In the Middle of Things

If you’ve been diligently working on your timeline or outline, you’ve probably noticed the middle (and longest) section of your story is a little sparse. Lots of writers panic when it comes to the middle because they automatically think they’ll never be able to come up with enough interesting stuff to happen. Lies! Stuff happens all the time!

If you understand what the function of the middle is, you will have no problem torturing your characters.

Think of the middle of your story as one of those really bad days when everything seems to go wrong.

Your external goal is to get that promotion at work. And in order to do that, you have to nail a presentation to a bunch of Japanese business men. Great! We’ve already established your goal in the beginning of your story, which probably took place the day or night before when we first met you and your cat family.

Your cat family

Your cat family

Here’s where the middle starts:

You oversleep, wake up in a panic, jump out of bed and land in a pile of cat puke. “Damn, cats!”

You fling the bezoar off the bottom of your foot and hop into the kitchen where you start the coffee maker before hitting the shower.

Someone in another apartment flushes her toilet and your water turns scalding. Curses abound.

While pouring your coffee, you drop the pot, breaking it and spilling more scalding liquid all over your power suit.

You’re cranky because you don’t have time to stop for Starbucks and losing self-confidence because you have to wear a different outfit.

Power Outfit

Power Outfit

Of course there’s a traffic jam. Some idiot got in an accident. You’d go around but cars are blocking you in. The only thing you can do is lay on the horn and scream obscenties.

Phew! You finally get to work (late) but still in plenty of time to make the presentation. After grabbing a cup of sludge in the breakroom, you head into the conference room to set up before the others arrive.

Fire up the computer, take a deep breath, access the file.

The presentation you worked so hard on and stayed up all night perfecting is gone. Hard drives, soft drives, thumb drives; it’s nowhere to be found. Your blood pressure rises, you start hyperventilating, and the thoughts in your brain start to swirl. You look for it again. You try another way. You go through a back door. Fuck! you scream silently.

You sweat, you feel weak, you sink into the chair and ask yourself how you’re going to tell your boss you screwed up.

And then you remind yourself that even though the promotion is out of the question, you still need a job or your cats will go hungry.

Hmm, less food means less barfing…

No, that’s just cruel.

And then you start drawing from memory your diagrams, graphs, and charts on the whiteboard. And you give the worst presentation of your life.

Okay, so that’s the end of the middle of your story. Easy peasy.

If you look closely a each of the scenes or events in my outline, I started with small events that are easily overcome:

Oversleeping, stepping in barf, scalding shower, coffee break (literally).

They start small; annoying, but you can move past them. You don’t really have a choice.

To increase tension, I added some conflicts that are outside of your control or that you can’t readily get around:

Traffic jam; sorry, you’re stuck there, so deal with it.

You're stuck in it

Did I mention it was raining?

Presentation file gone. There is nothing you can do to retrieve it except drive all the way back home, and that is so not going to happen.

You hit rock bottom, your lowest moment. You want to give up. You failed. You will never reach your goal. Everything you’ve worked for up to this point has been for nothing.

Why am I such a loser?

Why am I such a loser?

But you don’t give up because your cats depend on you. Because you’re not a quitter and neither is your main character. He has to see it through to the end, regardless of obtaining that goal. It’s a matter of fulfilling something bigger. And that something bigger is your internal need. What do you need to make yourself truly happy, fulfilled? Seeing a tough situation through to the end, the sense of accomplishment you get when you try no matter what, the increased self-confidence that you can go out there and face those Japanese business men without a shred of technology. Your dignity. Your courage in the face of adversity. A sense of humbleness and humility. Whatever it may be, you have achieved it because you did your best in a losing situation.

To recap in the middle of things: an event or conflict happens that tries to thwart your main character from reaching his goal (coffee spills all over his power outfit). He reacts to the conflict (spends a few seconds cursing) then devises a new plan (changes from his power outfit into one that makes him less confident but is still going to make the presentation anyway).

Repeat this sequence as many times as you want, increasing the difficulty level with each new conflict thereby increasing the tension (will he make it to work on time? will he be able to pull off the presentation without his file? will he get the promotion? will he get fired?), really making it difficult for your protagonist to reach that goal. Because after all it’s not really the goal that matters, it’s what he learns about himself through overcoming obstacles, what he gains internally, that is the real prize. Business-Hero

You know that quote about, “God only gives us as much as we can handle?” Well, you’re God and it’s your job to bring your character to that breaking point and then make him try one last time. Insert your climax here.

So as you work through your timeline/outline for the first time, don’t worry too much about not having enough conflicts. Just aim for a few events, keeping in mind what it will take to bring your protagonist to almost quit and how you want your climax to play out. How does your character react to those conflicts? What new tactics will your character use to get through all those barriers?

And remember, this is just one of many passes you and I will take as we continue to outline our stories.

Next time we’ll visit The End.

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In the Beginning

Chances are, if you’ve come up with a story idea, you’ve probably got a few opening scenes, the climax, and maybe a handful of random ideas or bits or dialogue you have no idea where to put on your outline.

Fantastic! Because writing isn’t math (thank god) and a story isn’t a formula. You don’t have to start at the beginning of a problem and work your way through the equation, following hard and fast rules, until you come to a finite solution. You can start anywhere along your timeline and work forward or backward through your scenes until you’re satisfied. And you can do this over and over again, Substituting, Taking Out, Adding, and Rearranging, until the story is exactly the way you want it.

So where do you begin?  First, categorize the scenes you do have (I’ll call these scenes “guideposts”) into one of the following categories: beginning, middle, end. That was a stumper, I know. This is best achieved using the index card method where you actually lay your scene cards out on the floor, a desk, a table, or a bed in three separate groupings. This gives you a visual representation of your story and the ability to physically manipulate the scenes as you try out new ideas. (You may even choose to talk to yourself while you do it, and I hope you do.)

So here’s a guide as to what scenes you might categorize as the beginning.

The Beginning:

Generally, you’ll want scenes that introduce your main characters and give your readers an idea of who your protagonist is before anything interesting happens. Take yourself right now.

  • Who are you? How would you describe your personality and then what actions do you take that show it? If you’re an emotional person, you might cry during commercials with animals in them (think Budweiser ads during the Super Bowl). If you are a fitness enthusiast, you might be slogging it out at the gym or measuring cups of spinach for your salad.
  • What is your daily routine? How do you feel about it? If you’re miserable in your job, show us. If you’re a self-centered diva, maybe you boss people around and freak out over brown M&Ms.
  • Who are the important people in your life? Do you talk to your mother on the phone every night? Do you go out drinking with the guys after a hard day at the construction site? Do you run ragged trying to get your kids fed and bathed and put to bed at a decent hour.

You’ll also want something interesting to happen that will change your main character’s life forever. This is called an inciting incident. This will be the first major event in your story, and it will accomplish a number of things.

  • Define what genre you are writing. Is the major event a murder (mystery), a chance meeting with a stranger (romance), a letter of admission to a school for wizards (fantasy), etc.
  • It will provide an external goal for your main character to try to reach despite a lot of trials and tribulations.
  • It will in some way fulfill your main character’s internal need. What does your main character need more than anything to be happy? If you answered with items like more money, a better job, a fresh start, a spot in the dance company, you are actually talking about an external goal. Like the word says, anything outside of your character’s body is external. Ah, but you might say an athlete pushes his own body in order to win a specific race. Well, winning the race is the external goal, but why does he have to win it so badly? Because his internal need is not just to win but to be recognized, appreciated, admired, etc. (Funny how all these things originate within the core.) Perhaps your main character felt his father never loved him, so he tries to prove to himself over and over again through winning race after race that he is worthy of being loved. See, the internal need always stems from some deep self-need that has gone unfulfilled. Until now. The external goal is just the vehicle to help him achieve it. Some examples might be to learn compassion, to be loved, to be accepted/to accept, to be tolerant, to trust/be trusted. More often than not, your character won’t even know what he or she needs to be happy. That’s why he keeps pushing himself to win those races, working more hours to make more money, sleeping with every guy who looks her way.
  • The inciting incident will also come through a catalyst in one of three ways: a piece of information (a death, a pregnancy, a weather report), a situation (being electrocuted, being fired/getting a raise, witnessing a crime), or another character (a dame looking for her sister, a traveling lightning rod salesman, a bully).

This inciting incident will always be rejected by your main character. At first. Think Scully: your protagonist is skeptical. Or scared or lazy. Or even believe that she isn’t worthy of such a dangerous mission. This is your character’s main flaw. And figuring out this flaw will help you plot out the whole middle of your story because it will rear its ugly head over and over again, taunting your protagonist to quit every time it gets too hard. And it will get too hard.

Life for your main character may go on seemingly as usual; however, there’s always that little question of “what if?” going on in the back of his mind. What if I do take that job? What if there really is life on Mars? What if I do have the power to save the world and all my little hobbit friends?

Maybe he even has a conversation with some of his friends. Maybe they try to convince him to “go for it.” Or maybe they tell him he’s crazy. Either way, your protagonist’s life will be changed forever because he tried going after that goal or be changed forever because he didn’t.

Make sure he tries.

And last but not least, the end of the beginning section of your story will be a scene in which your protagonist takes that first step out of the shire, off the cliff, or onto another planet. She has accepted her fate, risen to the challenge, and taken action.

Now, check out the guidepost scenes you grouped in the beginning category. Where do they fall in the spectrum of the beginning scenes? Can you think of anything that needs to come before or after them? Write down a brief description of any scenes on new index cards and arrange them in an order you think works.

And remember, you don’t have to keep this order or these scenes. The idea is just to get something down to work with.

We’ll tackle what happens in the middle next time.

 

Plot Happens

I know you’re scared, but there’s really nothing to fear. Plot happens every day. You’re living plot right now, albeit probably not as epically as you’d wish. You make plans, a goal, or a to-do list for the day; something happens to screw it up; you react emotionally; then you come up with a new or revised plan.

That’s plot. Over and over again. With each new conflict making it seemingly harder for you to accomplish your goal.

With each new conflict creating tension and raising the stakes because now you’re losing precious time to get through your list.

With each new conflict forcing you to find alternative and creative ways to make things go according to your plan.

The secrets of plot revealed.

And so for the next several days or weeks, you’ll be figuring out what your character’s goal is, throwing a wrench (or screwdriver) at it, showing us how the character reacts, then showing us how your character revises his old goal or comes up with a new way to reach it. Repeat this several times and by the end of your story, your main character will have grown as a person because, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” (Friedrich Nietzsche).

Here’s another analogy: Plot is like planning a vacation.

You probably have some idea of where you want to go and some idea of things you’d like to see and do, but you don’t know how to get there or where you’ll stay until you start figuring out your itinerary. Plot is the writer’s version of an itinerary. And these are a few suggestions of how I came up with my itinerary.

The first thing I did to plot out my story was make a timeline. first timeline

I used bright pink stickys (the top row) to plot out the actual timeline of important events in the Jack the Ripper murders. Beneath that, I used orange stickys to map out the major scenes of my storyline in the corresponding order. I used stickys because I like having the ability to move things around, step back, and see how everything plays out.

Plus, as any teacher knows, writing on a blackboard (or a reasonable facsimile) uses different neural pathways (which is why teachers make more spelling and grammatical errors when writing on one than on paper) and forces your brain to work more “creatively.” And who doesn’t want to be more creative?

From this timeline, I wrote a synopsis of each scene on a half-sheet of paper (some writers use index cards but I’m cheap and used old notebooks) and arranged them in oder on my bed (you may wish to use a table or the floor). Again, I like having the flexibility of moving scenes and sequences around while being able to see how logically the whole story unfolds. This took several hours, but with each new pass at my plot, I came up with new scenes and subplots to fill out the outline.

second timeline

After a generous amount of time working on my scene “cards,” I moved back to my wall timeline with a fresh sheet of paper (I cut sheets of paper stores use to wrap breakables and taped them to my wall). Keeping the original Jack the Ripper stickys up for reference, I plotted my corresponding murders with the orange stickys.

Next, I wrote a brief sentence or two (or three or four) summarizing each scene. I even used different colored markers for each plot and subplot thread as an easy visual guide to make sure I wasn’t leaving any one thread for too long. My color system is basically purple for the main plot, pink for romance (I know), green for family relationship problems, turquoise for suspect scenes, dark blue for journalism themes, orange for scenes that hide clues as to the killer’s identity, and magenta for school conflicts. Yours will depend on what genre you’re writing and what threads you think are most important.

One other outline tool that I use from my studies in screenwriting is a beat sheet. This is basically a numbered list of scenes, each described in only a few sentences. I revised mine two or three times while working on the wall timelines.

The best thing about the beat sheet is that it’s portable. You can bring it to Starbucks and not have people looking at you funny when you spread out a 3-foot long roll of paper with a bunch of colored writing on it. (Although I think I’m going to try it someday just to see how people react.) beat sheet

 

So these first couple of passes at the outline were just to get my scenes down in a somewhat logical order and fill in as many gaps as I could. The wall timeline nor the beat sheet are the final version of my plot. There is more work to be done, and I’ll have more suggestions/tools for you too.

For now, work on writing out your ideas/scenes in whichever format feels comfortable or try different ones. Keep those neural pathways working.

Next time, we’ll go more in depth about plot points, scene structure, and how to fill out your beginning, middle, and end.