Oh, those damned middles!

MiddleYou know how it starts, and you know how it ends. Now what?

For many, including most of my writing students, the gaping black hole which sits between the beginning and the end of a story can be daunting. How does one navigate that? How does one manufacture the trys and fails that will fill the void and entertain the masses?

I appreciate how challenging it can be to maintain the pace of constant threats and resolutions. What helps me is having more than one point of view character. It may sound counter-intuitive, since it involves more plot problems rather than less, but it works for me.

With multiple POV characters, I’m given the option to tell more than one side of the story. It’s best if the players involved have competing motives. F’rinstance:

Polly PopularOne could start with Polly Popular, an entertainer at the bottom of the show biz ladder. She’s maybe working on a cruise ship doing song and dance at night while running bingo games and ping pong tournaments during the day. Her goal is to make it big in Hollywood. Obviously, she has a long way to go. We introduce her being hassled by some asshat cruise director with a grudge against her. Person, place, problem, right?

Next up is Daniel Dirtbag, a loser extraordinaire who is being pressured to commit a heinous crime to pay off gambling debts. All he has to do is follow instructions. It’s either that, or he can pay with his life. Oh, yeah, he lives near the cruise ship docks. Person, place, and problem number two.

Now we toss in Tommy Tourist, a fellow who’s been on his own so long, he can’t even spell female companionship. A recluse, the only reason he’s booked passage on the cruise is because his mother, who still loves him, insisted on it or she’d write him out of her will. Tommy isn’t interested in adventure, and he dreads the thought of being on a boat miles and miles from shore. He spends his paycheck on seasick pills and goes anyway. Person, place and problem number three.

Bad guyFinally, we could even add yet another character, or two! Maybe it’s a wannabe mob boss who wants to extort money from the cruise line, or it could be a real terrorist *posing* as a mobster. Either way, there needs to be some pressure (read: problem) that they’re responding to. For the mob boss, maybe it’s the need to show he’s tougher than anyone else competing for the top job. For the terrorist, maybe it’s a demand from the head of his jihadist organization–“Perform, buddy, or we behead your wife and kiddies.” Et voila, we have yet another person, place and problem.

As the story is told, we switch views over and over. First it’s Polly dealing with her issues. We learn about the tragedies in her life and why she has decided to substitute success for romance. At first, her biggest issue is the cruise director. He’s pissed at her because she refused his advances. Now he wants to punish her for it. (Readers will love her for this; who hasn’t had a boss who hates them because they wouldn’t give in?)

We learn that Tommy has dreams, too. But he doesn’t believe in himself enough to accomplish anything. His inhibitions have tied him in emotional Saran Wrap. In an effort to avoid other passengers, he walks through crew quarters and encounters a weeping Polly. Stricken by her beauty and her emotional state, he begins to rise to the occasion demanding to know what he can do to help her.

Meanwhile, Daniel Dirtbag is given his orders. He’s to board the cruise ship with a carry-on bag given to him by one of the mob’s henchmen. It’s heavy. He’s told to leave it in his cabin when he goes to dinner. He’s also told the bag is rigged to explode if anyone opens it.

The clock is ticking for the mob boss–or the terrorist, doesn’t matter. Someone higher up wants results, sooner rather than later, but naturally, there are problems. There must always be problems!

The reason this approach works for me is because it allows me to get away with writing a single scene featuring the problems of only one or two characters. I don’t have to think about anything except how this one scene will advance the over-all plot: Polly is upset; Polly finds an unlikely ally; Polly plots revenge against the Cruise Director; etc.

TommyMeanwhile, Tommy is rapidly falling in love; he rearranges everything to be near Polly; Polly’s co-worker, not realizing Polly has encouraged Tommy, thinks the geeky passenger is stalking poor Polly. She decides to do something about him, etc.

Daniel has a crisis of conscience, and instead of putting the bag of explosives in his cabin near the engine room, he sneaks it onto one of the life boats near an upper deck. Then he discovers that the mob boss (or terrorist) has put another agent on board to watch him. He has to move the bomb or risk having his treachery discovered. Just as he’s about to sneak back onto the lifeboat to grab it, the ship’s captain announces a surprise lifeboat drill, etc.

The point of all this is that you have flexibility to pursue several different stories at once. Everything intertwines; one player’s success becomes another’s failure. Making these interactions work will generate opportunities for surprises. Tommy gets drunk; Polly gets pregnant; Daniel goes into denial; the FBI takes out the terrorist; a rival gang kills the mob boss. Tommy falls for the gal who thinks he’s a stalker. Whatever.

As long as you know how the story ends, you can take the middle pretty much anywhere you want to go. Just remember to bring the players back into position for the climax, and it should be the biggest firecracker in your July 4th collection. It’s the one everyone’s been waiting for. That’s where everything comes together for one last, grand collision: Polly and Tommy realize they aren’t good for each other, and Polly runs off with Daniel who turns out to be the real hero. The mob boss/terrorist is left dangling over the rail, forty feet above the cruise ship’s drive screws. If he falls, his death will be both quick and certain, to say nothing of gruesome. Who doesn’t love gruesome ends for bad guys?

Mean kidAlas, you won’t be happy with the first ending. It’s too bland and uncertain. So you start to rethink things, and you come up with yet another character, albeit one who isn’t a point of view character. It’s a mean little kid. Yes, I know it’s a sterotype, but who cares?

In the revision, we introduce Little Bobby Butthead, who shows up repeatedly throughout the story. He pops up once again at the end, this time with a very sharp knife purchased in a tourist stall on one of the islands the cruise ship visited. Wee little Bobby sees the bad guy dangling, helplessly. Bobby’s mom is, characteristically, nowhere around. Neither is anyone else. Bobby remembers when the miscreant dangling below shoved him out of the way earlier in the voyage. He takes the knife from his pocket, giggles, and starts sawing away on the rope.

End of story.

Wphew! There’s an entire novel outlined in — I dunno — twenty minutes. It’s got more middle than most folks will know what to do with.

Now it’s your turn. Go write something better!

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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4 Responses to Oh, those damned middles!

  1. dorisreidy says:

    That mob boss looks distressingly familiar!

  2. quintessentialeditor says:

    “The point of all this is that you have flexibility to pursue several different stories at once.” Well spoken and true. I heard it described as this; Each character in your book, whether you want to acknowledge it or not, is the center of their own universe. They are the most important character in the book in their own eyes. By limiting their voices or viewpoints you can be cutting out some interesting interactions (perhaps it’s from Stephen King’s book, On Writing).

    The only issue I can foresee is the more characters you introduce, the less time the reader gets to know them. The trick then becomes, how do we manage to make them care about them enough to be invested in their futures? After all we don’t want it to turn into a 10-year class reunion where you have to meet everyone all over again, when lets face it, you just wanted to see what your high school crush looked like after all this time. However, when it’s done right, and it certainly can be – what a payoff.

    Great post!

    • joshlangston says:

      It helps if you’re writing a novel. [smile] I’ve used the technique in short fiction, but as you suggest it takes time for a reader to get to know a player. The trick is to make them interesting, if not actually sympathetic. The difference is huge in the long run, less so for starters. But, thanks for the feedback; you’ve just given me a topic for a future post!

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