Writer’s Notebook: Flabby Middles and How to Tone Them

I hope you are “muamuamuaing” at the title of this post, because honestly, there is no easy workout for abs and also no easy solution for dealing with problems in the midsection of a novel. I am discovering this right now, as I wade through my umpteenth draft, tearing out my once lustrous hair with my once well-tended hands.

It was so easy to crank out a first draft of my novel: writing the middle was sort of do-do-dooping around, making stuff up, following the whims of an inner compass I called a character. But now I face rewriting and revision, where embedding one change means changing points A, B, and C in the middle — and oh, that means you might have to add this here to set up that there, but you need to take this out and then move it there…and oh, that means you might have to shift this a bit, but then you have to move that. And suddenly it’s like, whoa, this story’s suddenly looking very Frankenstein-like, and just kind of a mess.

There is actually very little discourse/advice/discussion on narrative midsections. After all, you often hear, “Oh, that’s a great beginning” or “Man, that ending killed me!” But do you ever hear, “WOW!! YOUR MIDDLE PASSAGE KNOCKED MY SOCKS OFF!!!” No, you don’t! So I’m kind of at sea here.

And it doesn’t help when I keep referring to writing books or asking other big-story-type writers about the midsection of a novel, and all I hear is variations of “The middle of a story kind of writes itself.” (That would be you, Mr. Stephen King, although On Writing is a great book on the craft of storytelling.) Sure, that’s true in a first draft (for me at least), but I’m finding the middle — otherwise often loftily known as “Act Two” — super-difficult to revise, particular the 2nd half of the act, which is always my personal bete noire as a writer, no matter what form I’m writing in.

I’m a bit stymied, so I recently hit the books as well as my past notes from screenwriting classes to guide me. The great thing about all my screenwriting classes was that there was a LOT of focus on Act Two. “Act two” is the longest section of a screenplay (it takes up about half of a typically 120-page script and sits right in the middle.) And it is where magically the parts of your story unfurl in a storm of action, drama and momentum…after carefully setting up your character, world and dilemmas, of course. That’s the ideal; the truth is that, as one of my mentors in school always said, Act Two is often where the most difficult problems lie. It is often what they call a shit pickle to deal with and troubleshoot. It’s easy for writers to lose steam for various reasons in Act Two when drafting, and it’s also easy to lose your way when you’re delving in the thickets of revision.

Anyway, I thought I’d set down a random collection of the most helpful thoughts, tips, tricks, etc. that I gathered on my little quest for salvation here. It’s funny to go back to all of this screenwriting stuff and apply it to a novel. But that’s one of the great gifts of screenwriting — it’s so stripped down to images, dialogue and action that it makes it easy to see how the endoskeleton of a narrative works and fits together. And screenwriting’s an eminently unsentimental discipline, and that’s a good attitude to take when you approach revision and find you have to “kill your darlings.” Yes, I’m a darling-murderer now, and hopefully this may help you in your own mission to destroy adorable though unnecessary darlings.

“HALF THE PROBLEMS IN ACT TWO ARISE BECAUSE YOUR ANTAGONIST SUCKS.”

I always hear this in my former prof’s voice. He was a tall, rangy, domineering man, a real New Yorker with a voice as big as Broadway, and he loved to terrify people, but in this very loving way. He loved telling people when something “sucked,” always making sure you understood that it wasn’t you sucking — and he did it with such humor and insight that you forgave him his bluntness. And he LOVED telling you when your antagonist sucked, because it gave him an opportunity to teach on a problem he saw as the one of the biggest mistakes for most writers. Some writers really hate thinking in such basic English-class terms, like they are too sophisticated for such things as “bad guys,” but simplicity’s a real gift when it comes to writing. If you don’t want to think of it as “the antagonist,” you can think of it as your main character’s opposing force — and they have to be strong enough to get in the way, to really exert force in your story and make stuff happen that will force your main character to make decisions and act. (Characters put the “act” in “Act Two.” How’s that for a writing nerd bumper sticker?)

Act Two is when your main character begins to engage with the larger world and struggle of the story — it’s when Frodo sets out for Rivendell in Lord of the Rings, when Isabel Archer meets the despicable Osmond in Portrait of a Lady, when Zoolander decides to get his place back in the modeling world. My lovely mentor, who passed away a few years ago, was always of the mind that most writers don’t think through the opposing force enough, especially on a first draft. We’re too busy trying to get to know our main characters, working out plot stuff, do-do-dooping around. And that’s all well and good, of course — characters are so important.

But it does help loads to devote a pass at your opposing forces — to make sure they’re properly introduced (if a character — it can be a world, for instance), have strong motivations lined out (hopefully going against your main character’s), and act and make decisions as strong as your protagonist. For my own last draft, I actually stumbled on a secondary antagonist in a later draft, and am now amping them up in my current revision pass — pulling them up higher in the story, getting clear on their goals and agendas, and all that fun stuff. So if you find you’re running out of steam in Act Two — either in the first draft phase or the revision phase — take a look at your antagonistic force and world and make sure they’re strong enough. If you were telling this story from their point of view, what would that look like? What decisions would they make?

ARE YOU STICKING TO THE MISSION? GET BACK TO YOUR MAIN TENSION!

Most Act Twos in traditional storytelling form deal with what fancy screenwriter types call the central question, or the “main tension.” This is the narrative thrust of the story: will Romeo and Juliet get and stay together? Will Isabel Archer succeed in her quest for independence and making her own mark? Will Zoolander reach the top ranks of the male model world once again? Novels may not cleave so tightly often to the central question/main tension, but in screenwriting it’s very, very often used, and often in editing, writers, directors and editors often strip away reams of story to focus on this spine — often to much better effect. Sometimes, if you find your story’s middle losing steam, it helps to remember what the central narrative dilemma/question/matter of your story is, and take out anything that doesn’t deal with it.

SOMETIMES YOU JUST HAVE TO BLOW STUFF UP, i.e., EMBRACING YOUR STORY’S BRAND OF CRAZY AND NOT REPEATING YOUR BEGINNING

I’ve written before about feeling embarrassed in some ways by your story and being shy or somehow weirded out by what you were writing — and about how you have to accept this in order to write freely and fulfill the demands that the story is asking you to engage with. We all have these unspoken rules we write by, like, “No, I am going to write a sophisticated werewolf novel — no crazy howling scenes for me!” Or unspoken embarrassment or shame, especially if you’re writing work that is deeply personal, intensely sexual or just emotionally honest. Sometimes this asserts itself in the level of plot or story — sometimes you don’t want to do something because it feels too unsubtle, or strange, or just plain nuts. But often my friends, if you’re avoiding doing something in your story — maybe, just like in real life, you should just do it. So many times I’ve been stuck writing because I haven’t wanted to do something that felt really kind of lunatic to me, or too revealing — but then I just write it out and, lo and behold, things get moving again.

The other half of this point actually comes from On Writing by Mr. Stephen King, who mentioned how much he wrestled with The Stand. He just got stuck, which understandably sucked for him, engaged in this huge apocalyptic epic on the scale of Tolkien or other grand fantasy and sci-fi masters. Finally he realized it was because he was repeating the same patterns that had set up the “fall” that began the novel to begin with — the characters were doing the same damn thing they did earlier. He needed to do something to shake it all up. So, [SPOILER ALERT! HIGHLIGHT THE BLANK SPACE IF YOU WANT TO KNOW] he blew up a bomb and blew up some characters, too. (This is not as unsubtle as you’d think — this actually fits well within the theme of The Stand.)

What I’m saying is that, sometimes dear writer, you have to blow something up, too. Of course, this doesn’t have to be literal — your story’s equivalent of a BIG ACTION or BIG EVENT is likely different, whether it’s a cutting remark (think Dr. Sloper’s remark to his daughter in Washington Square about being like a sheep) or attempting to kill the Prime Minister of Malaysia in a fit of brainwashed activation (ah, Zoolander). Similar to how you have an event that propels the protagonist into Act Two, you may need another catalyst to shake up the game going into the downhill slope of Act Two. If you can find this goalpost early on in the story process, you may save yourself a lot of agony in the revision. If not, no biggie, but using the revision process to pinpoint it may keep you on track when you’re most in danger of getting lost.

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So there you go, lessons I have absorbed and relearned and gone through (sometimes again) in the course of revising my novel! Which, by the way, I’m winding up, finally, truly, yaaaaaaay — after being put through my paces on the above, of course! And now I leave you with some Zoolander:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mhtdQXMhVhI

xo k.

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