Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Stuck In The Middle

Beginnings are easy. Endings even more so. It's the middle that's going to drive you bonkers.

And that's before they started adding algebra to the GCSE Mathematics syllabus.

I joke, I joke. If you're not mad by the time you hit the middle, you're doing it wrong. Stories, however, are a different matter entirely.

NaNoWriMo is now one-day-less-than-a-month away, and I, as a proud member of the United League of Plot Plotters, am merrily wreaking havoc with the dim outline of the story that is beginning to take shape inside my head. Major events! Character profiles! Plot twists! It's wonderful stuff.

The only trouble is filling in the bit between. It's all very well having all these stunning events lined up, but putting them all end to end, with no buildup or explanation . . . well, I might as well strap you all into a fairground teacup ride, set it to full velocity and watch as your teeth shoot out the backs of your heads.

Even magpies know that there's only so many shiny things they can put in their nests - the rest, regrettably, has to be the bits that hold it all together; the laying of the clues, the buildup of environment and situation, the slow amalgamation of events. And sometimes it's trying to do this that really brings a good book down. Despite being a die-hard Tolkein fan since the age of ten, I still find myself skimming through bits of The Two Towers simply because so much of it is the necessary buildup material needed for the stunning tour-de-force that is The Return of the King.

Regrettably, there have also been books where this saggy middle is simply too much, and I've had to put the book down out of sheer boredom. The classic dystopian 1984 is another example. Despite having one of the most chilling and terrifying endings I have ever encountered, I would have put the book away never to be read again if I hadn't had to drag myself through it for my English Literature course.

So, how to avoid this? Well, here's a few tips I've picked up from my many misadventures in the world of the printed page:

1 - Space It Out
No point in keeping all your good stuff for the end. Put in a few of your tasty treats in the slower stretches. Even if they're small-scale, they can still be enough to hold a reader's attention long enough for them to see the importance of what it's all leading up to.

2 - Spice It Up
Don't give us a hundred-page discourse on the layout of the sewers of Paris - trip your character down an open manhole and make them explore it themselves! Explanatory passages are so much more fun when they occur in circumstances that make us, and the character, go "Eureka!", or "Eeeeuuuuuugh!".

3 - Tie It In
If it doesn't need to be there, get rid of it. Stephen King's semi-autobiographical book "On Writing" gave us the charming phrase, which I will badly paraphrase, as a final draft being the first draft, with 10% less. Whether it's a few extra red herrings, a few too many details, or even just a paragraph of prose that's rather too close to purple for comfort, go through and make sure it's tight stuff. Just because it's neccessary doesn't mean it has to be flabby.

Of course, I'm not advocating the complete annihilation of all forms of "middle bit". It's genuinely vital stuff by all accounts - not in the least because your poor readers can't be expected to be pelting through adventure after adventure without stopping for a break. However, even something as simple as cleverly worded phrases can keep the audience reminded of what they're working towards, and if you need a longer digression, be sure to write it with the same enthusiasm that you give to the rest of the story.

And, of course, not all the best parts of the story have to be big flash-and-bang occasions. Sometimes just having the protagonist alone, doing a good spot of navel gazing, will bring up a moment the readers will really remember. Sometimes these fabulous moments can arise when you decide just to tweak a little bit of flabby prose. And sometimes you realise that it's not a flabby bit of prose at all - just a gem you haven't got around to giving a shine yet.

I know I certainly have tricky moments with "the middle", but what about you lot? Do you have any special strategies to get you through the gaps between your story's highlights? Do you keep the gaps minimal, or do you have something special that you like to do with them?

~ Charley R


  1. Ah, this post came not a moment too soon. I was just about to step into the unknown bounderies of the second quarter of my book. Scary. I have dreadful problems making up a half-interesting plot. I don't know. Maybe it's that I've never written this particular part of my book before, but it just feels... scary. :)

    Your post was most encouraging. I'm not the only one who struggles with middles! Hurrah! :)

    1. Haha, best of luck! I hope this post helps you out - first forays into any part of writing are a bit of a leap of faith. Hope you enjoy it though!

  2. I'm nearing the enthralling ending ground (oo! throw in the fireworks and the most awful things I can think of!) But I agree. The middle sometimes gives me grey hair. I keep flinging in *surprises*. If I'm bored, my reader will definitely be bored. I liked your 3 tips. I'm keeping them in mind!

    1. Thank you! I do hope they'll help you out with future "middle bits". They're just a nice little mantra to keep in the back of your head for when you hit hard times. Boring the reader is basically the authorly version of spraying them in the face with a water pistol full of Pepsi xD

  3. Hmm, sewers of Paris, wonder who we could be talking about here... *whistles* DAMN YOU VICTOR HUGO.

    Anyway... moving quite swiftly on...

    I had a whole plot for my NaNo novel. Literally. I had the beginning, I had the end (I KNEW WHO THE MURDERER WAS OKAY), and I had a collection of events to stir into the middle. And I had all the characters.

    Now I have a new novel, which my brain decided was more interesting. I have the ending. I have a whole bunch of events, mostly revolving around a freaking long journey that I'll struggle to keep interesting, but have a few ideas about, and I have several alternative endings stewing around in my brain. I just don't have any characters. Or rather, I have a few that aren't my invention (Raphael and Michael so far, but some of the others might turn up), and one dude who is (but he has no name). My main characters I can sort of picture but I don't have names for them yet.

    So it's going well. Ahem.

    1. So, you're going for the semi-pants approach this year? Have fun. I have most of mine hashed out, but have no idea how it's going to work. Have characters at least. Whom I hope won't do anything too drastic out of their jurisdiction.

      Also, yes, I was referring to Victor Hugo and his sewers. Who knew history could be made so boring xD

    2. I'm hoping to work out the plot (and the characters) throughout October. As I'm doing research, that might clear it up for me. I'll wait and see. If I do too much planning now, chances are my research will eat it all.

    3. Haha, that's true. Best of luck to you - your idea looks like it has so much potential for awesomeness.

  4. I feel that you are in no place to criticise Orwell, Robson ~hard stare~
    But yes, middles are tricky beasts to tame. Tricky beasts indeed...

    1. Heh heh, I by no means criticise Orwell - "Animal Farm" is an amazing creation, and I admire "1984" on principle, I just found the middle of the book a terrible drag. The ending continues to haunt the backs of my eyelids to this day, however.

      Soggy middles get even the best of us, my friend.

    2. That ending...~shudders of respect and awe~

    3. I was literally stuck in a rabbit-in-an-electric-fence mindset for all of three days after reading the end of that book. It still gives me heebies.