July 10th, 2011, 11:01 AM
Building up the middle
Right now I'm struggling with a problem on a book. I have read other writers mention the same problem in various interviews and essays. How do you expand the middle of your story to book length?
Here are some thoughts. They are mostly to help me talk myself through to a solution or solutions. But I'm also hoping you may have some helpful ideas which I can use.
I ask myself if the basic idea of the story deserves a novel length. Maybe it is really a short story. Or novelette or novella.
There is an underlying pattern for all stories. I call it the primal story: someone strives to get something. Or several somethings, some supporting each other, some conflicting. And the goal(s) can change over time, because struggle changes us. We grow stronger or weaker, wiser or more confused, and so on.
The striving has an underlying pattern too, which we've discussed recently in the topic of master plots. A more or less stable life (or group of lives) is upset by some new information, which might come in a physical event or an immaterial one. The main character (or team of characters) decide to run away from or toward a goal which they hope will better their lives in some (perhaps small) ways. They deal with obstacle after obstacle, avoiding or overcoming each, until the goal is within reach. They grasp the goal. Or decide not to. Perhaps because their desires and needs have changed. And they return to a newly stable life.
So part of deciding the proper length has to be to answer one or more questions. Are the characters complex, interesting, likable enough to make it worth a reader spending time in their company? Is the goal big enough for the main character(s) to pursue it? Is the setting (or settings) rich enough to provide engaging obstacles and resources to deal with the obstacles?
My first thought was No. A teen girl gets a superpower. How is she going to adjust her life to it? What will she do with it? I started writing. Some people can plan everything out before writing. I can't. I have to get my fingers in the dirt, plant some seeds, see them grow, prune and shape the results.
And No seems the right answer. I finish a short novellette. Done. I like the result.
But the girl and her problems won't go away. I am unsatisfied with her character. I happen to have known, and still know, teenagers of both sexes who are extraordinary athletes or artists or thinkers of some kind. They are a mix of the usual immature and some startlingly adult qualities. I build her character, just a little bit here and there, so as to not overbalance a simple adventure tale.
Good. The result is a better novellette, only a little fatter than the original. I send off the story to the first of the usual suspects.
I'll bet you know what happened next. Probably has happened to you.
SHE WON'T GO AWAY.
So she helped out one of her classmates. It felt good. This troublesome superpower actually has a good side. And she became better able to handle it, to (among other necessities) hide it. She looks around for someone else to help. A news story tells her of such a someone. She investigates, struggles to help, succeeds.
And so it goes.
Now I've gotten her into her early officially-adult years. Now she has to support herself. Unlike Bruce Wayne she's not rich. Like Clark Kent she takes a job.
So now I need someone else who needs help. Who has a problem big enough to require her help. One with lots of obstacles along the way. But not so big and with so many that the novel grows beyond about 120,000 words, making it more difficult to find a buyer.
So here I am. Struggling with my own complex goal, a metagoal in relation to my story.
Ugh. Maybe time to go see a movie. It's Sunday. Plenty of sunshine, nice weather. Popcorn. A mini-vacation. And maybe a few suggestions tomorrow or the next day when I get back to SFFworld.