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.

NaNoWriMo Prompts for Plot

My previous post was to encourage you to let your imagination soar during NaNoWriMo. My prompts for the month will help you with this task. First I have NaNoWriMo prompts for plot. Below are suggestions to bring propulsion to your plot if you find it bogging down.

  • Your main character makes a new friend.
  • Your main character makes a new enemy.
  • The antagonist makes a new friend or enemy.
  • Your main character loses something critical.
  • Your main character finds something unexpected, either helpful or harmful.
  • A friend reveals an unexpected trait. (This can be tricky because you want to surprise your reader, not shock them.)
  • Your main character discovers a new virtue or flaw. (This is especially believable if you write YA.)
  • Your main character does something he thinks is good but it turns out to be bad and vice versa.
  • The antagonist does something he thinks will hurt someone and it turns out to be good for that character.

Since I write mysteries, I’ll list some prompts to help you if you find difficulties with your mystery plot.

  • Your main character loses an important clue.
  • The first main suspect becomes a victim of a crime.
  • Your main character begins to suspect a friend or relative of the crime.
  • A friend or relative of your main character comes under a threat.
  • Officials make an arrest, and your main character thinks they have the wrong person.
  • If your main character has an ally, the two characters fight and go their separate ways, at least for a while.
  • A key witness changes her story.
  • People in authority pressure your main character to drop the investigation. Or to solve it quickly.
  • Your main character is injured. (Be careful with this one. If your main character is too seriously hurt, the focus of the story shifts to the injury and slows the pace. I read a mystery where the main character suffered so much from a concussion throughout the book that pretty soon I had a headache.)
  • A chase of some kind, to rescue someone or gain a clue.
  • Your main character tails someone, which can turn into a chase.

For more NaNoWriMo prompts, click here. What suggestions do you have for kick-starting a stalling plot?

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