Saturday, 26 March 2016
In part 1 we looked at three of the various ways a story can sag in the middle, what is commonly referred to as the ‘mid story crisis’, things like running out of steam, not knowing what goes in the middle section and the characters running out of things to say to move the story forward, so in this concluding part we’ll take a look at some more reasons and the ways that writers can avoid these common problems.
If you find that your story struggles with what to do next, this is usually because you have run out of ideas – the kind of ideas that should push the story forward. Many stories tend to start off with plenty of momentum and fire, but then they start to trundle after ten or eleven chapters and eventually they become a chore because the zest of those first ten or eleven chapters has worn off.
And the magic reason why? The writer hasn’t planned anything. They haven’t outlined chapters or thought through scene scenarios, nor do they truly know what the main character’s goal actually is. If a writer can’t be bothered to outline the novel – a complex piece of work – there is no point trying to ‘wing’ it.
It doesn’t work.
Another common problem is when the story begins to wander off on a tangent or it meanders aimlessly so far from the plot that it bears no relation to the actual story or has little connection with the characters. This kind of problem isn’t always noticeable straightaway and only becomes apparent when you do a read through once the novel is complete.
It’s common for writers to drift off course – we’ve all done it, but sometimes our focus shifts from one thing to another, or a subplot or thread takes our attention away from the main plot and we don’t realise we’ve drifted from the original story path. The good thing is that during the read through, the problem will become very apparent and it’s easily corrected with re-writing.
This problem happens because there has been no planning as to where the story might go and how it might get there. This is why, unfortunately, a lot of novels are rubbish – the writer has simply gone with the flow in the hope that all those tangent strands kind of knit together and make sense by the end. That rarely works.
Always know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. It will save a lot of time editing and re-writing.
Another classic symptom of a sagging middle is padding. Huge wads of it. This is when the writer ‘pads’ out the story with all sorts of extraneous stuff in order push up the word count and inch towards the ending, without the need to form ideas or be creative. In reality, the padding isn’t pertinent to the story, it’s just unnecessary wordage when ideas and creativity – and everything else – is lacking, and readers won’t thank you for it.
Unfortunately, padding is a huge problem and a serious symptom of desperation in the face of no fresh ideas, a lack of planning, not knowing where the story should go, or being unsure of what to do with the characters. It’s like trying to put together a broken teapot – nothing quite fits exactly as it should.
If you start padding the story with the superfluous, then you know there is a major problem. To correct it you will have to go back through the work to identify the problem areas – and examine why you’ve used padding – then you need to get rid of it. You may end up doing more writing in the end to compensate for the padding.
More experienced writers will recognise when they’re padding and will do something about it before it gets out of hand, however, the best way to avoid all these problems and avoid the mid story crisis is to plan, plan, plan.
Before you even start to write, know exactly what the story is about and whose story it is. Know why the story is taking place, and make sure that the main character has a clear goal to achieve, plenty of dilemmas to face and problems to solve. You have to know how their journey begins and how it might end.
You must know roughly what happens at each stage of the novel, and what subplots and themes there might be, rather than trying to write with virtually no ideas or clear vision in mind, because this type of writing simply doesn’t work.
Of course, there are no golden rules in this instance and writers can do as they please, but if a writer wants to avoid that mid-story crisis – and the problems associated with it – then the best way to produce a quality, solid piece of work is to plan and plot in advance.
It’s one of the smartest things any writer can do.
Next week: The art of captivating first lines
Sunday, 20 March 2016
There are lots of reasons why writers get to a certain point in their novel and then hit a brick wall. They seem unable to proceed, as though stuck with nowhere to go, nothing to write or nothing to say.
Some say this is a symptom of writer’s block, but any blockage lies with the writer, not the blank page, so more often than not, the gradual realisation that that the book is going nowhere is known as a mid-story crisis. The ‘crisis’ in question can encompass all manner of things, so we’ll take a look at the main reasons, why they happen and ways writers can recognise them and combat them.
The good news that most writers have suffered the ‘mid story crisis’ at some point in their writing careers, so it’s not uncommon.
Every writer starts their novel out with enthusiasm and fire, but then halfway through the process, things become sluggish, writing becomes harder and eventually the writing grinds to a halt. They struggle to understand why this happens, particularly when they have all the ingredients of a great story - a tight plot, interesting and plausible characters and plenty of conflict. But the problem is rarely anything to do with these.
The reasons that writing sags halfway through a novel are more complex and every writer should learn to recognise the symptoms:-
1. What actually goes in the middle?
2. The story has run out of steam
3. The characters have nothing interesting to say
4. There are no new ideas – the story struggles on what happens next
5. The story meanders
It’s an obvious question, but it’s surprising just how many writers ask this. What goes in the middle, what should I write? Well, the heart of your story, that’s what.
We tend to divide a novel into the sections (they’re not acts, since you’re not writing a play, and it shouldn’t be confused for one). There is a beginning, middle and an end. The beginning is the anchor for the story – it must start at the heart of the action, introduce your protagonist and their dilemma and it must grab the reader.
The middle is where the story settles in and establishes other characters, provides information, subplots evolve, it explores the themes in the story, it creates different conflicts, it creates obstacles for the main character to overcome, but more importantly, it sets up how the ending will unfold.
The ending, your last section, is where subplots and plot twists are resolved, where revelations may occur and the main character finally attains his or her goal, with a satisfactory conclusion.
It becomes clear why some writers struggle with the middle section – it has more going on than the beginning or the ending put together. It’s where the important action takes place, and often the problem of what should make up that middle section manifests because the writer hasn’t bothered to outline anything or plan what might happen during the story.
This is why they struggle to write or maintain the middle section.
This is also a predominant reason why the story can run out of steam as it emerges from the excitable beginning section. The saggy middle happens because of one overwhelming fact – the writer hasn’t bothered to plan the novel. Writers who write by the seat of their pants don’t realise that the result is a headache-inducing mess – they never see that it’s a mess, and rarely admit they’re wrong about it, but lack of planning always lead to weak story structure and an uphill struggle to make it all fit together and make sense, (which leads to the problem of forced storytelling).
How do you rectify this major problem? Before you even write a word of the story, do a brief plan or chapter outline of likely events; create a rough guide from which to work. Most writers get the beginning part of the novel right, but often struggle with the middle and the end. That’s because they haven’t thought the story through.
A novel is a complex structure, so to write it without any thought to how it will evolve is just foolish.
What about when characters run out of stuff to say? It’s not just the characterisation that suffers; it also means the story isn’t moving forward, since character dialogue does just this, and if your story isn’t moving forward, then the story has failed.
But why do characters run out of things to say? Again, it’s all to do with planning at the beginning. A rough guide helps the writer navigate through the story, from chapter to chapter, scene to scene, with enough going on to give the characters plenty to say – that is, plenty of pertinent things. If they have plenty to do, they will have plenty to say.
When characters start talking about the mundane or the kind of things that have nothing to do with the story, it’s because there is no further story for them to tell – if no more events and incidents happen, then there is nothing for them to talk about.
If you plan your novel in advance, however, then you’ll plot those incidents and events, and you’ll do so on an escalating basis. You’ll also have ideas for emerging subplots, so characters will have lots to say because there will be plenty of conflict, emotion and tensions. And at the same time, the story will move forward, giving the reader the impetus to keep reading, to want to find out what happens next.
In Part 2 we’ll look at three more reasons for the cause of a mid-story crisis – lack of ideas, a meandering story and the use of padding, and ways to avoid them.
Next Week: How to Avoid Mid a Story Crisis – Part 2
Saturday, 12 March 2016
Last week we looked at how you create a cast of supporting characters, and this week we continue the theme by looking at just how important those supporting characters are.
Nothing happens in any story without the secondary characters getting involved on many different levels. They contribute more to any story than just “being in the background”. Their importance shouldn’t be ignored – they don’t just interact with the main characters or provide a foil, but instead they help advance the plot, they move the story forward, carry subplots, heighten conflict, reveal information and do much more.
Supporting characters also need to be vivid – they won’t share the same amount of time in the spotlight as your protagonist and antagonist – so they need to reflect real people, they should be intriguing and interesting enough for the reader to care about them.
It’s surprising just how some secondary characters shoulder more story than you think. If done correctly, they help to make the story rather than hinder or cause problems with it. Imagine a story without them. Unless you are actually writing a story with just one character, the world that your protagonist inhabits will be a pretty lifeless one. There would be little tension, little conflict, no subplots, little character development...in fact, there wouldn’t be much at all.
That’s why we need minor characters to fill those voids and help the plot evolve.
The characters you create are always acting and reacting to what is happening, either directly with the protagonist/antagonist, or through subplots, which means they are brilliant at advancing the plot, which they do through their dialogue and their actions. That’s because they are often the cause of tension and conflict, which every writer knows is paramount to moving a story forward.
Their appearance also allows the main character to interact and become involved with them in so many ways and on so many levels, so the plot always gets to move forward.
But the single most important reason we have secondary characters is to help tell the story and advance the plot.
Often writers assign subplots to secondary characters, or subplots that involve an important secondary character and the protagonist. Their role is vital, because a main character can only do so much within the main story arc, so subplots are an excellent way of giving more for the reader.
There may be a romance side story with the hero and the secondary character – this is an often used subplot. There could be an instance where a secondary character plots against the main character. Subplots like these, with secondary characters at the helm, help to create tension and move the story forward.
They Help Develop Themes
Secondary characters are a rich resource - they engage one another, they interact with the main characters and with the plot to enhance and bring forward the themes of any novel. Through them, the writer can highlight those themes.
For example, in a story about war, if two secondary characters are punished in a prison camp while attempting to help the main character to escape, their ordeal may highlight the themes of cruelty and desperation. Or there could be a minor character that surprises the main character with an act of generosity to help him out, thus bringing to light the theme of kindness. Other secondary characters might be callous or mean in order to show the theme of evil.
That’s how easy it is for secondary characters to help show the reader the themes of the novel. Writers use their minor characters effectively and cleverly, so much so that the reader doesn’t even notice, but they understand the development of the secondary characters and they understand the themes.
They Heighten Conflict
Secondary characters are defined by their actions; they are often the root cause of conflict because they can be confrontational, deceptive, duplicitous or even horrible with the relationship between other characters.
Writers use minor characters to spark off others, to lay the foundations to further conflict and tension or to help foreshadow events. They can cause arguments or disagreements, they can set off a chain of events, they can be like a naughty toddler, out to cause mayhem. Conversely, they can also be helpful and kind and bring positive change to the main character.
They can be so useful in setting up certain important scenes, and not all secondary characters are the same. They are all as individual as us.
The main character needs secondary characters for interaction. Actions and reactions are important – what characters do and how they react push the story along and give it momentum. And by doing that, they also help the main character develop as they story unfolds; they add contrast and depth and add layers to the underlying story, so they are much more than just making up the numbers.
They work with your main character, rather than overshadow him or her. Their actions and reactions help develop all your characters in direct relation to the story arc.
They Reveal Information
Main characters can’t do everything the story demands of them, which is why we have secondary characters to do that for them, and one of the ways to use these characters is to provide or feed useful information to the reader.
In other words, they are a great way to reveal certain things, to drop hints or to foreshadow. They do this through direct actions, their dialogue or their interactions with the main character.
Some of the most memorable supporting characters leave their mark because they’re so well written and the writer has used them so well. Think of Red in the Shawshank Redemption. What about Orr in relation to Yossarian in Catch-22, Sirius Black in the Harry Potter books, or young Beth, in Little Women?
They are characters we love and loathe in equal measure, yet they all make us remember them. Minor characters can make a big impact, so never forget their importance.
Next week: How to avoid a mid-story crisis.
Monday, 7 March 2016
While every good story needs memorable main characters, they are nothing without a supporting ensemble of secondary characters. That’s because it’s not just your main characters that carry the story – other characters play an important role in conveying the story, too.
While secondary characters don’t drive the story in the same way that the antagonist does, they move it forward in their own ways; they shoulder the responsibility for different points of the story and they strengthen it when involved with subplots. They often have strong connections to the main character – they might be family members, friends or colleagues, or even enemies. They also have strong connections with the story arc and subplots.
Any supporting cast of characters has their own little part to play in the story. In other words, they have a reason to be there. Why are they there? What will they do for the story? What is their motivation? What conflict will they cause? How will they move the story forward? How will the directly affect the main character?
Once you’ve answered those questions and you find that there is no real reason for that character to be in the story, you should cut them.
So how do you create the right supporting characters?
Writers tend to go awry because they don’t spend enough time developing the right secondary characters. There’s a lot to be said about planning in advance before writing a novel, and characters are no different. Plan your characters before you write. Get the right names for them, give them backgrounds and history and make them believable people.
Conversely, writers sometimes spend too much time creating insignificant characters that bring nothing to the story and just make it worse. By all means plan them, but not too much that it takes up too much time and effort.
The other common problem is that writers – especially beginners – often create too many characters in the belief that the story needs them. It doesn’t.
Create too many characters and the reader won’t know whether they’re coming or going with who’s doing what, where and with whom. It will be too confusing for them and they just won’t read the story. Too few characters and the story might become too weak; it would be hard to move it forward.
The key here is balance. In order for the reader to keep up with the people that populate your story, it’s advisable to have no more than a handful of characters that they can follow easily.
So, with a modest sized cast of characters, you need to give them a reason to be part of the story. That means they have to have motivation, just like your main characters. Add a little background information. What is that character’s relationship with the main character? Is there a friendship or something deeper? Is there some conflict – friendly or otherwise?
Do they represent something within the story, such as a moral, a warning, a foreshadowing or something symbolic? Many writers use secondary characters as metaphors – some represent evil or hope, for instance. In other words, secondary characters have relevance to the story and the protagonist.
As with both protagonist and antagonist, any secondary character should be just as flawed and three dimensional, so make sure they have their own personalities and quirks – this provides familiarity and immediacy, which the readers love. It makes the characters ordinary, just like your readers. Just because they are secondary doesn’t mean they have to be made of cardboard.
Give them strengths as well as weaknesses, just like real people.
Your supporting cast will provide for and represent different aspects of the story. They should help the story move forward. They should assist your main character in his or her quest, but never overshadow them.
To create a supporting cast of characters:
- Plan your characters before you write.
- There should be the right amount of characters – not too many or too few.
- They should have a little backstory.
- They must be relevant to the story.
- There should be connection to the main character and the story or subplot.
- They must have a reason to be there; they have motives.
- They should represent something within the story.
- They should be three dimensional, with flaws, strengths and weaknesses.
- They should provide opportunity for conflict.
Things to Avoid
There are all sorts of problems that writers create when they gather their supporting cast together and one major problem is when secondary characters overshadow the main character. This occurs because the writer focuses too much scene time on a support character instead of the main character.
Similarly, writers often inadvertently switch importance of characters halfway through writing, which means the protagonist and secondary characters swap places and that just confuses the story for writer and reader.
Another common problem that writers fall back on is when they invent a secondary character as a prop to plug a huge plot hole or they bring in a character for the sake of drama or tension. It doesn’t work, it’s contrived, and the reader won’t thank you for it.
Creating a supporting cast of characters is vital for a good story; people we will remember, love, dislike, laugh with and become attached to. Without them, there wouldn’t be much of a story, so just remember to develop them and flesh them out properly.
Next week we’ll continue the theme with supporting characters and just how important they are to any story.
Next week: The Importance of Secondary Characters