to complete the scene. The work went faster because I had skipped the hurdle holding me back. With less effort, because I felt free to move on, I soon had a nice block of story for my quilt. I jumped around and created several blocks. Before long, I was even able to go back and take on the scene making the hurdle that held me back in the first place.

When I exhausted my creation of blocks, I then figured out the placement of each scene and what might be a good binding strip to attach each blocked scene to another. At this point I printed out what I had written in small print, with two pages on one piece of paper (a function on most printers.) I cut scenes out and put the blocks in an order that made sense for the story. Some of the blocks had changed my story but they still met the goals and themes I set at the beginning. 

After I figured out the order that each block would fall in my quilted story, it was time to put the patchwork together. I did that by binding each block into the story by using transitions, adjusting wording to make things fit, figuring out where to leave the reader hanging between chapters and scenes, and sometimes throwing a scene back into the rag bin for another quilted story.

This type of organization worked for me. It might not work for anyone else but you never know until you try. I am not as good at quilting as my grandmother but her beautiful bed coverings provided inspiration for this type of writing. If nothing else works, snuggle under or relax on top of your favorite quilt and brainstorm what might happen next in your story. Happy writing!

What a great idea! I’ve been stymied at the beginning of my next novel, so I followed your advice and jumped ahead to a scene that I wanted to write. It’s been refreshing to finally get words on paper again.

For more posts on writing the middle, click here.

*****

As Ginny writes her musical, inspiration comes from journals about Missy and her maid, bound together by slavery and blood, journeying toward freedom and love. Early and her mistress have always been together. When Missy’s family forces Early into an arranged marriage with George, also held in slavery, their relationship will be forever changed. Will Early and George find a love that can survive the trials of a forced marriage and perilous journey?

*****

Author Bettie Boswell

Bettie Boswell has always loved to read and write. That interest helped her create musicals for both church and school and eventually she decided to write and illustrate stories to share with the world. Her writing interests extend from children’s to adult and from fiction to non-fiction. Free to Love is a prequel to her first novel, On Cue. Connect with Bettie on FacebookTwitter, or her website.

Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations

I’m reposting “Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations” from two years ago as I get ready for my cover reveal and pre-order promotion for “A Shadow on the Snow” on October 15. I can’t believe I wrote that! When I tell people I’m a writer and they ask what do I write, I can now say, “Novels.” Seems like it’s still a dream. Keep watching for more details as October 15. approaches!

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Idiot Plot. I learned about this plot contrivance while reading a book of film critic Roger Ebert’s film reviews. An idiot plot is a plot that can only advance as long as most or all the characters are idiots.

These are the kinds of plots where I find myself yelling advice to the characters in the pages or on the screen. Horror movies leap to mind.

Dumb teen: Just because every person who has ever entered the old Van Buren place has disappeared doesn’t mean it will happen to me.

Dumber teen: I’ll go with you.

Below are two variations that come under the Idiot Plot.

GLINDA THE GOOD WITCH CONTRIVANCE

My mom can not stand Glinda the Good Witch. In The Wizard of OzDorothy could have avoided all the trouble with the Wicked Witch if Glinda had just told her in Munchkin Land to click the red shoes together to go home. I know Glinda says Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her, but she could have told her. If Dorothy rejected the advice and got into all sorts of difficulties because of it, at least Glinda had done her due diligence and wouldn’t be in danger of getting smacked by my mother.

Stories where a key character withholds information for no good reason are so frustrating. In Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout, a character is killed because she doesn’t immediately tell the detectives that the man claiming to be her late friend’s husband is an imposter. No convincing reason is given why she withholds that information.

This contrivance seems to happen when the revelation of the information would end the story then and there. But if that’s the case, then there’s something wrong with the plot’s construction.

RUBE GOLDBERG METHOD OF PLOTTING

Mystery and thriller writers are very susceptible to this problem. In an effort to keep surprising their audience, they string together plot points that don’t feed naturally into each other.

Years ago, my husband watched a season of the show 24 because he’d read that terrorists hack into computers in order to make every nuclear reactor in the U.S. meltdown. As a nuclear engineer, my husband thought the premise was a hoot.

Although there a number of subplots, the main thread concerned the meltdowns. These endanger the president, so he takes off in Air Force One. The terrorists plan for this and have a pilot on their payroll steal a military jet and shoot down Air Force One. When it crashes, the terrorists recover the briefcase with the president’s codes to set off missiles and use it to steal one missile.

They have the ability to meltdown every reactor in the country but that’s only a step to getting what they really want: a missile. I’m still scratching my head over this one.

But, Sometimes, Characters Can Be Convincing Idiots

People do stupid things. People say stupid things. Unfortunately, I know this first hand and wish I could take back some of the things I’ve done and said.

In fiction, I have to make the stupid behavior convincing. That can take a lot of work, but if I want to reflect real life, and if it’s truly important to my story, I have to put in the time to pull it off.

In 1947 film noir Out of the PastKirk Douglas plays a realistic, stupid character. He is a professional gambler, whose girlfriend shoots and wounds him while stealing $40,000. He hires a detective to find her. He seems more interested in her than the money.

The detective finds the girlfriend. They have an affair and try to hide from the gambler. But another detective finds them. The girlfriend shoots him and runs. Our hero discovers years later that the girlfriend pleaded with the gambler to taker her back, and he did.

Why would the gambler do this when she shot him? The character of the gambler makes this stupid behavior believable. He’s arrogant, rich, and ruthless. He gets what he wants, when he wants it. It feeds his ego to take back a woman who begs him to reconcile with her. But his arrogance blinds him to how clever his girlfriend is. Eventually, he finds out but not in a way he likes.

For more advice on plot, click here. For a different view on plotting, check out this article “Puzzling Away at Plotting” from the site Seekerville.

What are some plots that make you want to scream? Or at least say, “Huh?”

Six Tips for Plotting Elegantly

Last week, I gave some examples from movies and books of what I considered plotting elegantly. This week, I list six tips for plotting elegantly–three for how to recognize when you’re not plotting elegantly and three for how to fix the problems.

Three Clues to When You Aren’t Plotting Elegantly

Too Much Explanation. If I find myself writing pages and pages, trying to explain a plot point, something is wrong. This is a particular pitfall for mystery writers. We have to explain the mystery at the end, but we should be as concise as possible. After sending the manuscript for A Shadow on the Snow to my publisher, I didn’t look at it for several weeks. When I went back to work on the edits I received, I was shocked at how chatty my characters were in the last chapter, over-explaining the solution to the mystery.

Your Guts Say No, But Your Brain Says Yes. When it comes to my writing, I go with my gut. If I reread something and my gut gets sick. I know something is wrong. When I reread the climax for Shadow, I cringed . Nothing technically wrong with it, except that I’d seen or read something like it about a thousand times before. And it felt mean. I could do better, write something original that flowed elegantly from the traits of the characters.

No One Will Notice. I don’t know how many times I’ve read a section, toward the end of an editing session, and thought, “This isn’t great, but no one will notice.” I’m tired of editing, my creativity is ebbing, and so I want to skip the mediocre section. It’s much better to flag it, let it sit awhile, and come back to it when I’m fresh.

Three Tips to Help You Plot Elegantly

Let Your Characters Act Naturally. If you know your characters like you know your relatives, they can help you when the plotting turns clunky. Often when my plot limps along, I realize I’m forcing my characters to act contrary to the way I’ve designed them. If I’m forcing an introverted character to act extroverted, and haven’t given any reason for this change in behavior, I’m in trouble. If a certain behavior is essential to the plot, I need to find the character most suitable for it.

Examine Your Setting. In a previous post, I write about how to “Maximize a Setting”. Are you taking advantage of everything a particular setting has to offer? My main character Rae Riley works as a check-out clerk in a library. One advantage of this setting is that it’s public, so I can have just about any character walk through the doors. It’s also a place where Rae learns to conduct research because she interacts with librarians. This fact gives my nineteen-year-old MC a plausible reason for knowing what a microfim machine is and how to use it to look up old newspaper article.

What Would the Reader Like? Until I tackled Shadow, I didn’t understand how critical keeping future readers in mind is. In the middle of my novel, Rae has a personal breakthrough. I got all warm and fuzzy writing it. After polishing it, I realized I couldn’t let all these cuddly emotions continue. Readers might overdose on the sweetness or grow bored. I had to let something bad happen. Even mean. I forced myself to give my main character a major setback. That setback led to more clues and hugely helped the plotting of the mystery.

Writers, what do you do when your plot starts to sputter and clank? Readers, what’s one of your favorite plot?

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