Sunday, June 13, 2010

Middles, Muddles et Cetera

Today I made some notes (a couple of pages) for the middle section of my novel-in-progress, preparatory to actually beginning the writing of the middle in question. Although my original outline for this book used a typical Elizabethan five-act structure, I have decided that, for my purposes, it makes sense to think of the middle as its own three-act structure. When I wrote my last book I hit upon the idea of having the middle (or the Second Act, if you wish) be a sort of novella all of its own, with a story arc that connects the two halves of another novella (told in the narrative form of the First Act and the Third Act of the novel). Which is all not what I was going to say here. I over-complicate this.

I am getting ready to start writing the middle section of The Stars Are Fire. I assume it will take up about half the actual length of the book, or about 40-45K words. Maybe a bit more. I am using a three-act structure for this middle section.

When I put together outlines, I am not generally thinking in terms of plot, or of events. My stories are not really of the "put your protagonist in a tree and throw rocks at him" variety. Mine are more of the "here's a weird thing; let me tell you how it got that way" variety, which means that endpoints are important. That is, I know how the novel itself ends, because that end-state is the whole point of the novel. As a writer, it is my target and I constantly point the reader toward the target and move the narrative toward it. My target is not necessarily an event; I really am concerned with the emotional state of a character, or an awareness reached by a character. Possibly it's Joyce's epiphanic moment that has now become de rigueur in short stories, or perhaps it's the Chekhovian or Dostoyevskian moment of dramatic irony to which I am moving. I'm not sure and I don't wish to analyze it too closely, ta awfully. Anyway, I am moving toward what I'll refer to for now as an emotional target.

There is a specific emotional target for the book as a whole, where the protagonist feels a specific way about life. The book maneuvers the reader into seeing how someone could/would feel that way, and leaves the door open for the reader to speculate about that emotional target being a good thing or not. This specific emotional endpoint necessitates emotional waypoints, or definite moments in the narrative where the protagonist and the antagonist become aware of how they feel about certain things, and are surprised to find that their opinions are--upon examination--not what they had thought. The Second Act--the middle I'm about to start writing--is that part of the narrative where the protagonist and the antagonist realize that they are in fact working in opposition, and determine to do something about each other.

It's good for me to know this, and to know it in these terms. I've been able to break the middle down into three parts:

1. The protagonist and antagonist are thrown together and isolated from everyone else. Their beliefs of the status quo are laid out.

2. I expose the truth, that their belief systems are in conflict, and the protagonist and antagonist struggle to reconcile this conflict.

3. I show that this conflict cannot be reconciled, and only one belief system can win out, and so the protagonist and antagonist must destroy each other's belief systems (which systems are, of course, embodied in the persons of the characters so it's a fight to the death coming).

So the Second Act will set up a mortal conflict to be resolved in the Third Act. The Second Act will also show how the conflict in the First Act was just a part of the real conflict: both the outer conflict begun in Act One but left hanging when Act Two began, and the inner conflict shown in Act Two must be resolved together, in Act Three. So the Second Act raises the stakes for all the players.

All of this sounds very disconnected and abstract, I realize, but I don't so much want to go into a lot of details about the book here.

Also today, I edited the first chapter of this book-in-progress, which is a violation of my own rules for first drafts. But I did it anyway because I print out each chapter as I finish it and make a nice, neat stack of growing manuscript on the table beside my desk and I happened to take a look at the first page in this growing manuscript and I really hated something about the first paragraph so out came the red pen and before you know it, I'd gone through the whole chapter and made a bunch of changes. I think it's much improved now, but there's no point in revising the first chapter of an unfinished novel, so my energies are now only allowed to go into finishing up the rest of the draft.

So anyway, I have my middle divided into the three sections listed above. For each of those sections, I know my emotional endpoints for the protagonist and antagonist. I have written lists of events that might bring the characters closer to those emotional endpoints, and these lists will--I assume--become lists of scenes that I'll write, which scenes will all flow one into the next and take the protagonist and antagonist from one emotional state at the end of the First Act to a different emotional state at the end of the Second Act. That's the plan, at any rate. We'll see how it goes.


  1. I have a similar rule for not messing with what I've written until I finish the draft.

    Of course, I break it all the time, but I understand its purpose...

  2. Mr. Bailey, it's no wonder you can't sleep. This is way too much thinking for me and I only read it.

  3. Rick, I wasn't intending to do any editing/revising when I sat down with the first half of the ms. Truth to tell, I was expecting to be dazzled by my own brilliance, and instead I saw a bunch of stuff that needed to be fixed. Last time I try that.

    Anne, I'm just making this sound more complicated than it really is. Think of it this way:

    The protagonist has a problem. We'll call it Problem A. In the first part of the book, he tries to solve that problem. Some other, more immediate problem gets in the way. We'll call this Problem B. In the middle of the book, we find out that Problem B is actually more important than Problem A. We also see that solving Problem B will make solving Problem A possible. So the middle of the book is the discovery and solution of Problem B. The ending of the book is the solution to both problems, as solving one solves the other.

    Problem A is an "external" problem: all action and physical danger. Problem B is an "internal" problem: emotional and really more difficult to deal with, as it involves who the protagonist is as a person and what his relationship with himself and the world-at-large is going to be for the rest of his life. In some ways, it's sort of the Hollywood 3-Act structure, but only loosely. I'm also putting all of the backstory for the protagonist and the antagonist in the middle of the book, as dramatized scenes. This backstory will show what Problem B is made of.

  4. Is this what it's like to be inside your head? Yowza! I'm tired already. Truly, though, I think this is fascinating. I go about things in a completely different manner, but I can imagine that if I tried to write it all down like this it would sound just as intense.

  5. Michelle: It's a lot messier in my head, and I don't think about any of this is such clear terms. It's more like, "Huh. No, no, maybe, well...yeah, that's a possibility." Or even less clear than that. Things either fit together or they don't; they either balance or they don't; they either are the story or they aren't. It's really hard to talk about this because a) there is no real shared vocabulary for it, and b) the idea of "story" I use is pretty elastic (see today's post at the Lab).