Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Ugly Middle

No, I'm not talking about my waistline. Wait, maybe I should :-). With the holidays arriving, I am, of course, back on a diet to lose the pounds I got lazy about in the last few months. Once bathing suit season is over, my waistline seems to explode, like a champagne bottle held back far too long .

I'm talking about the ugly middle of a book. This is when things get dull, or fear overtakes you, or the characters refuse to cooperate. Chances are, you have a plot problem, which can be easily fixed. Here are a few tips for that:

1. Re-read from the beginning to where you got stuck. Chances are, you'll see a few plot threads you accidentally dropped. Or, you'll see an avenue you didn't explore. Or, you won't see any of those and you'll realize your characters are just EXISTING but not ACTING. Which brings me to Number Two:

2. Make sure every scene has a goal. Your characters should want something IN EVERY SCENE. All these little goals should feed into the big main goal for the book (for instance, if someone wants to open a business, they have to get financing, find a location, buy stock, jump through building inspection hoops, etc.). And, furthermore, SOMETHING SHOULD GO WRONG with those goals. You don't just give your character the bank loan--you make her put dear Aunt Mildred's house up as collateral. And then you have poor Aunt Mildred need a kidney transfusion. In other words, you make things worse for your character. Why?

3. Because you want to force them to act. A lot of times, writers are too nice to their characters. They created these people, they want their lives to be smooth and easy. No, no, no. Difficulty and obstacles helps people become more than they currently are, helps characters become people we respect, root for and cheer at the end.

4. Twist things up a little. When you're in the middle of a book, you need to throw something unexpected in there for the reader--reveal a secret, have someone betray your main character, kill off an important person in the story, make the choice between life and death or the life and death of a loved one. In other words, increase the tension.

5. Make sure you're writing the right story. Writers sometimes create a story from the wrong character's point of view. Is this main character TRULY the one with the most to lose and the most to learn? If not, change who the point of view character is. That helps the reader identify more with the importance of this character's goals.

To all you NaNoWriMo writers, I hope you've hit the 25,000 mark. And if you haven't, don't beat yourself up about it. We all write in different ways, at different speeds, and you may be someone who takes a bit more time or a bit less time. It's YOUR book, YOUR story. Just get your words on the page, a little every day, and you will have accomplished something incredible!

And to borrow from Vicki Hinze's blog phrase: this is a no editing zone, so don't beat me up if there's a typo :-)


  1. Point No. 2 sure resonated with me at your recent workshop, Shirley. I only just figured out I need to do this (after being told OVER and OVER). It makes a huge difference to the flow of the book and the consistency of the characters.

    Thanks for your great workshops in Texas!

  2. Hi Shirley,

    Thought I'd swing through on the advice of Margie Lawson. She recommended your website as a great resource for for craft information. Thanks for sharing your insights and I'm looking forward to picking up one of your books, as well. Love the title, "The Devil Served Tortellini", so maybe I'll start there. :)

    And I'm sorry to hear that you've lost your mom. May time ease your pain and buoy your spirits again.

    Take care.

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