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Waste Tide by Chen Qiufan
 

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Middles – Part 3: The Meandering Middle

You can read the rest of this series here:

Part 1: Mushy Middle Syndrome
Part 2: Propel Yourself into the Middle

We fantasy enthusiasts are a funny lot. We’ll put up with a lot in our stories. We’re used to prologues, long books, epilogues, strange threads that seem insignificant at the time but end up important later on, and the like. And the thing is—we like that stuff.

But for the writer of fantasy, these particular preferences can lead to problems, I think. We love our worlds and our magic systems and our backstories, and we want to share everything with our readers, so we just spew words onto the page and assume that our readers will follow along. Problem is—even fantasy readers have limits. And one of the biggest traps a fantasy writer can fall into is the trap of the meandering middle.

The Setting Swamp
These middles are the ones where the author just got so caught up in his setting that he wanted to tell us every detail about it. Sometimes, he might use a device such as a journey specifically for the purpose of showing off the setting (cough*TOLKIEN*cough). The plot might be there, but it’s loose, and there’s a lot of flab in the form of episodic events designed to show off the world.

The Legend of the Lost Plot
The author might get off to a rollicking start with a compelling beginning and a clear inciting incident, but then the plot just…disappears. Loose threads, dead ends, and purposeless conversations abound. Maybe there’s a little gratuitous blood, sex, or magic, but there’s no overarching sense of story. The plot is confused, muddled, or just non-existent, and the author compensates by stringing together unrelated events.

The Scenic View
The middle of a book that takes the scenic view is very, very long. Now, don’t throw things at your computer—hang with me here. I love long books, but there has to be a purpose to everything in a book. Some books seem to just take a really long time to get to the point. These ones might even seem predictable (I don’t think that’s a bad thing, by the way), and you have a sense of the story, but you find yourself thinking, “get on with it, for the love of all that’s holy.”

Structural problems are, in general, plot problems, and middles are no exception. We can have stellar character development and stunning settings and description, but without structure and plot, those things are just pearls in slop. Hey, I sympathize—I’m a pantser. Plotting doesn’t come naturally to me. So how do you avoid a meandering middle if it’s a plot problem?

Fixing the Problem

Clarify Your Plot
Ask yourself some basic questions about your book. Who is your main character? What does he/she want? What’s in the way of him/her getting that thing? What does the antagonist do to prevent the protagonist from succeeding? What are the key plot points? You can also do this simple exercise with your subplots. Focus on getting an overall sense of the story—a throughline, as they say in screenwriting. Try to summarize your book in a logline: In 25 words or less, what is your book about? That’s your plot right there. Is your middle fulfilling the promise of that logline?

Make A Plot Map
Go through your story and summarize each scene in a couple of sentences. I use an Excel spreadsheet for this, but you could use a storyboard, PostIts, or just pen and paper—however your brain works best. When you’ve summarized each scene, color code it—red for exposition, backstory, or other places of slow/non-existent action; yellow for rising tension, action, or conflict; and green for “full steam ahead.” (Credit goes to Hallie Ephron for this suggestion—she offered it at the 2010 Willamette Writers Conference, and I’ve found it invaluable.) Then lay out your scenes in order and look at the whole picture of your middle. Is it mostly red or red and yellow? Then you need to find some places to punch up the action.

Revisit Your Intervals
Analyze your middle for a pattern of rising tension, plot point or reversal, and rest period. If you don’t see a clear pattern of intervals, you might have a meandering middle. Look at the intervals you want in your book and clarify them by removing things that don’t contribute to them.

Add If You Must
Or at least replace some things. Once you’ve clarified your plot and your plot map, you may see places where you can add scenes to highlight the key plot points. It’s okay if some of your most beloved scenes end up on the cutting room floor—those replacement scenes will probably be much better.

Cut Mercilessly
This is the hardest thing to do, I know, but sometimes, it’s the best thing. And remember—sometimes it doesn’t matter if the scene is cut. You still know what happened there, and that’s important. The things we know about our characters don’t all have to end up on the page. The passion and knowledge we have behind the scenes will come across in the parts that do end up in the final product.

Remember, ultimately, that everything in your book should drive the plot, develop a character, or describe a setting. If you are out of balance in one of those areas, or if you realize that most of your middle is setting or character oriented, you might need to analyze your middle carefully and look for places where you can keep your main plot central to the story. A little setting, an epic journey, and a few loose threads are fine, but make sure you stick fairly close to the main plotline, and you’ll avoid a meandering middle.

In two weeks we’ll look at the next Mushy Middle: The Wispy Middle.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Awesome article as per usual. Thanks Amy.

  2. Avatar Bets Davies says:

    Hm. I’ve been trying to figure out in all these middle article where I fit in. I’m a character girl. First, middle, last, I imagine the character stuff first. It pops out in my brain, stunning and brilliant and beautiful. The characters create the world since the world has created them. After that I get around to “plot” per se. This use to cause a meandering problem, since I was a panster, and I would end up with huge sections of book that advanced character, but didn’t do much else, and I could have advanced the characters in much simpler ways. So, massive slash and burns happened. Many, a relief to me, but some quite sad.

    At some point I switched. Do pansters turn into plotsters? I did. Still with the character first. Every obscene bit of eccentricity or life history defined. This still defined my world, which I worked on as well, but it also tightly defined my plot.

    But I’m still not a linear girl. Far from. So I have the gigantic piece o sheet metal nailed to my office wall. Massive amounts of magnets. Small pieces of paper galor. Pen. I scribble scenes and elements of scenes I while hanging out in the office or where ever I randomly happen to be. I stick them on the board. I move them around. I take them off in seas on little papers all over my floor. I re-put them up and move them around. Patterns appear. Eventually I have a cross between a concept map and an outline. Then I move to the actual concept maps.

    If people don’t have the software Inspiration, I’ll say it again, get it. Inspiration is available on line Mac and PC and have your student ID out if you have one. Inpiration allows you to create concept or cluster maps. You can pull the maps into all kinds of shapes. You create and delete elements at the touch of a button. You can write on the line between 2 elements to show how they relate. You can write in outline rather than map. You can make your map an outline and your outline a map.

    So I map each scene. Then I write.

  3. […] two weeks, a look at the Meandering Middle and how to get your characters back on the main road to the climax of your story. VN:F […]

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