October 24, 2017, 10:42:17 AM

Author Topic: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story  (Read 943 times)

Offline NinjaRaptor

"Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« on: September 18, 2017, 07:37:53 PM »
Several weeks ago I hatched a concept and a few characters for a fantasy adventure story I would write. The setting drew influence from ancient African and Asian cultures, with the main conflict pitting an Egyptian- and Chinese-based civilization against one another.

The protagonist was going to be a warrior princess from the Egyptian-style culture, who was quite anxious about following her father's footsteps as Pharaoh and had a tendency to neglect her studies in favor of sports such as hunting or chariot-racing. The antagonist, on the other hand, was the Chinese-style culture's vengeful emperor, whose father died in a battle with the pseudo-Egyptians. What he wanted to do was steal a magic staff from the protagonist's country and use it as a weapon to conquer and enslave her people, and the protagonist's goal was to retrieve it.

When outlining the story, I ran into a sort of "murky middle" problem. I had some idea how the story would begin and end, but the middle act remained nebulous. All I knew was that it had something to do with the warrior princess heroine traveling from her country to the antagonist's. Oh, and she had as her companions a rambunctious little brother and a nerdy inventor who had the hots for her. Subplots involving these other two characters might fill in some of the blank spots, but the heroine needed an arc to pull her through as well.

I would very much appreciate suggestions on how to get myself unstuck here. Also, has anyone else encountered this kind of "murky middle" situation?
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Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #1 on: September 18, 2017, 07:47:05 PM »
The most useful sounding advice I've come across is "Make protagonists who have a goal. And then think about a reason why they can't have it (yet)."

Preventing the kingdom to be conquered is a task, but a task that anyone could do. It's something that the protagonist can work on, but it's not the fulfilment of a personal desire. Preventing the conquest is not the real goal of the story. Rather the threat of conquest is the obstacle in the path to that goal.

What does she want to accomplish for herself? How can she benefit as a person from her fight against the conqueror? What developments will she have to make to arrive at the state that was denied to her at the start of the story?
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Offline CameronJohnston

Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #2 on: September 18, 2017, 09:34:29 PM »
If in doubt, blow something up. Bring in an army or a pack of assassins.
Alternatively, write the start and see where the characters end up going.
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Offline NinjaRaptor

Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #3 on: September 18, 2017, 09:46:33 PM »
The most useful sounding advice I've come across is "Make protagonists who have a goal. And then think about a reason why they can't have it (yet)."

Preventing the kingdom to be conquered is a task, but a task that anyone could do. It's something that the protagonist can work on, but it's not the fulfilment of a personal desire. Preventing the conquest is not the real goal of the story. Rather the threat of conquest is the obstacle in the path to that goal.

What does she want to accomplish for herself? How can she benefit as a person from her fight against the conqueror? What developments will she have to make to arrive at the state that was denied to her at the start of the story?
Good suggestion. I would say my heroine's personal goal is proving to her father that she's qualified to defend the kingdom, since early on in the story he threatens to deny her the throne as punishment for her neglecting her studies and getting herself into trouble. At least that is what I have got so far.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #4 on: September 19, 2017, 03:20:00 AM »
I made it through my middle and now face my ending, but here's some things I've read/heard that might be useful.
Defining the middle as the part between the beginning and the end, the middle is the biggest chunk. It's two aspects react to this "connectedness" differently, which is the character side of things and the plot. The structure of the middle should include both plot and character elements, and getting those to align is really hard, or at least, it has been for me. The beginning and ending are either spinning those threads out or gathering them together, which is simpler, if not easier. In the middle, the two seem to want to go in different directions, or in my story's case, to be independent - and the whole point of a structure is to unite these different things.
This is where the natural flow of things breaks down and a deliberate process must be built into, bolted onto, or otherwise woven into the character's path and the plot's events. You can deviate from norms but the more you do, the less comfortable the reader will be. We expect the hero and the plot to hit certain stages at certain points, and successful deviations are rare. I can't offer cogent advice, but I can say there are a number of books out there that cover this structural stuff worth reading. I liked Brooks' books (Story Physics and Architecture) and the Writer's Digest book "Beginnings, Middles, and Ends", although it is simplistic.
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Offline cupiscent

Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #5 on: September 19, 2017, 04:33:15 AM »
I recently had an issue like that in plotting a novel. I had a section of the story that I just couldn't pin down. It was bracketed by two fixed points: I knew exactly what was happening at both of those points, but how it got from A to B was a jumble of elements and options, and I kept chasing them round and round in my head and only getting more tangled.

I found the best way for me to solve it was to get the stuff out of my head so I could see it more clearly. I got a stack of notecards, and on each one I wrote an element--a character I wanted to have involved, or a thing that needed to happen, or a theme I wanted to include in this section. When I had my stack of things that could be involved in this section of the story, I laid them out on the floor and started thinking about how they might fit together. (e.g. Character X could have information that causes Event J to happen.) I wrote my links on different coloured notecards, and laid them down. I tried to connect as many things as I could, to as many other elements as I could. When an element was proving difficult to connect, I had a good think about whether that element was actually as important as I'd thought it was. And I worked to make sure my map of connections had links to both the starting set piece and the finishing set piece.

Once I'd laid everything out, I found it really easy to see the elegant way that all the things I needed to reach point B actually fit together.

Offline DaveEllis

Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #6 on: September 19, 2017, 07:37:28 AM »
The Raymond Chandler law..."When in doubt have a man walk through the door with a gun in his hand" tho it would be sword in your setting.

I'm being flippant because I have the exact same problem and feel your pain.

Offline Peat

Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #7 on: September 19, 2017, 12:00:37 PM »
Is the problem that you're plotting this out and aren't sure what should be in the middle, or you're writing it and finding yourself in a muddle? Different answers to different problems.

In any case, 9 times out of 10 you can't ignore a writer who hasn't come across murky middles as either a bald faced liar or not actually a writer.
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Offline Lanko

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Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #8 on: September 19, 2017, 12:44:06 PM »
Your problem is pretty common: you came with a piece of a concept, an idea or an interesting situation.

But that's not enough to have a full novel, or even a short story. Like they say, ideas and concepts are a dime a dozen.
One can spend a really long time writing about the idea, the situation, the world, etc and still never materialize any of this into a story.

Curiously this do tend to happen to the middle section, as you can begin with the unusual idea/concept/the world and perhaps even have an idea how it ends. But the middle is not only the longest part, but it's also the journey. The journey to make the destination (the end) meaningful.

Any thread anywhere with stuff like "what would you like to see", "clichés and tropes", and etc will probably have hundreds of creative and different ideas but very few, if any at all, will actually turn into a story.

Because of this it tends to be really hard to outline great chunks of the middle part. Because you actually don't really know about the journey yet.

So my suggestion is to try to discover some of it. That means, discovery write, or pantse, some scenes, no matter what point in the story they are.
Usually you'll get new ideas, new characters, situations, revise others, etc.

Sometimes when you pantse too much you need to stop and organize a bit, but in your case I think it's the case you're organizing too much and should just let things happen and write them as they come for some time.
« Last Edit: September 19, 2017, 07:26:04 PM by Lanko »
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Offline NinjaRaptor

Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #9 on: September 19, 2017, 06:36:21 PM »
Is the problem that you're plotting this out and aren't sure what should be in the middle, or you're writing it and finding yourself in a muddle? Different answers to different problems.

In any case, 9 times out of 10 you can't ignore a writer who hasn't come across murky middles as either a bald faced liar or not actually a writer.
At the moment I am still in the plotting stage.
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Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #10 on: September 19, 2017, 07:12:18 PM »
If I am lucky I have a really cool ending scene in mind. But generally no idea how to build up the mood and context that gives it meaning. I'm currently approaching it in a very technical way, thinking about motives, goals, and the social environment in which they exist. Progress is slow, but it seems to go ahead.

(Though right now I keep staring at a note with a story idea with absolutely no recollection of what I wanted to do with it. I wrote it down, so it must have been something great.)
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Offline Peat

Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #11 on: September 20, 2017, 07:20:21 AM »
Is the problem that you're plotting this out and aren't sure what should be in the middle, or you're writing it and finding yourself in a muddle? Different answers to different problems.

In any case, 9 times out of 10 you can't ignore a writer who hasn't come across murky middles as either a bald faced liar or not actually a writer.
At the moment I am still in the plotting stage.

Options I know of here

- Write the story you've got until you run out of plot and see if being with the characters inspires you with what they should do next when you run out of plot.

- Find a plot template and follow it closely through the middle in the hope that the extra structure gives you the ideas you need

- Plot backwards. You know they're going to reach X. Okay, how do they reach X, what complications do they have to overcome. So to reach X they need to do Y, how they do that, what complications do they have to
overcome, etc.etc.

- Or break it down into these mini-chunks going from the front. I sometimes think of the middle of the story as a story in its own right, so I come up with the opening and ending of that - again, easier to do than middles - and that leaves me with less middle. But I can treat that middle as a series of really closely related short stories - again, intro ending easier to think of. And keep making it smaller and smaller.

- Find a book you like with a good middle and construct a template for getting through the middle based on what happens. Their character fights - your character fights. They find a vital clue - you find a vital clue. They stop to chew the cud with an ally - etc.etc.

- Treat the plot like a game between the protagonists and antagonists. Each action provokes a counter-reaction and you can get your plot like that.

- Throw in a big problem the MC has to confront where you run out of plot, then run from there with her trying stuff to beat it, then fixing the complications from that and so on.

That's the stuff I can think of. I've used a mix of the first 4 and the last one. I would add that Cupiscent is very wise to put it all down on paper in front of her and if I had any sense I'd do the same thing.

Offline Magnus Hedén

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Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #12 on: September 20, 2017, 05:30:18 PM »
I find that when you know the beginning and you have an idea of where you're going, that's the best time to start writing. I know it's not what works for everyone, but I find completely outlining my story before writing it to be incredibly boring. To me, writing a story where I know exactly what will happen is the same as reading a story where I know exactly what will happen.

I bet you have a few scenes you can't wait to get writing on? Write those. When they are done, you'll probably have some new ideas. Pick the ones you like best and write those. And so on. When you run out of scenes that you want to write, put together what you have using as few words as possible as glue.

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Offline Rukaio_Alter

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Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #13 on: September 21, 2017, 01:25:43 PM »
I find that when you know the beginning and you have an idea of where you're going, that's the best time to start writing. I know it's not what works for everyone, but I find completely outlining my story before writing it to be incredibly boring. To me, writing a story where I know exactly what will happen is the same as reading a story where I know exactly what will happen.

I bet you have a few scenes you can't wait to get writing on? Write those. When they are done, you'll probably have some new ideas. Pick the ones you like best and write those. And so on. When you run out of scenes that you want to write, put together what you have using as few words as possible as glue.

Just my five cents.
No offense dude, but unless you're writing short stories or very episodic fiction, that's kinda terrible advice.

Don't get me wrong, I'm certain there are probably some very skilled people out there with an instinctual knowledge of structure and pace, who can write like that and do it well. Buuuut the majority of the time, if you try to write a long-form novel when you don't know where you're going, you're most likely to end up with a structureless, meandering mess. And trust me when I say this comes from very painful experience. Going wherever the hell you feel may sound like great fun, but it's not conductive to creating a solid narrative structure to your novel. And without a solid structure, your story is eventually going to crumble like a house built on sand. Which I'm pretty certain there's an entire biblical story warning against the dangers of.

Now, I'm not going to go to the opposite extreme and say that you have to have every single last detail planned out and you cannot ever deviate from said plan under any circumstances. Believe me, I've had characters and stories go off the given tracks into new and interesting places plenty of times before. But I think it is definitely necessary to at least have the beginning and ending planned out, along with a few checkpoints along the way. Even if you're not a big fan of plotting your stories out, a good writer needs to know where both they and their characters are going and when they need to get there by.


Now, as for the greater issue at hand (aka, how to write middles), I've always thought the middle section of a novel is a great opportunity to show off the side elements of your world/characters. Think about a section of your world or an aspect of one of your characters that you'd like to show off, come up with a little story idea to show off said world/character trait and then tie it back into the greater narrative. Great fun.

Here are some other ideas for potential story elements to fit in the middle of your novel.

-Team bonding!
-Get your villains involved and let them show off their skills/danger to the heroes before the climax.
-Split the party! (preferably after 'Team Bonding!')
-Team up two characters who wouldn't normally team-up (hero and side villain maybe?) and have them bounce off each other.
-Team arguments and fall-outs!
-Explore backstories!
-Have the party actually fail at something importantish + create doubt/tension about whether they can succeed in their ultimate quest.
-Show off a protagonist's major character flaw
-Introduce colourful side characters or sub-villains.
-Explore interesting and deeper elements of certain systems in your world (magic, tribes, kingdoms, lands, religions, etc)
-Give side characters their own mini personal quests that tie into their development.
-Whatever seems interesting, basically.
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Offline D_Bates

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Re: "Murky middle" problem with outlining a story
« Reply #14 on: September 21, 2017, 10:17:39 PM »
It would help to know the plan for the ending in order to advise routes for the middle. When you're talking beginning, middle, ending, the clue is in the structure. You have the basis for a decent quest/chase plot here, or you could even go full blown revenge.

So some ideas:

From the details you've given, I would presume the climax of the opener is the Chinese emperor getting his hands on this magical staff. For the quest you probably want to just have him obtain it through nefarious means, and her proclaim her intention to reclaim it. For a chase, you could have her catch him in the act, fail, and as a result to redeem herself she goes after him. If you went revenge, you could give her some real power to her mission by also having her father be killed as a result of that coup so she also has the protection what are now her people on her mind.

The end can go either way on whether you want to have the happy 'she got the staff back and lived happily ever after' or the sad 'she won in the end, but was the cost worth it?', or even the tragic 'blinded by her own chase, the quest itself rather than the artefact proved the downfall of her people/family.'

Whichever path you go, I'd say the climax in the middle should be pretty cut and dry here. She has to have a showdown with this emperor, and the outcome is that he uses whatever power this staff has against her, knocking her back on her arse. Depending on the ending will dictate how brutal the fallout of that showdown should be, but it's got to be enough to ignite a growth in the character whereby her confidence is crushed and she's faced with either quitting or evolving in dark/great/mysterious (delete as applicable) ways in order to overcome the second showing.

I'm just rambling, but hope some of that helped!
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