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Thread: Building up the middle
July 10th, 2011, 11:01 AM #1
- Join Date
- Mar 2009
- Los Angeles
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.
July 10th, 2011, 02:16 PM #2
Some thoughts, because I know what you mean. You don't want to expand the word count without expanding the story. Readers can tell the difference. But there are a few ways I've tried to make a short story longer.
Add a character. Perhaps your character, any of them, needs someone to talk to--avoiding pages of exposition and turning them to dialogue. And instead of just a placeholder, give the character a backstory and a point of view.
Make the story bigger. Make the problem worse, make the obvious solution the wrong one, make the opponents smarter, and make them think they're the right ones. Add a secondary problem, related to the first but not in a too obvious way, or construct a meta story, related to what's happening at the moment, but having a long term outlook.
Just some thoughts.
July 10th, 2011, 02:45 PM #3
Okay, first off, what is this character's backstory and what is her relation to the world? What you've described is 'girl has power and decides to be helpful.' That's nice, but I wouldn't consider that a superhero story. Superhero stories came out of the pulps and are traditionally very bold and splashy.
Batman isn't Batman because he's a swell guy; he's Batman because at the age of eight he watched as his parents were murdered and could do nothing prevent this or save them. He then dedicated his life to stopping criminals.
Spider-Man isn't Spider-Man because he's a swell guy; he's Spider-Man because he could have stopped a robber but decided it was too much effort and that robber later murdered his uncle/father figure.
Both Batman and Spider-Man had someone they love die because they failed to protect them. This failure and their subsequent vow to not let it happen again defines them and drives them.
Does anything this dramatic happen to your protagonist? Is she driven to prevent what happened to her from happening to anyone else?
Or there are the X-Men. Each of them have their own motivations and desires, but they're united by the fact that the world HATES and FEARS them. In the Marvel universe, mutants are hunted down, imprisoned, killed and experimented on simply for being mutants. Some of them can never pass for a regular person.
Despite this, the X-Men strive to protect humanity. This is more than a casual desire to help people.
Does your protagonist have a dramatic relationship with the world around her?
Superman and Captain America are both highly ideological heroes. They fight for capital-J Justice and American ideals. Both of them believe very firmly in Right and Wrong, and think sitting back when they have the power to do good would be Wrong.
Does your protagonist have an almost overwhelming morality? Is she so dedicated to a specific ideology that she'd fight and die for it? Remember that this will carry into mundane life. Captain America tried to join the army as soon as he was 18. Why? To defend America against its enemies.
Take away Spider-Man or your average X-Men's powers, and they'd quit the hero business.
Okay, if you're sure that your protagonist has a suitably super backstory and motivation, then you design a supervillain. A good supervillain is often an antithesis to the hero's thesis (or vice versa). They should be prominent as well. Don't be bashful. Stick them front and center.
July 13th, 2011, 06:45 AM #4
What struck me when reading this post is that you have described getting a new idea and adding it on, etc.
You have assumed, it seems, that that expands the original story. Does it? Or is it an new story in its own right? If the original story is expanded (perhaps because the protagonists original 'want' still hasn't been fulfilled/nemesis hasn't been defeated/they haven't yet changed in some way ...etc, the usual stuff) then it suggests you didn't actually finish the original story properly.
Many authors say in interview that they brought back an old character they thought they had stopped writing about because they thought that they had one last tale to tell. But that's different as, I am sure, each story has a natural beginning and end.
I suppose it's a question of being clear as to where to stop. You say you're not a planner. I am the complete opposite. I don't go as far as having graphs with plot lines on them but there's something similar in my head and often jotted down on paper. I work out what it is that a character wants, what would resolve that want and what I could put in their way to make that hard to achieve or even decide that they won't get it, etc. Nothing new there of course but I work it out in advance. Some would find that limiting but I don't. I enjoy getting to know my characters well, then plotting what they do and how they solve the problem I have given them but I do that at the planning stage and not the writing stage. I don't trust my self not to go off on irrelevent tangents and write massive amounts of stuff that later have to be cut.
Each to their own, there is no right way of course. But lack of clarity on resolution may stem from your approach. Perhaps a little more planning would help be that just a thin skeleton to operate within.
Good luck with it anyway.
Last edited by Eddy Gemmell; July 13th, 2011 at 06:49 AM.
July 15th, 2011, 09:54 PM #5
- Join Date
- Mar 2009
- Los Angeles
In my particular case I realized that the last third of the book was too short because I was making the situation too easy.
I do not need to introduce a super criminal to rough up the path of the main character. Instead I can introduce more obstacles. Even superheroes struggle in vain or with great difficulty with some situations.
So she's chasing kidnappers and trails them to their village. Sneaks in to the ad hoc jail, breaks in, and protects the captives from retaliation till the backup she's called in arrives.
But ... though there are captives, her quarry is not one of them. He's been moved. Probably by truck via the road leading into the village. (She came in through the country side.)
Calls down an aircar which has been following silently overhead and boards it. Then I must back track and add in that resource, which bulks up the middle even more.
Locates several trucks and SUVs on the freeway going in both directions from the village road. Eliminates all but one. Sights the quarry.
But can't just swoop down and shoot off a tire or blow up the engine. The enemy might kill the quarry. Or she herself might do so accidentally.
And so it goes. Adding more obstacles and sometimes having to backtrack to fill out the story. OBSTACLES. I think that's a big part of building up the middle.