My first attempts at novel length stories were exhilarating and demoralizing.
Exhilarating because I could so clearly envision the beginning and end of the story.
Demoralizing because I could never quite manage to bridge the gap between the two.
Why is it that middles so often become baffling, exhausting, and tedious to get through?
I’ve been actively seeking the answer to that question and here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
While there are no hard and fast rules for writing a novel, there are a handful of techniques that make the process easier.
The first technique we’re going to reference is the Three Act Plot.
The general breakdown of the Three Act Plot looks like this:
Setup = 25% of story
Middle = 50% of story
Resolution = 25% of story
Whoa! No wonder the middle seems like a monkey on our backs. It’s half the story.
We need to cut that sucker down to size but where do we start?
By employing a middle-of-the-novel-tedium-busting technique I like to call “Lemony Snickett’s ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events.’”
This is the technique we’re going to focus on in this post.
Setting Up Goals
First, we need a story. We need a character who wants something and is willing to go after it until he succeeds in getting it.
For this exercise, we’re going to conjure a simple sketch.
Setup: Pete Dolan is a 20-year-old convenience store clerk and part time college student living on the third floor of a low rent apartment building whose sole redeeming feature is Gemma, the cute smart girl across the hall whose attention he hasn’t quite figured out how to spark.
Backstory: A few days after the start of the zombie apocalypse, Gemma is saddled with her sister and newborn niece. Sis is too stressed to nurse the baby. Without formula, sweet helpless baby will starve and in this crisis, Pete sees a way to gain Gemma’s affection and save a life to boot.
Now that we have a character and story in mind, we can get this post moving.
Pete’s inner goal is the pursuit of Gemma’s affection.
Pete may not be aware of this goal in a tangible way. He may just have a sense Gemma is too good for him. Perhaps he thinks he’s not brave enough or funny enough.
He needs a plumb line to find out whether he measures up. Maybe he’ll find out he’s brave after all. Or maybe he’ll find that as he pursues the outer goal (listed below) he becomes brave.
Pete’s outer goal is the pursuit of baby formula.
Pete is intensely aware of this goal. He understands a life is depending on him.
The outer goal becomes the plumb line he needs to prove to Gemma – and more importantly, to himself – that he is worthy of her affection.
Choosing to take on the outer goal locks him into the story.
He won’t be able to face Gemma, her sister, or himself if he fails to bring back formula.
The outer goal gives us the story question that pulls the reader though the story.
This means it’s important for the story question to be obvious and observable to the reader.
The story question of ‘The Milkman’ is: Will Pete bring back baby formula?
PUTTING GOALS IN MOTION
If the purpose of the story question is to pull readers through the story … then the purpose of the story is to push the character towards resolution of his inner goal as he pursues the outer goal.
Where does this all-important pursuit of outer goal take place?
Slap dab in the MIDDLE of story.
>>>> KEY POINT: Each scene in the MIDDLE should show character with his feet to the fire as he confronts the inner goal and scrambles to find a way through or around it in continued pursuit of the almighty outer goal.
In subjecting Pete to a ‘Series of Unfortunate Events’ during his pursuit of the baby formula (the outer goal) he comes closer, scene by scene, to resolving his relationship with Gemma (the inner goal).
Please note: the inner goal typically has deeper significance than ‘boy gets girl’ but for the sake of brevity and focus, we’re not going to dig into that particular hornet’s nest.
So, how does this ‘feet to the fire’ stuff work?
By giving the character smaller goals (scene questions) that lead to the success – or failure – of the big goal (aka ‘the story question).
Pete steps into the corner market and sees a can of baby formula on the shelf.
But a young neighbor runs past him followed by zombies.
Now Pete has a choice to make:
- Grab the formula and hope the boy doesn’t become zombie food before he can rescue him
- Save the boy and hope the formula is still there when he gets back
The scene question becomes ‘will Pete save the neighbor boy.’
Rather than derailing the story question, scene questions refine the character so that he is better able to accomplish the story question.
USING GOALS TO MOVE THE STORY TO ‘THE END’
In giving Pete small scale scene goals to fail or overcome in pursuit of the large scale story goal, we help him work towards fulfilling his inner goal.
Should Pete choose to save the neighbor boy, he demonstrates to the reader, to Gemma, and to himself, that bravery is in his nature.
This is the plumb line he’s been searching for to measure his character.
And that is how we make quick efficient work of the middle of our story.
We continue to put Pete in the line of fire to test his mettle and prove his worth.
- Don’t be afraid to mix things up, to pull the rug out from under our character.
- When he least expects it, let him fail. Or succeed.
- Whatever the outcome, he must face his fears and come away changed for better or worse.
Each scene should turn up the heat a little more.
Should Pete choose to save the neighbor boy, we immediately up the stakes.
Now he’s not only searching for baby formula, he’s doing it while safekeeping a child.
Take a moment to consider how this might affect his inner and outer goals.
Perhaps now that he is gaining a better sense of himself, he realizes he doesn’t want to strike up a relationship with Gemma and aspires to become part of the militia.
This adjustment of his inner goal doesn’t change the story question.
- He’s still committed to getting the formula.
- But now he wants it to achieve a different purpose, as proof that he’d be a valuable asset to the militia.
Nailing down your character’s inner and outer goals, and sending him in pursuit of them through a series of unfortunate events, will enable you to negotiate the middle of your novel with confidence and ease.