It’s so much the same with a story.
I’ve written 200 word picture books (still in query) 6K word easy readers (also in query), 30-50K mid-grade, self-published just because I wanted to. And a 90K novel – still in the editing stage.
The length of the work matters not! It’s the middle that gets bogged down. The action slows. The characters go flat. The scenery grows boring.
No matter the genre or style of writing, if you are any sort of a writer you already know where your characters are starting, and you certainly have a good idea where they’re going – although I’ve seen this part evolve dramatically. And you likely have an idea of at least a couple of eye popping actions to keep your hero moving.
Don’t you just hate that word? It’s almost as bad as ‘therefore’…
However, you have a whole bunch of real estate to cover in order to travel from Point A to Point End, without risking your golden words ending up in the corner of someone’s junk box.
Writers largely fall into two categories: Planners or Pansters. My personal solution to the boggy middle draws from both styles. So get ready to cross over. (Don’t worry – it’s not the dark side either way)
A planner has a clear map (Have you ever seen a US road map? There are about a thousand routes from New York to Los Angeles.) The writer’s road map includes a complete outline, full character sketches, vivid scene descriptions, and a bank of witticisms – plus any other cool tools specific to his or her personal style and genre.
A panster writes from the heart, living through each moment, every word, as if watching an amazing movie, and fills the pages with gut wrenching emotion, eye-popping vistas, and wild characters.
Trust me, both must eventually go back to the planning board once they reach the middle.
How do you get un-stuck?
1. Step back. Take a break and return with a fresh perspective. This will give your brain cells time to catch up with the words pouring out and allows you to ponder the story in whole. Remember, it’s your story and only you know what’s really going on even if you have a crew of critique readers giving you advice.
Also, you can wait for the right inspiration while doing something else like gardening or sewing, maybe art, or working on an engine. A road trip usually does it for me. No one can ever predict when the muse will pop up and give you the exact words to fill in the gaps and finish the work.
A little time out is the best way for any style of writer, including technical writers, even news writers or columnists, to notice the bumps and bogs in their work.
2. Go back to the original outline, or create one from what you already have if you happen to be a panster. With an outline you will have a one page view of where your plot is headed and what your characters are doing. You may have a plot driven story with bam-bam-bam action, or a character driven story where your hero directs the path. In an outline you will see it all, even if you have a pretty good picture in your mind. Just remember this one factoid: Not every story fits into one particular pattern or formula.
Your personal style of outlining will differ greatly from other writers. I start by simply listing my chapter headings, then in the A’s, i’s, a’s and so forth I list the minutiae – and find the boo-boos bogging my book.
3. Write a log-line. Can you summarize your entire story in one short – Tweetable – line? And does it portray what’s actually written on the page thus far? Does that log-line fit your vision of what the story is supposed to reveal? Does the first half of the logline even match the last half?
This is a lesson all its own, but, can you narrow your entire story into: ___Hero___ (must do, or learns) ___scary action or deep revelation___ (before or so that) ___un-fixable disaster or unbelievable accomplishment___ (strikes or happens) _____to self, loved one, or world. Hint-you fill in what’s underlined with your own content, and choose something in the parenthesis.
4. Write a summary. This is almost like the log line, only a bit longer. Can you shoot an arrow straight through the heart of the story to the bull’s eye at the end, picking up details of the journey to get there as if hanging loops on a peg? Every loop picked up must have the bull’s eye as the goal. Everything else in the story which isn’t on one of those loops is a rabbit trail – wasted words.
Oh, yes, this takes more practice than you’re going to want to tackle. But it is crucial both in sorting out what your story is about – and for writing that winning query letter. Keep it under two hundred words.
5. Separate your A-story from your B-story. All those loops in #4 above comprise your ‘A’ story. The action to reach the goal stated in the first few lines of the book. This is the juice and heartbeat of the selling part of what’s between the front and back covers. But there’s always another part of a really good book – or movie – and that’s the ‘B’ story. The emotional aspect. The relationships and the inner journey. This tells what the hero is really thinking and feeling. And this is where the cool plot twists can come in to trip up the hero. But this is also where your book can take off on a wrong turn. Your ‘B’ story almost deserves an outline of its very own.
This is a really sappy example, but look at a season of any series you love. Please don’t use soap operas for this example, because you’ll be eighty-nine years old before you get to some solution! Even my favorite Star Trek series of all time, Voyager, is a bit too long to see the whole picture. I like to study the double stories seen in shows like NCIS. In every episode you have the main action. (And this is a great exercise in studying plot formation.) However, look closely at the personal relationships. The beginning of the series will show a character in one state, but the end will show an entirely new – and hopefully stronger and wiser – team member.
When you have a clear ‘B’ story, you have a book.
6. Can you isolate the plot twists and weed out the ones which carry the reader too far from the objective? It’s true, a well written twist is an enjoyable experience. But, remember that US Map? Too many twists and wrong turns and you will end up in Canada or Mexico – and be writing a whole different and convoluted story.
It hurts, but cut the rabbit trails. Just remember to paste them into your ‘deleted scenes’ file. You may want to use those pretty words later.
7. Are all of your characters staying true to themselves? You must have a believable arc for your heroes. You might have a wall-flower suddenly become a warrior out of desperation, but you won’t have her going from tender and compassionate, to having the mouth of a sailor and the mind of Jack the Ripper.
If you’re having a bit of difficulty figuring out a particular character, get into that person’s head. Know that character’s likes and dislikes. See how he or she would really respond to a situation. Write from that character’s heart (like a panster). And remember, if you’re having difficulty keeping track of your characters in a well populated scene, just think of how your readers may be feeling about that crowd.
How on earth is all this going to drag you out of the muck and mire of a slow middle?
These exercises will help you cut the flak and remember the heart of the story. Most of the time, as soon as the junk is cleared away, the story reveals itself. You are free to add the action and scenes that will carry your reader on happy clouds of imagination to the end of the book.
Now, sit back, have a favorite beverage and watch something that isn’t your story, and let it soak in. Then go back and give your main character some real meat to chew on.
This is my story, but it’s just my own little corner of the world. The great thing would be for you to share how you pump up your middle without filling it so full that you can’t fit it into a book.