Mid-book crisis

Before I start, I want to let you know that a poem of mine, “Snow Fight,” was just published in the fall/winter 2012 edition of the poetry journal Sugar House Review. The poem won’t hurt you if you’re below high school age, but it was written for adults. I haven’t read the whole issue yet, so I can’t speak for the rest. I’d say high school and above is safest. If you’re interested in getting a copy, here’s the link: http://www.sugarhousereview.com/subscribe.html.

On October 3, 2012, unsocialized homeschooler wrote, I wonder about middles. I always have some sort of ending in mind when I start writing and beginnings are usually easy for me, but it’s the middle that’s the hardest. Getting from point A to point C is always rough for me, and I can’t just skip point B. Some people have told me to take a while and outline everything, but I’m not a fan of outlines, and they don’t seem to work for me. Does anyone have any tips for getting through sagging middles?

In my opinion, there are two secrets to middle for writers who don’t outline. One lies in our characters, our main character and our secondaries. We’ll start there, and I’ll get to the second later.

Let’s look at it in terms of fairy tales, stories with the simplest of structures. Here are the beginnings and the ends of a few.

Beginning: Evil queen discovers that Snow White has surpassed her in beauty and is overcome with jealous rage.

End: Evil queen dances to death in red hot shoes at the wedding of Snow White and the prince.

Beginning: Cinderella’s father marries a horrible woman with two equally horrible daughters, and she’s made the servant of this terrible troika.

End: Cinderella marries the prince and forgives her stepfamily.

Beginning: Sleeping Beauty’s parents fail to invite an unforgiving fairy to the christening of their daughter.

End: Sleeping Beauty wakes up to a kiss by her prince.

In each of these we could drive a herd of cattle, a circus, and a marching band between the beginning and the end, meaning that anything could happen. Neither the middle nor the end is made necessary by the beginning. Let’s take the most complex of the three, “Snow White.” To get to the end and to fill up the middle, the inventor of the tale in the mists of history hauled in a magic mirror, a kind-hearted hunter, seven dwarves, and a prince – and gave the queen a few witchy powers.

Seeds for the middle and the end lurk within the character of the queen. She’s furious, but she doesn’t slip into Snow White’s bedroom at midnight and bludgeon her to death. Maybe she’s afraid of being caught, or maybe even she shies away from that degree of violence. She wants the awful deed done, but she doesn’t want to do it herself – at first. Her unwillingness moves the story along.

The next seed is that she’s a bad judge of character. She doesn’t notice the hunter’s kindness or the admiring glances he bestows on Snow White.

Snow White herself isn’t much help. She’s more of a pretty chess piece who moves from place to place merely because she’s pushed. When she’s abandoned in the forest she walks, I’ll give her that. And she stumbles on the dwarves’ cottage. You know the rest. The dwarves warn Snow White of her danger, but she’s too stupid or foolish to listen. The queen overcomes her squeamishness about violence, decides to do the job herself, and finally seems to succeed. Then the dwarves’ love for Snow White causes the next plot turn when they, weirdly, put her in a glass coffin. Finally we have a prince who, weirdly again, falls for a seemingly dead maiden.

The point is, the story moves forward through the middle because of the characters.

Let’s look at my version, Fairest, which also progresses because of the characters. Behind the scenes are the parents who abandon Aza and set her story in motion. And there are the innkeepers who take her in and mold her into a character who, although insecure,  knows she’s loved and has solid values. We also have: the duchess, who can’t go to a wedding without a servant; a prince who has an eye for the exotic (Aza); a king who loves his wife; a queen who is phenomenally insecure and jealous; an evil magic mirror; and, way behind the scenes, a crazy fairy. They all, directly or indirectly, rub against Aza and, because of their complexity, create the scenes that make the plot seem to rattle along but actually slow the story’s progression with interesting moments and surprises – a satisfying middle.

Here’s the second secret, which has to do with endings. What we need to do when we enter our middle is to forget about the end with ninety percent of our brains. Only ten percent of our mind can have its eye on the finish line. And the finish line shouldn’t be worked out in detail if we haven’t outlined. If the ending is too distinct, we may force our characters to behave a certain way and they may never come to life.

Let’s try it. In our beginning, Beryl’s village has been destroyed by war. Her parents were killed, and her brother and sister were taken by the army. Let’s say she’s fifteen, old enough to have been taken too, but she was missed because she was visiting someone on the village outskirts. She’s left behind with the elderly, the sick, and the very young. Rebels prey on skeletal villages like hers. The survivors have to get to safety. We know that in the end Beryl and some of the others will make it to some haven or other, although we don’t know exactly what that will be.

We’ve written the beginning in which Beryl returns to the center of the village and discovers how bad matters are. We look around with her and consider what characters we might have. Well, we’ll probably want one or two who can help her and a few who will make her task much tougher. For the ones who can help her, there could be a child who has a hidden strength and there could be an elder who has past experience with the methods of the rebels. For the ones who get in the way, one could be too sick to move. Another could disagree with all Beryl’s ideas and could divide the villagers. We might want to figure out a way to include a rebel or two in our cast. Maybe Beryl goes spying or a lone rebel is caught by a sentry.

We’ve got quite a bit of middle going already. The very ill character gets a scene or two, likewise the one who pits characters against one another. Beryl may be slow to realize that the child with the special strength (whatever it is) has it. The one with experience may be reluctant for some reason to share. Beryl’s spy mission could run a dozen pages. The rebel who’s caught becomes part of the action.

There can be natural crises, too – a hurricane, a blizzard, earth tremors, whatever. Food can run short. More food can be discovered. In each of these, the characters will respond characteristically. There won’t merely be a hurricane, there will also be characters behaving foolishly or bravely or brilliantly in the face of it.

And it isn’t enough to grasp what the characters’ roles will be in our plot, we also have to develop the characters themselves. For example, the character who has had dealings before with the rebels may be long-winded. Beryl will need qualities that help her and others that get in her way. Maybe in the past she’s always given up too easily and she’s distracted by grief for her family but she’s a good listener and she has hunches that usually pan out.

As we’re fooling around with all this middle stuff, we have an eye out for the passage that will lead us to safety, but we also have in mind that some element of the safety should be surprising. Safety, yes, but not exactly in the form the reader expects.

Here are three prompts:

• Tell Beryl’s story, changing any elements or characters you like. Go for at least five scenes in the middle.

• Expand “Sleeping Beauty” and keep the fairies who come to the christening on the scene. Have them and other castle characters get involved in creating a middle. Remember, in the fairy tale there’s an ongoing effort to keep Sleeping Beauty from pricking herself. Decide in a vague way how you’d like the tale to end. You aren’t locked into the long sleep and the big hedge and the prince.

• Retell one of my fairy tale examples or any other fairy tale you like, but make it modern and have it take place in an acting troupe or a circus or a dance school or any other situation that will bring in a bunch of characters. Again, keep your plans for the ending indistinct.

Have fun and save what you write!

  1. Since Gail has kindly encouraged us to share our writing successes, the first of my Twisted Fairy Tale Series went into the public archive at Daily Science Fiction today. It's called "Fool's Gold." (I think the whole series is appropriate for anyone old enough to access it themselves, although not everything on the DSF site is.)

    And on January 30, you can see another take on why a prince would fall for a seemingly dead maiden. 🙂

  2. Oh, and thanks, Gail, for the post (as usual!). I don't really seem to have a lot of problems with the middle – probably since I'm a summarizer – but you still managed to put in some advice that I found helpful an interesting.

  3. That was great advice. I have trouble with middles/endings, and I've always tried to fix stories by focusing on the plot. Focusing on the characters themselves sounds both potentially more effective and more fun.

  4. Mrs. Levine, I have a question. May I use the story about Beryl? When I read this post, I started imagining the whole story up. I am just wondering if its OK with you to use your idea. If not, I won't. I've changed her name to Rysa, so that's what she'll be named if you agree. I absolutely LOVE your books, but my favorite is Fairest, and I was wondering if you had tunes in mind when you composed the songs. Did you?

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