Monday, April 3, 2017

Turning an Idea into Story: Building the Middle

The middle of a story is a trouble spot for many writers. Maybe it feels slow, maybe it feels boring, maybe you can't even figure out what happens next.

A good middle should be filled with complications.

If a character solves his problem or reaches his goal easily, the story is boring. To keep tension high, you need complications. For short stories, try the “rule of three” and have the main character try to solve the problem three times. The first two times, he fails and the situation worsens.

Remember: the situation should worsen. If things stay the same, he still has a problem, but the tension is flat. If his first attempts make things worse, tension rises.

For novels, you may have even more attempts and failures. In my first Haunted book, The Ghost on the Stairs, I made sure each ghost encounter felt more dangerous. As Tania tries to get closer to the ghost in order to help her, Jon worries that she will go too far and be injured or even killed. With enough variety, you can sustain this kind of tension indefinitely (witness the ongoing battle between Harry and Voldemort in the seven-book Harry Potter series).

Worse and Worser
You can worsen the situation in several ways. The main character’s actions could make the challenge more difficult. In my children’s mystery set in ancient Egypt, The Eyes of Pharaoh, a young temple dancer searches for her missing friend. But when she asks questions at the barracks where he was a soldier, she attracts dangerous attention from his enemies.

The villain may also raise the stakes. In my Mayan historical drama, The Well of Sacrifice, the main character escapes a power-hungry high priest. He threatens to kill her entire family, forcing her to return to captivity.

Secondary characters can cause complications, too, even if they are not “bad guys.” In The Ghost on the Stairs, the kids’ mother decides to spend the day with them, forcing them to come up with creative ways to investigate the ghost while under her watchful eyes.

Finally, the main character may simply run out of time. At her first attempt, she had a week. At her second attempt, she had a day. Those two attempts have failed, and now she has only an hour! That creates tension.

• For each turning point in the story, brainstorm 10 things that could happen next. Then pick the one that is the worst or most unexpected, so long as it is still believable for the story.

In the coming weeks, I'll have more advice on building an exciting and dramatic middle. 

Chris Eboch is the author of over 40 books for children, including nonfiction and fiction, early reader through teen. Her novels for ages nine and up include The Eyes of Pharaoh, a mystery in ancient Egypt; The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan adventure; The Genie’s Gift, a middle eastern fantasy; and the Haunted series, about kids who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, which starts with The Ghost on the Stairs. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers, and Advanced Plotting.


3 comments:

  1. This is great advice, and critical. So often, I have started to read a novel, and mid-way, I get bored and put it down. Even if I have invested a hundred pages of more - if I lose interest, the writer loses me!

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  2. Great post. I always tend to have my characters solve their problems too quickly. I need lots of reminders to keep throwing bigger and badder problems at them. Thanks for this. I'm bookmarking it!

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  3. That's a comment problem, Ruth. You know the problem and you know the solution, so it's tempting to go straight from one to the other. But adding some complications and twists in between can make it so much more exciting!

    I have more posts on building action-packed middles coming up in the next few weeks.

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