Episode 22: Stuck in the Middle

On December 8, 2018, we worked through part 2 of the 3-part structure of the story series. Here are the show notes:

Introductions

Dr. Kasie Whitener, Clemson Road Creative, fiction writer

Rex Hurst, English Instructor, fiction writer

Theme for the day

Stuck in the Middle

Agenda

  • Who we are and why we’re here
  • The topic for the week: Stuck in the Middle – how to keep your readers engaged and move the story along to completion
  • Book discussion — currently reading and its analysis through the lens of the topic
  • Craft book discussion — Elizabeth Berg’s Escaping into the Open
  • Famous Quotes – brought to us by Bonnie Stanard, show patron and Historical Fiction author
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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Segment 1

So, the basic structure of a story is Beginning, Middle and End and last week we gave you an episode dedicated to Beginnings. We could probably do another one on that topic, honestly, but before we’re run away with our feelings about starting something new, let’s move on to the middle of the story.

This blog defines the middle as “Here a series of events or complications occur, leading to an increase in the tension. This is also where the characters change and grow as they deal with the conflicts they face. Some of the minor crises are temporarily resolved, but the story continues in the direction of a major crisis, or climax.”

Let’s break that down into three basic things the middleof the story has to do:

  1. Consist of a series of events — something has to happen.
  2. Characters change and grow — that somethingthat happens is changing the characters for better or worse.
  3. Minor crises happen and are resolved, but somehow lead up to or foreshadow the majorcrisis which will be the climax.

What’s so hard about that?

The biggest fear is creating a “meh” middle — something that has readers bored, wondering when the action will pick up, when the character will finally learn his lesson, or when the villain will finally make his move.

We’ve all read books we’re just not that excited to come back to. We might be 60 pages in and wondering if we should bother continuing.

Segment 2

This blog gives us five ways to write better middles:

  1. Introduce a new character who will compete with the protagonist or at least interfere with your protagonist’s goal achievement. — When have we seen this work?
  2. Reveal a hidden piece of information that interferes with the protagonist’s goal.
  3. Let the protagonist fail (at something); when we think the task is even harder than it looked, we’re engaged as readers in watching the protagonist figure out a different way.
  4. Let a side character make a choice that hurts the protagonist; a betrayal or abandonment can be a powerful thing. Think Ron Weasley walking away from the Deathly Hallows pursuit.
  5. Countdown! Decrease the amount of time the character has to overcome the challenge. I did this in my novel After December, Brian learns his parents are moving away from his hometown which means this is the last time he’ll be “home” for all intents and purposes.

This blog talks about the middle being “saggy” and makes these suggestions:

  • Let an abrasive character push the story off course
  • Undermine the character’s strength — like letting him fail, but actually closer to that hero conversation we had where we realize not even the character’s super power will be enough to save him.
  • Prey on your character’s weakness — that addiction they thought they’d overcome, the thing they just can’t help doing; again, After December comes to mind when I let Brian hook up with the bartender, it’s a despicable thing to do and he can’t help himself.
  • Force a choice where both options are bad.

Segment 3

Let’s talk about raising the stakes. Like the countdown device, raising the stakes increases the pace of the story by complicating the choices our character has to make. The “stakes” are what a character has to lose by making specific choices or following certain paths, they’re also what they stand to gain if the gamble works out for them.

This blog uses Harry Potter as an example. More from this article:

  • Embed personal stakes in a larger conflict — think Luke Skywalker being chained to Tatooine by his aunt and uncle until they’re burnt by the Imperial Army and he has nothing but his own survival to think about; it’s the Rebellion, but it’s also Luke’s search for his father’s legacy and his own destiny.
  • Ensure the characters’ choices have consequences — a choice isn’t hard if there’s nothing at stake. Hard choices are compelling, easy choices not so much.
  • Use tension and pacing — the level of tension is directly related to the “what’s at stake?” question; there’s very little tension in the school cafeteria when they run out of chocolate milk. Pacing is a matter of rhythm and it works at the chapter level, the scene level, even the page- and sentence-levels. The pacing should match the stakes and tension.

We may need an entire episode on “stakes” but until then, here’s three quick questionsto ask in assessing your story’s compelling plot:

  • Did I establish the stakes at the beginning of the story?
  • Have I reminded the reader of the stakes as we’ve progressed?
  • Have I escalated them or have they remained the same throughout?

And, a few easy ways to fix broken stakes:

  1. Remove the path of least resistance.
  2. Kill someone that matters to the story and the protagonist. (i.e. render a “dead end”)
  3. Let another character learn your protagonist’s well-kept secret.
  4. Create external circumstances that are out of the character’s control (like weather).

Segment 4

Our craft book this month is Escaping into the Open by Elizabeth Berg which is all about writing for the joy of it and throwing caution to the wind and ignoring advice. Which is great since we’re a show about giving writing advice.

But she does have this chapter (8) on writing classes and I want to share some of that. I consider what we do here to be a kind of weekly writing class and as such, we have lessons we impart and work we do. So, for what it’s worth, here’s what she says about writing classes:

  • You don’t need them.
  • They can be valuable, they can also be a waste of time.
  • Too many can make you vulnerable — make you heavily influenced by others and not your own kind of writer
  • Do not expect your instructor to 1) spend more time on your work than on others’, 2) use her contacts to get YOU published, or 3) stay after class to discuss your work one-on-one with you.

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