Today’s post was inspired by a workshop I’ve run in schools that links traditional tale plotting to story writing. A common problem in books is a meandering middle. The character has been sent on their adventure to solve their story problem and their problem worsens before it gets better so the tension needs to rise in increments before the climax. I often know the opening and climax to my stories but the rest I discover on the way, and that can lead to a saggy middle where the story meanders off track. And I don’t want my stories to turn out like my cakes.
My editor taught me something very simple, but a revelation:
Most of what happens in the book should be driven by the main characters decisions.
Seem obvious? Yes, but I’d somehow not thought of it quite that way. Often the middle is where my character is pushed from exciting scene to more exciting scene, with outside actions driving the narrative. The character is serving the story, acting a part in all the cool stuff the author has devised for them, but the story needs to be created by the character.
Dark forces are in pursuit and closing in? Make sure it’s the actions of your character that have inadvertently made things worse. That way, your character is learning and growing, strengthening for their final showdown. Rather than being ricocheted around by the force of the story inflicted on them, they drive it.
Easy to say, but how does it look?
Snuggle up and let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time, three little pigs are sent off to seek their fortune.This is the set-up, with the foreshadowing of their mother warning them about the big bad wolf. So, they sensibly build houses, to protect against the dark forces, but they make mistakes, which allows for rising tension. It is the pig’s decisionswhich lead to the problems. I hear your argument. It’s the wolf that drives this story – but I disagree.
First and pivotal bad decision the pigs make…they split up rather than living together. I would argue this the big lesson the pigs learn from this story. Sticking together makes you stronger.
So, making a straw house is a disastrous move – a very overconfident piggy decision – but the pig escaped. Phew. The wooden house should be fine though and now there’s two pigs hiding there, so stakes are rising.
Whoops. This wolf has got serious lungs and down comes the cabin. The piggy decision to split up, make a house of wood and now to have two pigs hiding there didn’t work out either. These pigs are driving this narrative with their daft decisions and really winding up this wolf into the bargain. Now he’s not just hungry, he’s hangry.
Finally, they have learned enough to make a good decision and are back together at the third pigs brick house. But they’ve really kicked a hornet’s nest with this wolf and all the silly houses and puffing. Can he find a weakness in the brick house? The pigs have finally come to the right decision that they are going to stick together and luckily the third pig is also smart. So, when wolf seems to be coming through the chimney this in your story would be the dark moment. After everything, he’ll have the three pigs trapped in a cage of their own making. But it can’t happen, the three pigs are together now, and of course – wolf ends up in the pot.
So, the pigs drove this story with their action. It seemed like they were being driven passively by the dark force of the wolf, but they were constantly making decisions, taking action and learning. They had to both earn and own the solution to their problem in order for it to satisfy the reader.
Don’t huff and puff your way through the meandering middle. Make your characters earn it and own it.
Lindsay was lucky enough to be raised in a house of stories, music, and love of the sea. She left part of her heart underwater after living and working in Thailand where she spent hundreds of blissful hours scuba diving. Forced now to surface for breath, she lives in sight of the chillier Sussex sea with her husband and two sons. When she is not writing, she can be found reading, swimming or practicing yoga. She has a degree in English Language and Literature, is fascinated by psychology and the natural world, and teaches Science. Lindsay hadn’t written creatively since childhood until the idea for her debut novel The Secret Deep splashed into her mind, and now she’s hooked.