17 July 2008

2 Plot Tips for the Middle

Two recent plot consultations revealed the same dilemma -- both writers were faltering as they made the approach to the Crisis, which occurs about 3/4, give or take, through the entire project.

The Problem
Characters, setting, set-up, premise, and action move from the superficial, introductory mode of the Beginning to the gritty, challenging world of the Middle, the heart of the story world itself.

In the middle, masks fall away and the characters reveal themselves for who they truly are, warts, flaws, fears, prejudices, and all. At this point in the relationship, just like in life, the story tends to get messy. Fights can ensue. Feelings can get hurt. Because of that, writers often back away, afraid of what the characters will reveal about themselves, doubting their ability to manage the dark side of the characters.

Writers tend to want to back off when they approach the Crisis. And why not? We shy away from disaster, drastic upheaval, or deep loss in our own lives. Why would we want to do any differently for our characters? Yet, that is exactly what the Crisis is -- the suffering that occurs when the protagonist's whole world shatters and doesn't make sense anymore. Because only out of the ashes of the old self can a new self come into being -- the beginning of the character's ultimate transformation.

When things get messy, writers often long for the good old days at the Beginning of the relationship when things were smooth and happy, and superficial. Don’t give into the urge to go back and start over again. The truth of the relationship and the characters emerge in the Middle.

Plot Tips and Tricks
1) Use of Antagonists
Writers who make friends with as many antagonists as they can create seem to slog their way through the Middle without as much mishap as those who have not fostered such relationships.

The six basic antagonists are: other people, nature, God, machines, society and the characters themselves.

If you are trying to deepen your skill at showing character development, of the six antagonists, the inner workings of the characters themselves offer the richest form of support. In terms of plot, three basic character traits have the potential to create scenes with the most conflict, tension and suspense or curiosity: the character’s flaw, fear, and hatred.

For example, in the Beginning of To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee introduces Scout, the protagonist, with the flaw, among others, of being insensitive to other people’s feelings. In the Middle, Lee turns the tables on Scout. Now, rather than continue to see all the ways Scout demonstrates her insensitivity to others, the reader sees how Scout suffers the effects of others’ insensitivity, from her cousin acts of cruelty towards her to how a white townsperson married to a black woman deals with the insensitivity of the community around him.

Scout’s flaw is not the only antagonist that creates more conflict, tension and suspense in very scene. The Middle is fraught with antagonists of every sort. Her father serves as an antagonist when he asks Scout to control her temper and her fists. Because of scenes in the Beginning showing Scout’s impulsive fits of anger, the reader knows as well as Scout and her father just how hard it will be for the eight-year-old to control these two shadow aspects of herself.

Lee employs other antagonists in the Middle: an old mad dog down yonder; Mrs. Dubose, a neighbor who symbolizes the collective consciousness of the town folk or society at large; Aunt Alexandra; grown men of the community; etc.

2) Unusual world
The Plot Planner mimics the universal story form with a line that moves steadily upward to denote the necessity of giving each scene more significance to the character and more conflict, tension and suspense in the dramatic action than the scene that came before it.

A trick that can help you over the roughest territory of all: the middle of the Middle is to create an unusual world. So long as you keep a measure of conflict, tension and suspense alive, the actual dramatic action can flatten out a bit in the middle of the Middle. Here, the writer can take time to deepen the readers’ appreciation of an unusual job, setting, lifestyle, custom, ritual, sport, belief or whatever your imagination dreams up.

This world, whether real or imagined, comes alive with authentic details most relevant to the unusual world, specific details the average reader does not yet know or appreciate.

For example, in the Middle of Memoirs of a Geisha, Arthur Golden shows the world of the geisha as the protagonist herself learns about the expectations, dance steps, joke making, dress and hair.

In the Middle of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak shows us through six pages of illustrations the unusual world of wild things making rumpus.

In the Middle of My Half of the Sky, Jana McBurney Lin shows the everyday life of a tea seller in China.

The next time you find yourself bogged down in the Middle, don’t resort to going back and starting again. You will only end up finding yourself in a seemingly never-ending cycle. Instead, make a list of all the antagonists you can think of that are relevant to the overall plot or thematic significance. Add the development of an unusual world, and see if you don’t find yourself jumping from one scene to the next, and bypassing the quicksand of the Middle all together.

Do you have any tips to help writers slog their way through the middle??? Any tips about writing the build-up to and the actual Crisis??? Please do share.......