Friday, July 24, 2009

Just then, the protagonist tripped...

I had a fascinating but lengthy prologue to this article which I've just cut because, you know, it was just me prolixing on about how cool I am. So let's just get to the goods instead.

Sometimes writers get stuck in the middle of their narratives. The story develops too quickly, for example, and your protagonist's journey from inciting incident to climax is over before you know it and your book is only 50,000 words long. Or, you simply don't know what to do with your characters on the way through Act Two (if you think in terms of a three-act structure). Anyway, there are three basic things you can do to make your plot more interesting during the middle of the story (and, incidentally, up your word count).*

The basic idea is to interrupt your protagonist's journey toward the climax. I will, alas, use examples from "Star Wars" because I doubt most of us share the same reading habits and references. Also, I get to be a geeky SW fan. Live with it.

Complications: These are things, people, or events that slow the protagonist's movement toward their goal. Luke being told by his uncle that he has to wait another year before applying to the Academy and leaving Tatooine is a complication.

Roadblocks: These are things, people, or events that stop the protagonist in his tracks. The Millenium Falcon being snagged by the Death Star is a roadblock.

Reversals: These are things, people, or events that turn the story on its head; the protagonist changes his worldview, his direction and often his goal. Luke's family being killed by the Imperial forces is a reversal.

All of these things are essentially problems the protagonist must solve. You can simply make them things that have happened to the protagonist, but that would be wrong. Why? Because a passive character to whom things happen but who does not himself act is boring. Rule Number One is that you do not bore your reader.

So, if your story is lagging, you give your protagonist problems to solve. Beginning writers tend to just throw these things at their characters in a long episodic middle stretch, and none of the problems are connected to the story as a whole. That's bad. All of your plot complications, roadblocks and reversals should grow out of things, persons or events that have appeared earlier in the story. Minor conflicts from Act One can loop back around and reappear as major conflicts in Act Two. This will give your story balance and shape and internal consistency.

Also, you might consider giving complications to your antagonist. How your villain (to sort of continue Michelle's post of yesterday about complex antagonists) deals with adversity might give us clues about his motivations and weaknesses, possibly foreshadowing the climax. Foreshadowing is teh roxor. Don't forget to use it. See above comments about events/items/people looping back around into the story.

So that's my advice today: if you find your story lagging or rambling in the middle, try to focus on the protagonist's goals. Point him at his goals and them have him trip, fall into a hole, come against a wall, or realize his basic assumptions are all wrong. Even if none of these ideas make it into your story, they could be useful brainstorming prompts that end up giving you ideas better than anything I could possibly offer.

*Does that all sound too formulaic and calculating and anti-art? I try to give pragmatic, nuts-and-bolts technical advice here. I don't know about art.


  1. No--your post doesn't sound like that to me. But I do think that what you described could also be a definition of plot, could equal your saying, "Add more plot!" And you've described good specific ways to do that.

    In my opinion (for what it's worth, which may be diddly), just about every aspect of fiction could be boiled down to three things: character, plot and tone. All three when dissected or morphed slightly could represent every other aspect outside those three--or maybe every other aspect is just one of the three in disguise or a combination of the three in disguise.

    Voice seems like a combination of the three, which is why a particular writer's voice becomes very evident when she writes the same kind of story over and over again, plot-wise, character-wise, and tone-wise. But if that writer with a known voice changes her format by changing one of these three, her voice seems different.

    What you described could also equal "raising the stakes" somewhat, like in screenwriting. But, again, this could also be equal to "add in more exciting rising-in-tension events, add in more exciting plotting!"

    I've always said that plotting is probably the hardest part of writing because humans aren't plots, but they are characters. Writing a realistic character is easier than writing a realistic plot; a writer can always write about herself as a book's character. Can a writer write about her plot as her book's plot? I mean, you can add in events from your real life, but, for some reason, real-life plots don't translate the same to the page as real-life characters do.

    Plots are "other" to animals; they're all the mess mostly outside of animals, in their environments and interactions. Internalizing this external stuff isn't easy. And getting control of this on the page seems almost as difficult as getting control of this in real life!

    Here's a tangential tip I think helps sometimes (assuming a story isn't very bizarre or obscure in structure): if you want to figure out whether your story is "character-driven" or "plot-driven," stick a different character inside the same plot and see if the story still works the same overall. For plot-driven works, the story will work the same; for character-driven works, the story won't work the same. The problem with this exercise: for extremely well-crafted stories, separating out plot and character from each other becomes impossible, no matter if the stories are plot- or character-driven. The whole is glued together with superglue then.

  2. "plotting is probably the hardest part of writing"

    This is true for me as well. I write about ideas and characters and real life, more-or-less, and in real life people tend to sort of thrash around within their lives rather than move toward specific goals. Dramatic conflict is an artificial construct, and real people are far more reactive than proactive.

    Good point about how the best writers' work can't be separated into its constituent elements. The better the writer, the more character is theme is plot is voice.

  3. Nice post, Scott. The part I want to emphasize is the idea that the complicating factors in the middle of the story should come out of the beginning of the story. The more experienced I get, the less I feel like I have to invent. Instead, the answers are there for me on the page. I just have to look more deeply at what I've written before.

    I also like what F.P. suggested about determining if your story is character driven or plot driven. That's a cool exercise, and one that can be very revealing.

    Plot is the hardest thing for me unless I keep it in mind from the beginning. Usually, I get inspired by such random things, details most often, or characters if I'm lucky--then, I'm usually struggling for the plot of premise. But, I'm getting better at morphing my inspiration into story.

  4. I like the idea of making the antagonist more complex while working on the problems for the protagonist.

    Personally, I like to approach plot with a clear idea of what the internal and the external conflict is. For example, a character might be trying to save the day (external conflict) but also keep together his marriage (internal conflict). If the plot starts getting slow in one of these, I punch up the other--if the character is struggling to find the bad guy and is flagging, then I throw in a fight with the wife.

  5. I heard a tip for figuring out how to create obstacles:
    What's the worst thing that could happen to your character right now?

    Another one:
    Make your character face his worst fears.

    These are interesting ways to complicate the plot.

  6. Beth, those are really nice tools. A writing teacher I had once said to always try to "hang" your personal story on the landscape of a bigger one, like a love story during a war.

    lapetus999, excellent tips. I just got a few goosebumps thinking about the answers to those questions, so they MUST be pointing me in the right direction.

  7. "Just then, the protagonist tripped..." pretty much that says it all.

    Great post. Really making me think....good for the writer in me, but kind of bad for my protagonist.....I think some bad crud is about to happen.


  8. Great ideas! I really need to get my middles to propel the reader to the end, so I'm going to set up some roadblocks. It's like The Amazing Race... Thanks Scott!

  9. Perfect post for me right now, Scott, as I'm in the middle of my book right now and figuring out which scenes work and which don't. It helps to think about them all needing to tie into the main plot from the beginning. It seems so obvious until you get buried in all of it and can't see the forest for the trees.

    I like what F.P. says about "raising the stakes" because that's exactly what has to happen in the middle of a story. That's why sagging middles happen for me - not raising the stakes high enough. I'm trying to get this right in my current draft. It's always so much easier to say than execute!

  10. My first visit here... great blog!

  11. "...real people are far more reactive than proactive."



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