Lost in the story middle?

Once upon a time I was a pantser*, I had no problem coming up with great story ideas, interesting (I thought) characters, especially the antagonist, and was able to dive right into the first draft.

Alas, that inertia was like a ball rolled up an incline.  The ball rolled as far as my initial throw, but then part way up the slope, the ball would apex and start rolling backwards.  This happened to me on three consecutive novel projects.  My initial momentum slowed and then stopped, and then my first draft progress started backsliding as I began rethinking or reworking the first act of the story.  I was unable to move forward, feeling compelled to fix what I’d written before I could continue.

The problem of course was that I hadn’t thought through the entire story.  I wanted to discover the story as I went along.  I wanted to be both the writer and the first reader of the story.  I wanted to be surprised by what the characters did and what happened.  I didn’t want to write the story, I wanted the characters to write the story for me.  This is the way Stephen King does it, so why shouldn’t I emulate one of the masters?

Upon reflection and analysis–although I didn’t figure this out until much later–I discovered one main problem with this approach.  In essence, I didn’t really know the main characters well enough to know what they would do in the setting I created with the story premise/idea I had.  Where/when would they really become involved in the story problem?  What was their life like before the inciting incident?  How would they react to sudden changes?  What inner demons do they struggle with?  What goals would they put aside to solve the story problem?  And perhaps the biggest question, how would the inner and outer goals of all the main characters oppose each other and what conflict would result?

If the characters have the proper dimension and depth for the type and genre of story you intend to tell, the answers to most if not all of the questions above would be answered.  Knowing the characters is really the main way to maintain story inertia.  When you know the characters well enough, it’s easier to decide what they’ll do in each scene, how they’ll react to situations and the actions/reactions of other characters.

Of course, this is easier said than done.

So what are ways to better understand your characters, and thus the entire story?

First, I suggest getting over the hangup I had about trying to keep the unfolding events of the story a surprise to you the writer.  You are the writer, not the first reader.  Most of us simply cannot tell a proper story without knowing the entire story from beginning to end.  How else will you properly foreshadow, plant story seeds that bloom later, flashback or reveal mysteries, expand on motivations, introduce subplots and red herrings, and have a proper character arc for your protagonist if you don’t know the details of your plot?  If you can do this without any planning, stellar.  I cannot.

Second, know your characters better than you know anyone else.  The writer must know the characters’ deepest secrets, worst fears, fragile hopes, emotional scars, fervent desires, social needs, hidden and obvious talents, attitudes, biases, opinions, childhood traumas, moments of joy, and anything else that creates characters readers want to spend time with.  How you do this as a writer is up to you.  Interview the character, write a biography page or two, use a character profile sheet or tool, write a series of journal entries in first person from the character’s POV, or simply write down everything you know about yourself that would be needed in a story and change it all to match each main character.  By main characters, I mean the viewpoint characters, protagonist, antagonist, and any prominent character whose actions in the story drive change.  Secondary characters do not need as much depth, but you should know them at least as well as you know members of your family or your friends, so you can predict their behavior and attitudes in each scene.

Third, write an outline.  I’ve posted about this previously here and a follow-up here.  An outline is a roadmap for your story.  Use whatever level of detail you wish.  Some writers, write a single page to describe the main events of the story.  Others write a hundred page detailed scene by scene breakdown.  I’m still experimenting with my outline style, but suffice it to say, I use both synopsis style narrative outlines, spreadsheet style scene lists, and plot timeline charts.  An outline will help you know the full story, help you see the pace and rhythm of events, and will help you see where the characters are acting on the story problem and where they are reacting to the story problem or other characters.

Fourth, and this is a lesson I’ve learned this past month, don’t be a slave to either character profiles or your initial outline.  Treat these planning materials as first drafts.

These past two months, I’ve been stalled on my current novel project, The Order of X, Book One of my epic fantasy series.  I had used The Snowflake Method to design the story and characters.  Additionally, I completed five-page character profiles for each main character and abbreviated profiles for secondary characters.  I had more planning and preparation references that I’d ever used before, and STILL I got stuck at the end of the first act of the story, about 30,000 words in.

My initial characters ideas were flawed.  One viewpoint character was so unique and against type, she was unlikable.  The protagonist had no emotional depth and reaction to serious events in the story.  The initial obstacles were tough, but got too easy and predictable after they got through them.  I didn’t have enough suspense or conflict with the antagonist.

My story inertia had stalled and I could feel that ball hitting an apex and starting to roll backwards.  Rather than give up and switch projects, like I’ve done so often in the past, I went back to my character profiles, outline, and scene list and revisited it all, spending most of the past month making changes.  Predictably, I found several story gaps that require entire new scenes and chapters.

After all, I know the characters better now that before I started the draft.  I also know what story path follows the least resistance and therefore is the least interesting.

For me, the way to get unstuck was to be willing to change my initial planning documents to get to a better, fuller, more complete story, and I’m much happier with the story now.

I wrote the first new scene in over a month last night.

I’m now unstuck and the ball is again rolling uphill.  This time, however, I’ll stay with the ball and keep nudging it so it maintains momentum until the story is concluded and I can write “The End.”

What strategies have you used to navigate the vast maze of the middle of a story?

* a writer who writes by the seat of their pants, just winging the story by pure inspiration and/or force of will with little or no planning or preparation.

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5 responses to “Lost in the story middle?

  • taureanw

    Great post!
    I had some of these issues with the first real story I attempted to write. I knew where I wanted to go but didn’t have good directions. So in the first draft I got a little lost & the middle really seemed to drag. Much like you suggested for my next writing projects I adopted outlines & it helped give my writing a LOT more structure!

  • Mark J. Taylor

    Thanks for your comment. Structuring a story often seems like the opposite of creativity, but the act of building a structure, in and of itself, is a creative act.

  • Stephen A. Watkins

    I say this as a planner (so I am totally on-board with the planning stuff such as what you mention here), but there is a viable “pantser” path to producing a story that “properly foreshadow[s], plant[s] story seeds that bloom later, flashback[s] or reveal[s] mysteries, expand[s] on motivations, introduce[s] subplots and red herrings, and [has] a proper character arc”.

    The big difference between planners and pantsers, really, is in the way that they draft. Pantsers focus on finishing a complete first draft… but they know going in that it will lack at lot of those aforementioned elements. Finding where those elements need to go and putting them in, while removing the extraneous stuff that didn’t go anywhere is what pantsers use multiple drafts for. Pantsers, from what limited experience I have of them, seem to go through a lot more drafts than planners do. But it takes planners a lot longer to get started because they have to make sure of what every stop along the journey will be before they even start.

    Basically, the workload is the same, the difference is where in the drafting process all that stuff takes place. For planners, that stuff happens first. For pantsers, it happens after the first draft is finished.

  • Mark J. Taylor

    Agreed. Either path is viable based on personal preference. And the only true rule of thumb is the one that works for you as writer. I only state from personal experience that without proper planning, Having stalled three consecutive novel length projects due to getting lost in the middle, I’m now more careful in my planning phase to try and prevent the headache and frustration that comes for me as writer to hit that invisible wall where I know the story can’t proceed unless I make some structural changes.

    As much as I’d love to be able to sit down and crank out a first draft that contains the right structural elements, I’m just not there yet in the development of my craft.

    • Stephen A. Watkins

      Yeah, that’s largely why I’m a planner, myself. Over the years on my long-time novel project (which is currently on the shelf) I went through three or four start-from-scratch drafts. Finally, I decided I needed to know what was going on behind the scenes before starting again.

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