Tag Archives: backstory

That Sagging Middle: What You Can Get Away With & What You Can’t in the Middle of a Novel

There’s so much focus on writing phenomenal beginnings and endings for novels. You have to hook readers right away and then leave them with their mouths hanging open at the end (in a good way). But what about the middle section of a novel? You know the one I’m talking about…it takes up the majority of the story.

I’ve read more novels than I’d like where the action in the middle of the story seems to come to a standstill. There was an amazing, fast-paced opening, where I was whipping through pages, but then, BAM! We hit the brakes, skidded off the road, and are in a ditch, waiting for the tow truck.

rsz_nap_time

Ah, nap time.

Eventually, there’s an incredible ending, but the middle nearly made me throw the book out a window a la “Silver Linings Playbook” style.

Let me first talk about what you can get away with in the middle chapters:

  • The pace can slow down, a bit. There can be pauses in the action, where backstory gets filled in because you’ve already set up the story’s cadence, chapter length, tension, etc. at the start of the novel.
  • You can have fun in the middle section. Just because the pace slows down doesn’t mean tension does. You can expand on readers’ expectations by complicating expectations, adding a twist, turning them upside down, and more. As long as the bread crumbs remain consistent, feel free to play around.
  • The middle orients readers more to the story.
  • As with all well-written slower scenes, they prepare readers for what’s coming next. The urgency ratchets up in the following scenes, and we know the preceding slower scene is leading to all hell breaking loose.
  • The middle shows the stakes characters are facing.
  • The middle chapters are what make things real and believable, especially with character interactions/relationships.

Now on to what you can’t get away with:

  • Letting the tension slide. Yes, your protagonist is in training, preparing to fight the big battle. But readers tire of hearing who was wearing what, how many girls hate the protagonist because she’s somehow more special than them, how petite the protagonist is, how the protagonist is torn between lovers, etc. Get to the battle, please. Better yet, make us believe we’ve reached the final, balls-to-the-wall battle, and then throw in an even bigger, more badass battle afterward.
  • Information dump. Don’t pile on information. Backstory is important, but as with the beginning and ending readers don’t want to be told everything. We want to experience it. Make the information an active part of a story. As the protagonist is climbing a mountain – real or metaphorical – make the backstory applicable to present day events.
  • Having too narrow of a focus. Novels are long. They have only one main plot, but there are several smaller plotlines. And let’s not forget that our goal as writers is to make it seem impossible for the protagonist to achieve his goals. Adding variety and mixing it up breathes new life into an otherwise stagnant middle section.
  • Leaving in the boring sections. If you’re reading your own writing and want to put it down, imagine how readers, agents, and editors will feel. Axe the boring bits. Either replace them with something more exciting or just get rid of them. There’s only so much philosophical musings readers can take.

What do you do to keep the excitement flowing in your middle chapters?

(Photo courtesy of Devon Cottages.)

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Narrative Structure: Diving Off the Deep End

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “narrative structure?”

For some of you, you probably equate it with a novel’s plot. I tend to like separating out the plot and narrative structure. With plot, you have the main events of a story. Point A leads to point B. Point B leads to point C…you get the idea.

But with narrative structure, you shake up the chronological points of a story. You manipulate the sequence of events to create a better novel.

Why do this?

Because not all events within a story are equal.

Some parts of your story will be critical, pieces that define your characters or that raise the stakes up to an almost unbearable amount of tension. Other scenes will still be important, but they won’t have the same emotional punch that the key scenes will.

Say you have a scene where a car explodes in the middle of a highway, and your protagonist is only three cars away from the explosion. What are you going to focus on? You might give a brief bit of information before the explosion, like your protagonist fiddling with the stereo (better yet, your protagonist just had a horrendous argument with her fiancé and she went driving to cool off), but your focus will be the moment of the explosion (or rather, the moment the protagonist is first effected) and the moments directly after the explosion – the chaos, the effect this event has on your character, your character realizing what happened, the thoughts she has, the decisions/actions she makes, etc.

In it’s essence, narrative structure controls time.

It foreshadows, deals with exposition, flashbacks, and shuffling the novel’s chronology around.

Foreshadowing: warning or indicating future events. Foreshadowing gives glimpses of what’s to come by providing hints. For instance, in Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms the line, “The leaves fell early that year,” foreshadows an early death.

Foreshadowing is important in fiction because (1) it fosters tension and reader anticipation and (2) everything in fiction happens for a reason.

Exposition: introduces background information (the backstory). Exposition doesn’t advance the plot in the same way action does, but its role is vital. Without exposition it would seem like characters were born on the first page of a novel.

Writers rely on exposition to connect readers to their characters and their story. The essence of a novel lies not only in what will happen, but in what has happened before the novel began.

Flashbacks: a scene in a novel set in the past. Flashbacks accompany backstory and exposition. But while exposition is best given to readers in small pieces, flashbacks are for the moments in your character’s past where a few lines won’t be enough.

Flashbacks are dramatic. They’re the Broadway lights screaming at readers to pay attention because this past event had a monumental effect on the present state of the character or story.

Manipulation of Plot Chronology: Instead of having a novel’s events ordered from A to E, you can mix them up. Have E come first, or have B first. Playing with a novel’s chronological order can create a more interesting story. It can sometimes reveal more of a story. That being said, you don’t want to mess with chronology if you don’t have a deliberate reason for doing so.

Have fun with a novel’s narrative structure. Play around with it. You won’t know your novel’s full potential until you do.

How do you change up your novel’s structure?

The Unexpected: Plot Twists

Plot twists create intrigue. They give readers that thrill that keeps them reading. However, creating a good plot twist isn’t as simple as wanting one.

There are ways to help you create plot twists that satisfy readers.

Know Your Characters

Your plot and characters are not separate. Having your characters do certain actions only for the sake of moving the plot forward (such as to get two characters to break up) can make your characters seem like they’re going through the motions instead of living them.

Interesting plot twists emerge from your characters. They match up with character personalities and echo out from their pasts (because our past experiences do effect our present selves).

If you know your characters, they often become real to you and start adding to the story as if they are dictating what you should write. This is a good thing. It means that your characters’ actions will be consistent with their personalities and past experiences. This makes them believable, which may mean what you originally envisioned for the plot doesn’t work anymore. But what arises from this writing may be the thrilling plot twist you needed.

Reader Expectations

There are certain aspects of novels that people expect, and are what happens. The hero has to face many, increasingly difficult challenges. There’s a monumental climax often involving a life or death situation or decision. But in the end, things work out or there’s at least hope of things working out.

So, how can we make a novel interesting when what readers expect is what usually happens? We present the scenes and actions in ways readers don’t expect.

Look at your plot and find what outcomes are obvious. Then, search for ways to add a twist. Some ways to help think up twists:

  • Brainstorm: Free thinking to see what you come up with. This can help you find ideas that aren’t completely obvious and aren’t so far out in left field that they are utterly impossible.
  • Make things worse: Find ways/situations that will injure your protagonist physically and emotionally.
  • Unveil a secret: Disclosing information that relates to the problem at hand can surprise readers. If done right, it can uncover what’s really going on or add a new layer that was previously unexpected.
  • Expose a character: Unanticipated betrayals and liars alter readers’ expectations, especially if the betrayal comes from someone the protagonist trusts.

Flip Your World View

Really good plot twists change the way your protagonist sees the world. Create a sense of foreboding or have the protagonist see another character as mean, and then turn the foreboding into relief and have the mean character end up being a nice guy.

Realistic Surprises

The most effective plot twists aren’t totally predictable and don’t come out of the blue. Think about surprising with the familiar. When the readers get to the end of the book, they can go back and see little, subtle hints placed throughout the novel directing them toward the true ending. They typically won’t see these hints until after they finishing reading the novel, but they can go back and say, “I should have seen that coming.”

Lay your groundwork so that things don’t pop out of nowhere. Groundwork allows for indirect hints, so that when the ending comes it’s not without some warning.

Some Examples Of Novels With Great Plot Twists:

  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
  • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
  • My Sister’s Keeper and Plain Truth by Jodi Picoult
  • The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

In the end, you’ll give readers what they didn’t expect, but in a way that delights them.

Executing That Idea (Without Hacking An Arm Off)

Novels start with an idea. You could be sitting in a classroom, out on a run, or at the grocery store. Often I’ll be in bed, attempting to sleep, when an idea pops into my head.

The question is, what to do once you get that idea.

Most writers have many more ideas than they do time to write novels. (I do.) But in order to get and keep readers, you have to create a world large enough to sustain an entire novel- often several novels. You need characters that are strong and full. Ones that readers can identify with. (This takes a lot of work.)

So, a good place to start is with the characters. Building strong, in-depth characters with backstory (even if you don’t include all the backstory in your novel) helps you to formulate a more detailed storyline.

The same concept applies for creating a world. If your novel takes place somewhere other than Earth, or in some secret place on Earth no one knows about, creating a history is very useful. For myself, I draw a detailed map of the land and write pages on the different towns and landscapes. Most of this never reaches my revised versions, but having the background allows me to create a more realistic feel.

Believability is key. Let the readers escape their reality and plunge into your world. Some of the best novels I’ve read have made me forget what time it is or where I am. I get so involved that the characters seem real to me. I can see them, feel them, and I feel for them.

Your world has to be consistent and well thought out. The storyline needs tension, depth, and conflict. There’s got to be a sense that at any moment everything can blow up in the protagonist’s face. That threat of catastrophe is very important. If the stakes aren’t high enough, readers lose interest.

Building up to the climax, giving readers that sense of anticipation, incorporating a climax that blows them away, and then having a satisfying release are essential.

And, if you are working on a series, make sure to leave some threads unanswered. It’s never too early to think about what’s going into a sequel or the third novel in a trilogy. That way you can set up future story lines and keep readers wanting more.

How do you bring your ideas to the page?