Five Ways to Fight Through the Middle

I recently finished Act I of my serial novel, Razor Mountain. That means I’m officially done with the beginning of the book, and I’m starting on the middle. Admittedly, these ideas of three-act structure or beginning, middle, and end are all just scaffolding designed to help us talk about the structure of stories, but I think it’s fair to say that many authors run into similar roadblocks in specific parts of the process. One of the most common problems is a certain…malaise when getting into the middle of a novel.

There’s a lot to be excited about at the beginning of a book: introducing the main characters and setting, and all the big ideas that the book is about. Likewise, the ending has to pull all those desperate ideas and characters into a big exciting finale. But the middle, the middle has to find a way to connect the beginning plot to the end plot in a way that makes sense. It can take many different shapes.

So, as I embark on the middle of my book, I thought it would be fitting to put together a list of ways to fight through a difficult middle.

1. New Characters

Usually the main cast of characters is introduced in the beginning (although not always). They’ve had some time to form their relationships and perhaps develop some interpersonal conflicts to spice things up.

The middle is the perfect time to introduce some new characters into the mix. These don’t have to be part of the main cast. In fact, characters may only come in for a scene or a few chapters, as they’re needed. While main characters can often feel like a lot of work, these characters that only briefly touch the story can be an opportunity to try something new. You might hate a quirky or obnoxious character if you have to keep them around for the entire story, but those same traits may make a short-lived character more memorable.

2. New Information

Coming out of the beginning of the story, the main characters probably have some open conflicts to deal with and some goals they’re trying to achieve. However, it may not be clear to them (or to you) how exactly they’re going to do that.

Going into the middle of the book is a perfect time to start laying down breadcrumbs that lead them in certain directions. They might learn something about the villain that can be useful when they face off again. They could find out about people, items, or other macguffins that can help them in their quests.

This mid-book info doesn’t always have to set up future plot points. They can also find out why things have happened. A whirlwind beginning can leave a protagonist lost and confused, in a situation they never wanted to be in. Understanding what happened and why can help them come to grips with all of that.

3. New Obstacles

For some authors, dishing out pain to their characters comes naturally. Others tend to fall in love with their characters and have to fight the urge to give them what they want.

If you come into the middle of the book and things seem to be going a little too well for your characters, it’s time to introduce new challenges and roadblocks. Life is full of ups and downs, and stories are no different. As an added bonus, as soon as a new conflict is introduced, it provides some instant direction to the plot. Characters faced with a problem are going to want to find a way to overcome that problem.

4. New Disasters

Sometimes, a mere obstacle isn’t enough. A disaster can change the whole landscape of the story. And often, the best time for a disaster is just when the characters think everything is going their way.

This might take the form of a villain-behind-the-villain reveal. Friends could turn out to be enemies in a cruel twist. Maybe the characters’ original goals no longer apply, and they’re cast adrift, trying to figure out what to do next.

Disasters can serve as a sort of “reset” button to take the story in a whole new direction.

5. A Victory

A story where the characters just get beaten down continuously can feel exhausting. If the characters never succeed, then it feels like the story isn’t theirs—they have no agency.

If the beginning has left the story feeling bleak and the characters really need a win, give it to them. It doesn’t have to be something big. It may be as simple as earning a breather in the midst of larger battles. The characters have likely been through some things at this point. Now is a great opportunity to let them get to know each other a little better, and deepen relationships.

Don’t Fear the Middle

Getting into the middle of a book can feel daunting. For many of us it’s the hardest part to write. If you’re an exploratory writer, you might wonder if you will even be able to find a way through to a satisfying ending.

It’s not all bad though! Middles are opportunities to really dig into the parts of your beginning that really excited you. Get to know your characters. Find the interesting nooks and crannies of your setting. Remind yourself what made you want to write the book in the first place, and double-down on that in every way you can think of.

Storytelling Class — Mysteries

Every once in a while, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This time, our topic was mysteries.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

Freya has been reading Calvin and Hobbes and Far Side collections, and started on the first book of the Wheel of Time series.

I have been reading collections of short stories, including some of the anthologies that I got from the Martian Kickstarter. I also checked out the first three volumes of Locke and Key from the library, and I’m working through those.

What Did We Write?

Freya continues to work on her chapter book, Amber and Floria. She recently felt the downsides of exploratory writing as she had to rewrite her first two chapters to match the way the later parts evolved.

I’ve been working on Razor Mountain, and spending a little time here and there working on short stories.

Mysteries

Our topic for this class was crafting satisfying mysteries.

The first thing to note is that there are “big mysteries” that drive the whole plot of a story, as in murder mysteries and police procedurals. There are also “little mysteries” that can serve a few different purposes in a story, but all boil down to reasons for the reader to keep reading.

Little mysteries don’t have to be long and drawn out like big mysteries. They can be posed and resolved in the same chapter, or even a single conversation.

Many mysteries are just questions the reader asks the story, like:

  • What happened?
  • What happens next?
  • Why is this thing like that?
  • Who is this person and why did they do that?

Mysteries can also be just for a character, while the reader can see all the answers. Then the question for the reader becomes “how will the character find the answer I already know?” A lot of tension can be added to a story by letting the reader get information that a character doesn’t have. The character, using the limited information at their disposal, may make reasonable choices that the reader knows are bad. Few things are more harrowing for a reader than watching a character make bad choices that they think are good choices.

Driving a Story With Mysteries

Mysteries are a great way to define a section of a story, or an arc. Each mystery naturally has a beginning (when the mystery is first posed), a middle (when the characters work through the clues and overcome obstacles) and an ending (when the answer to the mystery is revealed).

To drive a story with mysteries though, you’ll need multiple mysteries being created and resolved over the course of the plot. This can be done in two basic ways, which I’ll call overlapping mysteries and feeding mysteries.

Overlapping mysteries are not necessarily directly related to each other. A character might have a personal mystery that affects themselves, and a larger mystery they’re working on that ties into the big plot. For example, a police detective who is trying to solve a murder, but spends his off-hours trying to find his long-lost child, hidden from him by his late ex-wife.

Feeding mysteries are arranged so that the solution to one mystery provides clues or ties into another mystery. A common type of plot twist is when two mysteries that appear to just be overlapping may turn out to actually be feeding into one another. In our example, maybe the detective discovers that he did have a child, and the picture he found looks suspiciously similar to the killer he’s tracking.

Feeding a personal mystery into the bigger plot mystery is a great way to set up personal stakes for a character, and then make those stakes affect the outcome of the story.

Making a Mystery

I won’t claim there is a single formula for creating mysteries, but I’ll provide a few steps you can run through to get started.

  1. Come up with a question. This is your mystery.
  2. Answer the question. This is the payoff.
  3. Add an obscuring complication.
  4. Find a way for the character(s) to overcome that complication.
  5. Repeat and nest as necessary.

When you’re first coming up with your question and answer, don’t worry if the answer seems obvious. The key is to start by having something to ask and knowing the answer.

Once you have a question and answer, you can add an obscuring complication. This can be anything that makes it harder for the characters to discover the answer. This is how you can adjust the difficulty of the mystery.

Will the mystery be more difficult for the characters if some piece of critical information is missing? They could solve it easily if only the murder weapon wasn’t missing! Perhaps a character flaw would make it harder for them to solve. Too bad the character is an antisocial lone wolf, because the person they never get along with would be able to see exactly what’s going on. You can add multiple obstacles if you want the character to go through several steps to solve the mystery.

Then, for each obstacle, you must determine the way that the character(s) will ultimately overcome it and move the plot forward.

Once you have a complete arc—question, obstacle, overcoming, and solution—you can begin to overlap or feed one mystery into another.

A Mystery Is Only as Good as Its Payoff

A final warning: one of the most dangerous things you can do as a writer is to create lots of mysteries without knowing the answers or how to resolve them.

Episodic TV shows fall into this trap all the time, because creating big mysteries gets viewers excited. However, as the show carries on, they either fail to provide solutions to the mysteries or create such tangled, nonsensical plot webs to justify their solutions that the whole thing falls apart.

Nobody will remember or appreciate how well you built up that tantalizing mystery if the payoff turns out to be garbage.

The Thrill of Chasing Dragons

A sinus and ear-infection germ has been working its way through my household, and last week it was my turn to get it. So I’ve been sick, hacking and coughing, and sleeping poorly. One of the side-effects of being sick is that I tend to remember my dreams. The combination of sleeping lightly and waking up often just happens to put me in that liminal space between conscious and unconscious thought.

I’m telling you this because I dreamed up a story. I’m sure some of you are groaning as you read that, and justifiably so. I’ve had a few dreams in my life that felt like stories to me, right up until I tried to turn that vivid-but-vague dream imagery into an actual outline on the page, and was forced to admit that it didn’t really work. Dreams are often interesting to the dreamer, but that doesn’t mean they organize themselves neatly into the shape of a narrative, or that the feeling of the dream can make it onto the page.

The Irrational Excitement Phase

The truth is that I dreamed up some elements of a story, and as I wrote them down, I found myself naturally filling in the bits and pieces. I dreamed of dragons that were actually extra-dimensional, Cthulhu-esque monstrosities, and an ancient king who had managed to trap the Dragon Queen deep in the earth. I dreamed about the deep caverns where the dragon’s psychic echoes reverberate and create all sorts of monstrosities, and a vaguely witchy woman who was hell-bent on getting down there and releasing the dragons once again.

As I wrote that down, I came up with protagonists, a pair of siblings descended from that ancient king, who had lost touch with their roots, but still had stories passed down in their family. All of it is wrapped in Arthurian legend—the ancient king as Arthur, the witch as Morgana, the Grail as the macguffin with the power to unseal the dragon. Then I started thinking about the back-stories of these siblings…

This is one of my favorite feelings when it comes to writing. I start with the core of a story, and it spreads out like a web in front of me, as fast as I can write it all down. This is the feeling that many writers get, that the story is being transmitted directly to their brain from somewhere else, that the block of stone knows the statue inside of it, if only the sculptor will listen and strike the right places.

I like to call this the “Irrational Excitement” phase of story creation. At this point, the story is small and vague, and every new idea feels like an epiphany. There are tons of things that are undefined, so it’s easy to grab onto those threads and come up with exciting new ideas.

This phase is “exciting” because new pieces of the story feel easy to create. There are no broken parts. There are no difficult problems to untangle. There’s just the most fun parts of the story, and not enough detail to cause problems.

This phase is “irrational” because it feels like those problems will never come.

The Intractable Problems Phase

Of course, they do. Stories, especially novel-length stories, always run into challenges and roadblocks.

As I fill in more and more of the pieces, the characters and settings and back-story and motivations, certain things come into conflict with each other, other things remain unclear. I can’t come up with a satisfying idea to fill in a particular blank. Bits are too tropey or boring.

This is the nuts-and-bolts, getting-stuff-done part of writing. It’s the part that consists mostly of solving one problem after another, and it can get exhausting. It seems like this is the place, mid-book, when the finish line still feels impossibly far away, where many writers hate writing the most.

It can be really hard to push through this phase, but once you do, you approach the end and get that extra burst of motivation that comes with actually finishing the thing.

That’s why new ideas are so dangerous at this phase.

The Danger of Jumping Ship

When I’m deep in the Intractable Problems phase of Story A, the brand-new idea for Story B is incredibly appealing. I’m elbows-deep in all the problems of Story A, while Story B is this lovely little vague sprite with no problems whatsoever. I can just pull the threads and come up with new embellishments, one after another. It’s easy. Surely Story B must be a better story altogether.

Of course, that’s just an illusion, a trick of perspective. It’s important to remember that Story B is too young to have sussed out all of the difficult bits yet. With time and care, it will grow into an adult story, with its very own special problems to be figured out.

This is why there’s so much advice out there for authors that begs them to just finish their stories. Successful authors understand this cycle, and how appealing Story B feels. They’ve felt that draw before, and probably succumbed to it once or twice. But they’ve also pushed through the Intractable Problems phase and gotten to the finish line, and they understand that as bad as it sometimes feels, all those problems are actually completely tractable.

Some people get in a vicious cycle of following those shiny new ideas while leaving the old stories behind right when they’re at their most frustrating stage of development.

Harness That Energy

Over the course of years, I’ve developed the belief that the energy of the Irrational Excitement phase can be channeled for good. Jumping into a new story you love is one of the best feelings you can have as a writer, and you should absolutely enjoy it! When that new idea is delivered into your brain (or arrives in a dream), immediately jump on it.

When I had that dream, I hurried to write it down. Then I spent an hour or two turning it over in my mind and expanding it. I came up with a few characters, some back-story, and a couple of proto-scenes. I outlined some of the things that I thought should happen later in the story, not worrying too much about how to connect those dots. By the end of that time I knew I had enough material to actually make a story out of, and it would probably have to be a novel. I had expanded the ideas enough that I could just start to see the hints of some problems that would have to be figured out.

Then I set it aside, and I worked on blog posts and Razor Mountain. It was a fun burst of creativity, and it was extremely productive. I got to enjoy that “new story feeling,” and I wrote down enough that I can pick it up later. But I have other projects that I’m committed to, and that means I can’t write a new novel right now.

That creative energy is a fantastic thing to harness, but it’s important to control it rather than letting it control you. For me, it helps to remind myself that every single story I’ve ever written felt like that at first, and pretty much every one of them had some point where I had to struggle to figure out how to finish it.

Not only that, but I can use a new story as a carrot to dangle in front of myself when the going gets tough. “Just keep writing Razor Mountain,” I’ll tell myself. “Pretty soon you’ll be done, and then you can work on that dragon story you were so excited about. Or one of the other fifty things in your brainstorms folder.”

Indulge, But Limit

In short, indulge in those new stories, but only for a little bit. Savor that burst of creative energy, and harness it at its peak. Don’t let it distract you from what you’re already working on. If you get those story seeds down on paper, they can be surprisingly patient, and you can pick them back up when it’s time for the next project.

Storytelling Class — Conflict and Tension

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was conflict and tension.

(Well, okay, that’s not quite true. This one was actually a few weeks ago. I wrote it up and promptly lost it in a drafts folder. Here it is now, better late than never.)

We always start with two questions: what did we read, and what did we write?

What Did We Read?

Well, it’s been a few weeks, but back then I was finishing off a re-read of Scott Pilgrim on my own time, finishing Dune with my oldest child at bedtime, and I was dabbling in the comic Preacher on Kindle Prime.

Meanwhile, Freya was reading a Long Walk to Water, reading the second book in the Wildwood series with my wife at bedtime, and wrapping up the final book of Harry Potter.

What Did We Write?

I worked on Razor Mountain and worked on some short story ideas—one about time-travel performance art and one about the confusion of being unexpectedly reincarnated.

Freya continued to work on Amber and Floria.

Conflict and Tension

The main topic for the week was conflict and tension.

A lot of writing advice and literary analysis focuses on conflict as the engine that makes all stories work. I think people like Lincoln Michel have made pretty good arguments against that being true.

For one thing, a lot of literary analysis ascribes the label of conflict very broadly. Man vs. man, man vs. nature/god, man vs. self, and so on. Many of these can be better described as “tension.” There may be a conflict between two or more people with antithetical goals, or there may be tension between a person with a goal and a particular force or situation that makes that goal difficult to achieve, like societal norms or physical constraints.

Even though conflict and tension don’t drive all stories, we’re going to talk about them today because they do drive a lot of stories.

Heroes and Villains

Stories about heroes fighting against villains might just be story conflict in its most distilled form. This is mythology. It’s classic fantasy. It’s superheroes. It gives us two great focal points in the hero and the villain, and secondary characters can be placed clearly on one side, or live in the ambiguous space between.

People Who Just Don’t Get Along

Conflict doesn’t have to be as cut and dried as good vs. evil. It can be much more nuanced. Most of us run into interpersonal conflicts in our daily lives, and just as we (usually) wouldn’t ascribe hero status to ourselves, we don’t treat those who disagree with us as “villains” either. These conflicts aren’t about right and wrong. They’re just people disagreeing.

All it takes for conflict to happen is two or more people who have goals that are at odds with each other. They may even have the best of intentions, they may hold no malice for the other, but only one of the two can achieve their goals.

Person vs. Other

Conflict gets less conflicty when it’s no longer about people who are at odds with one another.

Person vs. Nature is a story like “The Martian.” It has only one or two minor cases of interpersonal conflict. Most of the story, everyone is working together. The tension comes from Mark Watney being trapped, alone, on Mars, and everyone trying to get him back home and safe.

Person vs. Self is about a character’s dissatisfaction with themselves, trying to become something different (or fighting an inevitable change all the way). My favorite discworld novel, Going Postal, has a surface-level conflict between the protagonist, Moist Von Lipwig, and his business rivals and the city’s autocrat. But the deeper conflict of the book is Moist, an inveterate con man, slowly becoming a responsible, honorable, and even kind of nice human being.

No Versus at All?

Other things can drive a story that don’t involve conflict. Kishotenketsu, for example, suggests an entirely different framework for evaluating stories. Form and language can drive more literary-minded stories. However, I’d consider those kinds of structures to be extra challenging modes of the craft.

Conflict and tension are great story engines, easy for readers to enjoy, with infinite variations available to the author. Conflict is the reasonable default for most stories.

That’s it for this week’s topic. We took a short break from these “classes”, but summer is almost here, and summer vacation along with it. With less school work, we’ll be trying to take more opportunities for reading and writing just for fun.

Reblog: What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story? — Susan DeFreitas

Today’s reblog comes curtesy of Susan DeFreitas, guest posting on Jane Friedman’s blog. She asks us, what makes a story feel like a story? It’s not just the causality of events — one thing leading to another leading to another, although that’s important for a coherent narrative.

Instead, she argues that it’s the protagonist’s internal problem that makes a good story feel like more than a series of related events.

Sure, external trouble will get your reader’s attention: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late, she’ll get fired, because her boss is a jerk. And because her boss is a jerk, she hasn’t had a raise in the last five years, and she can barely afford to pay her rent.

There’s plenty of external trouble in that scenario—enough, given the right execution, to keep the reader turning the pages to see what happens next. But if there’s no hint of some internal trouble the protagonist is facing, within the first twenty-five pages or so, chances are, our attention as readers will flag.

Internal trouble might be something more like this: The protagonist wakes up to find that a tree has fallen on her car. Now she has no way to get to work, and if she’s late one more time, she’ll get fired. She hates her job, though it’s the professional one her working-class mother was so proud of her for getting, so she feels like she can’t leave it.

She goes on to describe a few ways we can highlight that internal trouble, to give our stories the feeling that they have meaning, and are going somewhere.

Check out the rest of the post at Jane Friedman’s blog…

What I Learned From “Damn Fine Story”

Chuck Wendig is a silly, silly man, who has written a number of bestselling books. My first introduction to Wendig was his book of goofy morning Twitter affirmations, You Can Do Anything, Magic Skeleton.

I recently finished Damn Fine Story, his book about storytelling (and yes, he calls out storytelling as a distinct craft from writing). The book delights in silliness, a sort of gonzo absurdism that lends flavor to the underlying soup of writing craft.

Wendig uses a handful of pop culture references like Die Hard, Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to illustrate and embellish his points, making the book fairly approachable. He also uses stories from his own life to illustrate a few of his points, proving that terrorists and lightsabers aren’t strictly necessary to craft an interesting narrative.

Characters are the Nexus of Story Elements

If Wendig has a central thesis in Damn Fine Story, it is this: “Character is everything.” He makes a compelling argument that most of the elements of a story are derived or depend on the characters in that story.

The story starts with an interruption to the character’s status quo. Their main problem is this interruption, and it’s what drives the plot. Conflict and tension comes out of the character’s actions as they attempt to resolve that problem to their own satisfaction.

The plot should never control the characters. While unexpected things can, and should, happen to the characters, it’s how the characters act (and react) that makes the story. Characters must have some measure of agency, some ability to affect the world around them and fight for what they want. Characters fighting to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals is what makes plot happen.

The Inner Emotional Story Drives the External Action

One of the key ways characters drive the story is through their own arcs. But a character arc is inherently internal. In most stories, the world around the character may change. The character may physically change. What really pulls the reader in and keeps them invested is the character’s own emotional inner journey. The character may come to grips with their own deficiencies and improve themselves, or they may discover that they’re not as good and kind as they thought, once push comes to shove. By overcoming adversity, they may discover that they had the strength in them all along.

The bigger the external stakes are, the more important the internal stakes become. Huge problems like galaxy-spanning wars and terrorist attacks make for exciting action, but they’re not something familiar and relatable. On the other hand, feeling like an outsider or wanting a more fulfilling job might be things that hit close to home for a lot of people. The inner conflicts faced by characters are often “smaller,” but that’s also what makes them relatable. A relatable inner journey coupled with a thrilling and extravagant external conflict can make for compelling fiction.

Good Characters Are Relatable

Along those same lines, good characters must be relatable—not necessarily in every way, but in some way. None of us are space wizards (probably), so any space wizard you write needs to have some other aspect to their character or personality that feels more familiar to the reader. Maybe your space wizard is a young adult and eager to get away from the place they grew up. Maybe they’re unsure of themselves. Maybe they try a little too hard to be act cool, or to fit in with the cool space smugglers and furry aliens.

Relatability can come in the form of “good” characteristics, but it doesn’t have to. Foibles and weaknesses can be just as relatable. Each of us has a few weaknesses we’re all too aware of. Protagonists are often a mix of traits we can aspire to and less desirable traits we can recognize in ourselves. Even villains should be relatable, though they may take particular negative traits to extremes.

The craziest and wildest stories still need a core of understandable, relevant concepts that readers can map to their own lives in some way. When the story (and especially the characters) are too hard to understand, they’re impossible to care about. If the reader doesn’t care about them, then the story stops being interesting. The stakes don’t matter.

Questions Keep the Reader Reading

As Lemony Snicket said, always leave something out. Every open question is a string, tugging the reader along. Every answer is a small victory. Scenes that end with a question or unresolved conflict keep the reader turning pages.

Wendig says, “Tease satisfaction, but be hesitant to deliver it…Reveal too little and the audience will feel lost. Reveal too much and the audience will feel safe and bored.” You have to ride the razor’s edge. Start with plenty of questions, then progressively answer more and more of them as the story goes on, with the most answers and biggest answers coming at the end. When you run out of answers, you run out of story.

More Wendig

Damn Fine Story is one of several books Chuck Wendig has written on the craft of writing. I enjoyed this one, and I’ll probably be checking out some of the others. If you’d prefer to try Wendig in small doses, you can check out his twitter. For larger, less frequent, and possibly more writing-related content, try his blog, Terrible Minds.

Reblog: Conflict is Only One Way to Think About Stories —Lincoln Michel

Lincoln Michel always delights me with his thoughtful posts about writing. He occupies an interesting position as one of those rare authors who is deep into both literary and genre fiction. In this post, he continues his grand quest to convince Writing Twitter that there is no one true way to write a story.

In response to the question, “Do all stories have conflicts?” he takes us on a journey through Aristotle and Freytag, kishōtenketsu, Vonnegut’s “character fortunes,” and other ways to think about and model a story.

The point here is these are all different metaphors, different models, to think about stories. None of them are “right” or “wrong.” None of them are universally applicable to all types of text that one might call “a story.” At the same time, these models are frequently overlapping and a single story can be mapped onto a dozen different models.

Read the rest over at Lincoln’s Substack, Counter Craft…

Storytelling Class — Beats, Scenes, Chapters

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was ways to divide up a story.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

I continued to read Dune to my oldest son at bedtime. I also finished The Unwritten, reading volumes 8-12. I really enjoyed this series, and I think I’d rate it as my second-favorite comic run of all time, after The Sandman. I need to process and unpack, but I’ll definitely have a post about it at some point.

Freya is nearly done with the Harry Potter series, currently reading the last book. She continues to read The One and Only Bob at school, and the Wildwood trilogy (now on book two) with my wife at bedtime.

What Did We Write?

I finished off Razor Mountain chapter 9. I’m also working on getting back in the habit of writing short stories and submitting them for publication. I sent out a story I’ve been holding on to for a while, called “Dr. Clipboard’s Miracle Wonder Drug.” I’ll be working on a new story next week.

Freya continues her epic, “Amber and Floria.” The two sisters are headed to the jungle to look for their lost parents! I’m pretty excited to read this one when it’s done.

Dividing Stories

This week’s topic was about different ways to divide a story into parts.

Story Beats

A “beat” is the smallest unit of story. Each beat moves the story, although this can be forward progress or backward progress from the viewpoint of a given character.

Some example story beats:

  • A character learns something
  • The reader learns something
  • A character makes progress toward a goal
  • A character achieves a goal
  • A new impediment blocks a character from their goal
  • A character fails at achieving their goal, or their goal becomes impossible
  • A character gains a new goal

It’s also worth noting that some books are less plot-heavy and character-heavy and are more interested in playing with language. Beats in these stories might be a little bit more abstract, like:

  • Make the reader feel something
  • Make the text challenging for the reader

(It might sound absurd to make the reading difficult for your reader, but books like House of Leaves do exactly that with the unusual formatting of the text, and books like Finnegan’s Wake use ordinary text, but obfuscate the meaning and structure. Some readers want a puzzle or a challenge or an extremely high level of density.)

Scenes

A scene is usually just a series of beats that happen in the same place, same linear time, and often with the same set of characters. Scenes are often separated by a simple line break or some little visual motif.

Occasionally, you can have more mixed up scenes, where two things happening at once or the story skips around in a non-linear way. This is a little more common in audio-visual media like TV and movies, where tricks like split-screen, voice-over, and cuts between locations make things a little easier to follow.

One of my favorite comic issues growing up was a fantastic example of this kind of “split screen” storytelling. It’s the 1996 Issue 102 of Wolverine, and it stars the title character shortly after he’s suffered severe trauma that’s left him in a state like a feral animal. There are no spoken words in this issue. The visuals of the comic follow Wolverine as he prowls around New York. The text is a story told by an unseen character, about things that happened to her as a child. Both of the stories, text and visual, are about violence, mercy, and redemption. These themes are pertinent at the end of the story, when it’s revealed that the storyteller is Elektra, another superhero, and she’s come to help Wolverine overcome his affliction and essentially become human again.

Chapters

Pretty much all stories are built out of the building blocks of beats and scenes. Once you zoom out into bigger structures than that, you have some choices. Some of these affect the structure and layout of your story, and some of them are more mental exercises of how you want to think of your story.

Some books have only one scene after another, with no larger delineations of structure. These books have a steady, continuous flow. Dune is an example of a book with scenes, but no chapters, and three “parts” that split the book into much larger sections. That said, the majority of books have chapters.

Chapters are the most common way to create a collection of scenes. A chapter may only have one scene, or multiple scenes. Chapters break the story into chunks in a very visible way. This gives them two properties:

  1. Scenes within a chapter have an implied connection.
  2. Chapter breaks imply a separation between scenes.

The implied separations can be just as important the implied connections. They provide what is probably the cleanest way to tell the reader that there is a break in time or space here.

A chapter can be:

  • A super-scene that collects related scenes together (time, place, characters)
  • A way to form a relationship between scenes that might otherwise seem separate
  • A thematic grouping of scenes
  • A clean way to denote separation of time and place between scenes

Parts, Books, and Bigger Structures

Some stories have even larger groupings, often called Parts or Books. These seem especially prevalent in fantasy, possibly because they’re the modern continuation of mythological and epic forms that are often split into similar parts.

These parts can be treated like super-chapters, collecting larger groups of scenes. They can also imply larger separations of time and place.

The split between books or parts will often want to follow your story’s multi-act structure and major events. The biggest, most important parts of the story tend to happen around the end of one act and the start of another, and these can be natural places to break. That said, books or parts don’t have to follow the story arc or act structure. For example, in Lord of the Rings, the last two books each have two parts that cover the exact same span of time from the point of view of two different groups of characters.

Next Time

We decided last week to alternate between story class and extra writing time, so next week will probably just be another brief read/write report.

Storytelling Class — Point of View and Tense

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topics were point of view and tense.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

Kids had Spring Break, and Freya was able to read through most of the sixth Harry Potter book. My wife continues to read Wildwood with her at bedtime.

I’ve been reading Dune with my oldest, along with the usual blogs. I also finally got around to finishing Chuck Wendig’s “Damn Fine Story.”

What Did We Write?

I played through A Visit to San Sibilia. Freya didn’t write anything this week.

Points of View

There are three points of view that you can write from. They are most easily identified by the pronouns used by the narrator to address the point of view character(s).

First Person

(Me, I)

In this perspective, the story is told by a character within it. The narrator is the same person as the point of view character, and the reader experiences the story as though they are that character.

“Poison for Breakfast” is an example that we’ve read recently, where the story is told by Lemony Snicket, who is also the protagonist.

Second Person

(You, We)

In the second-person perspective, the narrator tells the reader what they did. This puts the reader in the head of a character within the story, but the story itself is actually told by a different narrator.

The most prominent example for people my age are the Choose Your Own Adventure books, which make the reader the protagonist, but also give the reader choices that change the story. A book on my reading list, N.K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” is also written in this style.

This is the least commonly used of the three points of view.

Third Person

(He, She, They)

In third-person perspective, the narrator talks about what the characters did while being external to all of them. The Lord of the Rings and Dune are two examples of third-person perspectives in stories we’ve read recently.

Third-person perspective also exists along a spectrum of “distance,” which describes how closely it follows different characters. At one end is the omniscient third-person perspective, which isn’t particularly close to any specific characters.

In Dune, Herbert uses a style that’s less fashionable in modern stories, where his omniscient narrator jumps between different characters’ thoughts as it pleases, effectively taking the reader from one character’s head to another.

At the more distant end of the spectrum, the narrator may have no insight into the character’s thoughts. The third-person narrator may also follow a single character (for the whole book, or sections of the book) and only describe thoughts and feelings of that one character. This style keeps the narrator external to the character, but provides some of the closeness of a first-person perspective.

Tense

As with the different perspectives, there are three broad categories of tense to work with. These can be described by when the story is told, in relation to when the events happen.

Past Tense

“They went there. They did that.”

The story is told after it happened. This is probably the most common tense used in genre fiction.

Present Tense

“They go here. They do that.”

The story is told as it is happening. This is probably the most common tense used in literary fiction.

Future Tense

“They will go. They will do that.”

This is more of an experimental tense that is rarely used for an entire story.

There’s Always a Narrator

Along with tense and point of view, it’s worth considering who the narrator is in each story. This is obvious in first-person perspective, but often easy to overlook in the second- or third-person. In many of these stories, the narrator isn’t a character within the story. They are an unknown figure, or simply the author. But it’s still worth spending some time thinking about how you want the narrator to tell the story. Disassociating “the narrator” from yourself as the author can make it easier to think about the stylistic choices you want “them” to make in telling the story.

Mixing and Matching

As usual, when we talk about the tools in the author’s arsenal, we tend to talk about them as pure, distinct things in order to make each one clear. In real usage, however, a story can use multiple tenses and points of view.

Freya and I looked a childrens’ book we have: The Good Egg. This book encapsulates all three tenses in a few short pages. The first-person narrator, the good egg, spends the first half of the book telling us about himself and what happened to him (past tense). Then he says he’s made some important decisions (present tense). Then he describes how he’s going to change his viewpoint and his behavior (future tense). This was a simple encapsulation of how to use different tenses to good effect, and the story blends them together seamlessly.

As I’ve talked about before, The Martian is a great example of the usage of different points of view to achieve different effects throughout a single story.

These are tools in the writer’s toolbox. And even though we are likely to use some much more frequently than others, it pays to be familiar with all of them, and make purposeful decisions around when to use each one.

Storytelling Class — Writing Goals

Every week, my daughter Freya and I have a “storytelling class.” Really, it’s just a fun opportunity to chat about writing stories. This week, our topic was a mini-class where we talked about writing goals.

We always start with two questions: What did we read, and what did we write over the past week?

What Did We Read?

This week, I’ve been reading Dune to my eldest (who wasn’t terribly interested in the Wildwood trilogy that my wife is reading to Freya). I recently read The Lord of the Rings to the kids, and Tolkien’s verbose style is fresh in my mind. It stands in stark contrast to Herbert’s often terse style in Dune. Herbert loves to create compound sentences, but has an allergy to conjunctions. He tends to leave the “and” or “but” implied and just combine sentences with a simple comma or semicolon.

Continuing on my recent graphic novel kick, I also read volume 3 of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I read the first couple volumes years ago, and I have to say, I was a little lost in this one. Volume 3 is titled “Century,” because it follows the nearly immortal characters over the course of a hundred years.

The premise is fun, but the story didn’t really grip me. The villain seemed almost accidental, and the end of the story was alltogether anticlimactic. The apocalypse was averted by a classic deus ex machina.

One of the big draws of the League stories is the wrangling together of other works of literature into something new, and there were some entertaining examples of that in this volume, including a rather famous wizard school and a magical nanny. Still, they didn’t have the same excitement as the original volume, with its Dracula; Invisible Man; 20,000 Leagues; and Dr. Jekyll references.

Freya has moved on to the sixth Harry Potter book, and continued to read The One and Only Bob at school, and Wildwood with mom at bedtime.

What Did We Write?

I finished off Chapter 8 of Razor Mountain. I’ve also been looking through some solo TTRPGs from the Itch.io Ukraine bundle.

Freya continued to work on her story, Amber and Floria.

Writing Goals

Rather than tackling a high-level writing topic this week, Freya and I sat down and talked a little bit about writing goals.

I used to think my own goals were pretty straightforward: writing stories and novels and trying to get them traditionally published. However, in recent years I’ve been doing more writing just for fun. And, of course, I’ve been writing Razor Mountain serially and posting it as I go, while documenting the whole process. Which lands me somewhere in-between “just for fun” and “actual publishing.”

Two quotes stand out to me when it comes to writing goals. The first is by Neil Gaiman, recorded in print in his little book, Art Matters.

“Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be…was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal. And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain.”

This simple heuristic is perfect for writers. There are a lot of ways to improve at your craft, and no strict curriculum. You just have to set some long-term goals and keep asking yourself whether you’re still walking toward the mountain.

The other quote reminds me that you don’t have to have goals at all. It’s from a conversation about writing on Mike Birbiglia’s podcast, “Working It Out.” Carin Besser talks about writing poems for nobody but herself, taking them out once in a while and working on them without worrying about finishing, and with no real interest in publishing. This is “writing like knitting.” It’s a pass-time, a hobby, or a meditative act.

Sometimes goals can be incredibly stressful, and distract from the fact that we’re doing something we love. Even if you do have long-term goals, it’s worth stepping back periodically and just enjoying writing for its own sake.