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.

The MICE Quotient

The MICE Quotient is an idea that originated with Orson Scott Card, in his books on writing: How To Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and Character and Viewpoint. It has been updated and expanded by Mary Robinette Kowal, one-time student of Card, and award-winning author in her own right, who is one of the main hosts of the Writing Excuses podcast.

In its latest incarnation, MICE stands for Milieu, Inquiry, Character, and Event. It’s a framework for understanding where the overlapping threads of a story start and end, and how they’re affected by obstacles and complications along the way. It can be useful for architecting stories, or figuring out what’s wrong with a story when it seems to have gone off the rails.

Milieu

Milieu threads are all about setting and place. The thread begins with the character entering or exiting a place. It ends with exiting the place, returning home, or entering yet another place.

Obstacles in a milieu thread typically prevent the character from freely coming and going — physical barriers or something more subtle like emotional ties.

Sci-fi and fantasy often have a milieu component in the form of new worlds or fantastic places. The hero’s journey often includes a milieu thread that starts with “crossing the threshold” and ends with the “road back.” Prison dramas and heists, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland are clear examples of milieu threads as a main driver of the story.

Inquiry

Inquiry threads are all about asking and answering a question. The thread begins when the question is posed and ends when it’s answered and understood.

Obstacles in an inquiry thread typically prevent the character from gathering the info needed to answer the question, or things that broaden the scope of the question.

Murder mysteries (any mysteries, really) are the classic example of inquiry-driven stories.

Character

Character threads are all about a character’s self-discovery or change. The thread begins when the character questions who they are, and ends when the character decides the answer to that question — either accepting who they are, or changing in some fundamental way.

Obstacles in a character thread are things that prevent the character’s self-discovery. That may mean the character tries to be something they’re not, and fails. It may mean the character tries to stay the same in the face of changing circumstances, and has to bear the negative results of that.

“Coming of Age” stories and romances are typically character stories.

Event

Event threads are all about disruption of the status-quo. They start when the established order is disrupted, and end when the status quo is restored (or a new status quo is set up).

Obstacles in event threads are typically things that prevent the situation from settling.

Disaster movies and spy thrillers are often driven by event threads, as characters seek to overcome the disaster or stop the villain’s evil plot.

Multiple Threads and Nesting

MICE threads can describe sweeping arcs across a whole novel, but stories can also be analyzed as a series of MICE micro-threads. An inquiry thread might be a character having a question at the start of a chapter, and finding the answer by the end. A character thread might consist of a single conversation where one character changes another character’s mind. Ideally, the resolution of one small thread will lead naturally into other threads, keeping the momentum going.

A single thread by itself produces a very simple story. Most stories have multiple interrelated threads. Threads do not have to proceed serially, one after another — they can be nested several layers deep, although at some point you risk muddying the waters for the readers who has to keep track of it all.

Kowal suggests that nesting threads in a first-in, last-out (FILO) structure is easiest for readers to parse. For example, my novel Razor Mountain begins as a classic type of Milieu story—the survival story. Christopher is lost in the Alaskan wilderness and he wants to get back home. However, as the story continues, there will be a Character conflict as well. Christopher will end up facing challenges that make him question himself and what kind of person he wants to be. Near the end of the book, Christopher will face a final choice that determines his character, finishing the character thread. As a result of that choice, he will exit the milieu, one way or another.

Simple nesting looks like matryoshka dolls, one thread within another. Complex nesting looks more like IKEA furniture, with each box possibly containing multiple boxes of different sizes.

Applying MICE To Outlining

Using MICE in outlining is a proactive approach to building story structure. Stories usually contain bits of all of the MICE elements, so the strategy when outlining comes down to asking yourself as the author, “What matters to me in this story?” As Kowal illustrates with the Writing Excuses homework assignments, any given story can be told with any one of the MICE elements as its primary driver.

In the outline, you can choose which MICE thread is most important, and nest all the other threads within it. You can then construct obstacles for the characters that block the resolution of specific threads. You can tweak inner threads so their resolutions affect the threads containing them.

Applying MICE to Editing

Using MICE in editing is more of a reactive approach — looking for parts of the story that don’t feel right, and analyzing them in terms of their MICE threads.

When the story isn’t working, try to identify the different MICE threads. Which ones are introduced first? Are they all getting resolved? What order are they resolved in? Are the sub-threads creating obstacles that contribute to their parent thread, preventing the characters from resolving a larger issue? Or are they introducing side complications that only distract from bigger, more pressing issues?

For example, take my favorite dead horse to beat: the show LOST. It introduces dozens, probably hundreds of inquiry threads, and many character threads. The character threads are mostly resolved, but some are resurrected later on. Many of the inquiry threads are left hanging with no resolution. The nesting is impossible to follow because there are so many threads.

As a different example, Lord of the Rings creates an epic story with a sequence of endings that irritate some readers. Reordering those endings to follow a clear FILO nesting structure would probably make them feel less like the books keep ending over and over for five chapters in a row.

That’s MICE

Like any writing technique, the MICE quotient is not a magic bullet. It won’t fix every problem in every story, and sometimes you can break the formula and still come up with something that works. You can probably think of at least one classic story that stands up despite breaking the nesting rules or structuring story threads in unusual ways.

On the other hand, the MICE quotient is a great starting point or default. It can be a guardrail when a story starts going off the tracks, and a guide when navigating the mire of a difficult outline. It’s an easy way to analyze plot structure through beginnings, endings, obstacles and nested threads.

If this piqued your interest, the full series of Writing Excuses episodes provide a great deep dive in eight short parts.

How to Research for Fiction

No matter what you’re writing, at some point you’re going to have to do some research. It may be the details of exoplanets or ion drives for sci-fi. It may be mythology or medieval society for fantasy. It may be the royal court of Victorian England for historical romance. Every genre and style of story can benefit from some kind of research.

However, research can be challenging. Sometimes, the information you want is difficult to find. Sometimes it doesn’t exist. When I started my novel, Razor Mountain, I quickly discovered just how little we know about prehistoric humans more than ten thousand years ago.

Sometimes, there’s far too much information available, and it can be completely overwhelming. It’s easy (and dangerous) to get sucked into endless YouTube or Wikipedia links in the middle of a writing session.

There’s a great discussion around research for fiction on episode 15.41 of the Writing Excuses podcast. Mary Robinette Kowal suggests that the best question to ask is “How little research can I do?” I take that to mean, “how can I do exactly enough research to write this thing well?” Research can be fun or frustrating, but ultimately it only has measurable usefulness if it contributes to the writing getting done.

When trying to limit your research, there are three important questions: when to research, what to research, and how much to research.

When to Research

Research can be done before, during, or after the first draft of the story.

Before starting the actual writing, you may have an outline, but you will be at the point where you know the least about your story, and therefore the least about what you need to research. However, before writing is a great time to do general research about a particular setting, a culture, a time period, or other broad parts of the story’s milieu. This kind of undirected research is a great way to find new ideas that will feed into the story and the characters.

N.K. Jemisin suggests traveling to places that you’ll use as settings in your stories. Of course, that’s only feasible if the setting exists in the modern world (or you can glean something about the past from visiting the present). It’s also time- and money-consuming, and not always practical for many writers or smaller projects. Sometimes Google Maps street view is good enough. However, if you’re making money from writing, travel can sometimes be used as a tax write-off, and a great excuse to see new places.

During the actual writing is when it’s easiest to find smaller details that need to be researched. These may be simple facts or figures to look up, like the three tallest mountains in the U.S., or more general ideas, like what types of fruit you’re likely to find in the green room of a Chinese TV talk show. It’s more rare to suddenly realize you need broad knowledge of a particular setting or culture, but that can happen as well, especially of you are an exploratory writer, and you’re discovering your plot as you go.

After writing the initial draft, research is sometimes an important part of editing. Things that didn’t make sense or need to be expanded may require research.

Putting Off Research and Filling Blanks

Research, especially at a broad level, can be infinite. You can know the answer to the three tallest mountains in the U.S., but if you’re researching the Canadian punk scene in the mid-1970s, you have to go in knowing that there is no end-point. The research is done when you feel like you have enough to write the story.

This mindset of “how little can I research” helps to avoid the problem of research as procrastination. Writers find a million ways to procrastinate, and research can be a dangerous one, because it feels useful. If it’s not putting words on the page, it’s really just a form of entertainment, not productivity.

This kind of undirected research can completely derail a writing session. In Writing Excuses 15.41, Cory Doctorow suggests using the old journalist notations, TK (for “to come”) and FCK (for “fact check”). When you’re writing, and you need a fact that you don’t know, just throw TK or FCK into the manuscript with some placeholder text and keep writing. This can also work when you need to remember something from earlier in the story — was the murder weapon in the study or the library? Just TK it and keep writing.

These strange abbreviations are sequences of letters that tend to not show up naturally in English, so it’s easy to search for them later. You can always come up with your own notations, but I’d suggest you use something that’s easy to search out in a manuscript. You might dedicate time to a research session instead of a writing session, going through these notes and finding what you need to fill in the blanks, without worrying about it detracting from the day’s word count.

Plot or Detail?

Sometimes, research will be needed for details, and sometimes the result of the research will directly affect the plot. The details and little bits that bring the world to life can often be FCK-ed for later. It doesn’t really matter what fruit is available in the green room. It won’t affect what the character does when they go on TV. On the other hand, if you discover that there really aren’t any talk shows on TV in that country, that may derail the next couple of scenes.

It’s important to differentiate between these detail and plot-vital questions. Skipping over a plot-vital question and continuing to write may backfire when you get to the research and the answers turn out to be incompatible with what you’ve written. This is a recipe for depression, as you’re forced to throw away hard work and change the course of the plot.

Details, on the other hand, are relatively safe. They can usually be put off for later research without much consequence. It’s important to understand the difference.

Using What You Know

One of the best ways to avoid research is to already know things. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Chances are, you’ve lived in a few places. You may have a job, and probably know other people who have jobs. You’ve been places. You’ve seen things.

“Write what you know,” is such well-worn writing advice that it borders on trite, but it is undoubtedly the best way to avoid research. In Razor Mountain, I decided that one of my protagonists is a former software developer from Minnesota. That happens to be my current job, and the place I live. There are plenty of other things that I have to research for that book, but any questions that come up about living in Minnesota or working in software will probably be easy for me to answer with my own experience. By using what I know, I can do less work and get the same quality result.

Just be aware that using the same knowledge over and over, to the point of it being a crutch, can be obvious to your audience, and even get a little boring. Not all your protagonists have to be writers, Stephen King. There are other professions.

Don’t Rely on Tropes and Stereotypes

Just because you want to limit your research doesn’t mean it’s okay to cut corners, especially when it comes to people and their cultures. One of the reasons old movies and books with minority characters are so often cringy is because they rely entirely on tropes and stereotypes for those characters and cultures.

Some of this can be avoided by finding readers who live in the places you’re depicting, or come from the same culture as your characters. These days, those people are often called “sensitivity readers.” They’re living research assistants, with the personal experience that you’re lacking. Whatever you call them, they invaluable.

When working with this kind of reader, it’s even better if you can work with them as you write. It’s better to ask questions up-front to avoid plot-breaking discoveries. And your reader will definitely appreciate reviewing work that already works hard to understand who they are or the culture they come from. Of course, like any person who works in a professional capacity to help improve your writing, you may have to pay them. This is skill and knowledge that you’re getting from someone else, and it’s as valuable as something like editing or cover design.

Not Too Much, Not Too Little

Research can make stories feel more real, but it can also be yet another form of writerly procrastination. It’s important to ask “when, what and how much,” as you delve into research. If you can use what you know, you may be able to skip that research and spend more time writing. If you can TK or FCK those detail, you can avoid derailing a productive writing session and come back to that detail later.

Research may seem like a daunting thing that requires travel and first-hand experience, but there’s a lot that can be discovered through the internet, and even through your local helpful librarian and (gasp) books. If you can find experts on a topic, they can be a great resource too. When it comes to depicting a culture or group that you aren’t a part of, finding readers and consultants to fill in those gaps in understanding can be a necessity.

Don’t let research scare you, but don’t let the allure of knowledge distract you from actually getting the writing done either.

Changing Characters: Evolution and Transformation

There’s a popular truism in fiction writing: rounded characters, and especially protagonists, need to change over the course of the story. Now, you might argue that characters don’t always need to change, or that you want to focus on other engines to drive your story. But let’s say you do want your character to change. You want that change to be believable, and you want that change to meaningfully affect or even drive your plot.

In that case, let’s talk about two strategies for making that character change happen: evolution and transformation.

Building Character Background

Characters usually don’t spring into existence at the start of the story. They have history, and that history should affect their current personality, their fears, and their goals. Characters need reasons to be who they are. This gives them depth and makes them believable.

If your character is going to change along the course of your story, they need to have a starting point — a steady state that gets disrupted by the events of the story, leading to change. For the change to make sense, the character has to start in one place, with certain ideas or point of view, and end up seeing things differently by the end.

By this logic, a character change can be broken down into four parts:

  1. The background that shaped the character before the story.
  2. The state of the character at the beginning of the story.
  3. The event(s) that change the character.
  4. The state of the character at the end of the story.

These parts don’t all need to be given equal attention. There may only be hints of the backstory. They also don’t have to be revealed in order. Many great villains initially appear to be unreasonably evil, until their background is revealed later in the story, humanizing them.

In my opinion, one of the easiest ways of figuring out character transformation is to start with #2 and #4. If you know where your character starts, and where they’re going, it’s just a matter of coming up with the reasons why they are the way they are, and the troubles you’re going to put them through to force them to change. However, you can really start with any of these and build out the others. It all depends on what aspect of the character comes to your first, or excites you the most.

Now, let’s look at the actual methods of changing the character during the story.

Sudden Transformation

The sudden transformation is the epiphany, the “ah-ha” moment, the shocking twist, or maybe even the sudden-but-inevitable betrayal.

The sudden transformation is a form of character change that happens all at once…or at least appears to. There is a particular event or short period of time where the reader sees the exact nature of the change. This is usually going to be an important point in the plot. If the character is a protagonist, it almost has to be.

This might be an event where the character’s strength becomes a weakness, or vice-versa. They may undergo something terrible and develop a debilitating fear, or they may be forced into a situation where the only way forward is to overcome their fear. The event might make the character’s goal obsolete, and introduce a new goal. Perhaps they wanted to save someone from the villain, but they failed, and the villain killed that person. Now they have a new goal: revenge.

Superheroes are great examples. Many super-heroes have a sudden transformation where they gain their super-powers and also undergo some event that gives them a reason to use those super-powers.

Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider, and he can suddenly run up walls, shoot webs, and smack a bad guy with every limb simultaneously. His first instinct is to use his powers selfishly, but his uncle Ben is almost immediately killed by a criminal, making Peter realize that he has to use his powers to help others.

Let’s look at a more villainous example: the Darth Vader of the original Star Wars trilogy. Vader spends all three movies working to crush the rebellion and bring Luke to the dark side. Only at the very end, when Luke has pleaded with him and Vader sees his son about to die, does he kill the Emperor, sacrificing himself to save his son.

You may notice that most of these sudden transformations aren’t completely sudden. It often helps to throw in a few moments or bits of dialogue that lay groundwork for the change, essentially preparing the character for that vital moment. Peter Parker has conversations about responsibility with Ben before he dies. Luke repeatedly tries to convince Vader to leave the dark side before the final battle.

Slow Evolution

In contrast to the sudden transformation, where character change happens all at once, the slow evolution requires a longer series of events and revelations that add up to something larger than the sum of their parts.

The character may go through events, conversations and internal realizations that eventually lead to a change in perspective. The character may or may not realize that they’ve changed, but it should be evident from their words or actions that they’re behaving differently than they did before.

On the other hand, this series of small changes could culminate in a moment of realization when the change becomes clear, or impossible to ignore. This is often a decision point for the character. Whereas a sudden transformation comes as a shock that makes sense in retrospect, the slow evolution makes it clear that this moment is what it’s all been leading to.

To contrast with Vader’s sudden transformation, look at another character from the original Star Wars trilogy: Han Solo. Han starts out as a loner, worried about his own problems. He is willing to use people for his own ends, and he tries to avoid getting too close to others. However, Luke draws him into a rescue operation with the allure of a reward, and from there, he ends up entangled with Princess Leia and the Rebellion.

Han’s past catches up with him when he’s caught and imprisoned in Jabba’s palace, but it’s his friends who rescue him: proving once again that being a lone wolf is not a good strategy for him. By the third movie, we find that Han is not only a willing member of the rebels, but is marked as a leader and even volunteers to lead a dangerous mission that is vital to the success and survival of the rebels.

Alignment With the Plot

Characters don’t exist within a vacuum. They interact with other characters. They drive the events of the plot, and the events of the plot affect them in turn.

One of the most effective ways to make character change feel momentous to the reader is to make sure it aligns with the plot. In a traditional three act structure, this means that the most powerful places for character change to occur is at the boundaries of the acts.

Events at the beginning of the first act may influence or illuminate the personality of the character for much of the rest of the story. The end of the first act and the start of the second is typically a major disaster or setback that might cause a character to reevaluate (or double-down!) on their point of view. Likewise, the end of the second act and start of the third usually leads into the point of the story when things look bleakest for the protagonist, and when they are most likely to see a need for change, or have change foisted upon them. Finally, the end of act three is when the plot points resolve. This might be the culmination of a character’s change, when they have the opportunity to make a decision that really highlights the difference from the beginning of the story.

Change is Powerful

It’s always worth evaluating who your characters are, and how they change over the course of a story. Where do they start, and why? What do the events of the story do to them? Do they undergo a slow evolution, with many little points of change along the way, or a carefully foreshadowed sudden transformation? Look for opportunities to align the change with story beats, and use it to drive the action.

Characters have a history that affects where they start. They have experiences that affect who they are, and can subtly or fundamentally change them. Those experiences and that change are one of the reasons we read fiction, and some of the most emotionally impactful parts of a story when done well. Carefully crafted character change is one of the best ways to make characters spring to life, jump off the page, and endear themselves to readers.

Reblog: NaNoPrep: Signing Up and Getting Started — Connie J. Jasperson

Last week, I talked about the good and the bad of NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write the entire first draft of a novel in the month of November. Now, November is almost upon us. Are you going to participate?

If you’re on the fence, or you’re just not sure where to start the whole process, take a look at Connie J. Jasperson’s latest NaNoWriMo prep post for a guide to getting a project set up on the NaNoWriMo site.

If you don’t like to plan, you can just start writing after Halloween midnight. If you’re an inveterate planner like me, that strategy might feel overwhelming. Luckily, Jasperson has you covered, with an entire series of NaNoWriMo prep posts linked at the bottom. They’ll get you figuring out your setting, characters, story arc, and more.

Check it out on Jasperson’s blog, Life in the Realm of Fantasy…

Reblog: Kishōtenketsu for Beginners — Nils Ödlund

If you’re a consumer of any kind of modern media, chances are pretty good that you know something about three-act structure. You may use it in your writing. You may recognize it intuitively from books, movies, TV and stage. But those three acts are not the only way to structure a story.

Today, I want to send you over to Mythic Scribes, where Nils Ödlund discusses Kishōtenketsu, a four-act story structure with roots in Asian classics.

Recently we presented a series of articles on three-act structure here on Mythic Scribes. This inspired me to try and write an article about a kind of four act structure known as Kishōtenketsu. It’s used in classical Chinese, Korean, and Japanese narratives, and is often mentioned as an example of a story structure without conflict.

Now, I’m not well versed in narrative theory. I find it interesting, but I’m far from an expert, and most of what I know of writing I have figured out myself (though the forums here on Mythic Scribes have been invaluable in doing just that). As such, this article will really only scratch the surface of Kishōtenketsu.

I’ll begin by explaining the word itself and the basic principles behind the story structure. I’ll then show two examples of stories told in this way, and finally I’ll give a few tips I’ve found useful for wrapping my head around this whole concept.

Read the rest over at Mythic Scribes…

Reblog: “On the Many Different Engines That Power a Short Story” — Lincoln Michel

We’ve talked in the past about engines that power story: types of conflict and creating and resolving tension. Today, I want to point you to Lincoln Michel’s great article about the false dichotomy between character-driven and plot-driven fiction. Lincoln argues that there are an almost infinite number of engines that can drive a story, and that any single one is rarely enough to power even a short story on its own.

The hard thing about writing—or one of the hard things in the endless series of hard things about writing—is that there’s no one way to do it. Instead, there are infinite paths in the dark woods of fiction leading to infinite types of stories. It’s hard, a little scary, yet ultimately thrilling.

Despite this, there are countless articles that insist there are in fact only two methods of storytelling: plot-driven and character-driven. It’s understandable that writing guides and craft classes are reductive. Who would pay for a writing guide that said “lol who knows ¯\_(ツ)_/¯” followed by 200 blank pages? Still, the plot-driven vs. character-driven binary has always made me wonder why those two aspects of fiction are the only ones allowed in the driver’s seat. Couldn’t a story be driven by voice? Couldn’t setting have a turn at the wheel?

Read the rest over at Lit Hub…

Filling Plot Holes

As I’ve been working on the development of my serial novel, Razor Mountain, I’ve recently been thinking about plot holes. Razor Mountain is a “puzzle box” story driven by mysteries. While any story can fall victim to plot holes, this type of story is especially susceptible.

I’m doing a few things with Razor Mountain specifically to try to catch and fix plot holes, and I plan to talk about those in my usual development journals. Today, I want to talk more generally about plot holes — what they are, how to find them, and how to fix them.

Two Layers of Story

There are a million ways to dissect and study stories, but for now I want to look at two layers: the action layer and the motivation layer.

The action layer is the “what” of the story. What happens? Who does what? The motivation layer is the “why” of the story. Why do the characters behave the way they do? For a story to have depth, it needs both of these layers. For it to make sense to the reader, the motivation layer should drive the action layer. If the action isn’t being driven by the motivations of the characters, then the plot is either arbitrary, or the characters have little agency in their own story.

Both layers can have plot holes, but holes in the action layer look different from holes in the motivation layer.

What Exactly is a Plot Hole?

For my purposes, I’m defining plot holes as any time when story elements at a particular point don’t lead logically into the story elements that follow. The reader has to stop and say, “Wait, why did that happen?”

Holes appear in the action layer when something happens that shouldn’t be physically possible. If the butler was trapped in the cellar in chapter two, then how can he be serving tea to the duchess in chapter four as if nothing happened? Holes appear in the motivation layer when actions don’t make sense based on a character’s motives or personality. Lucy hates Rachel, and we’ve seen that Lucy only helps her close friends. Why would she step in and defend Rachel when their teacher accuses her of cheating?

Action layer holes are usually obvious once they’re pointed out. That thing that happened is impossible. Did the author forget a scene? Did they lose track of the order of events, or simply overlook that particular instance of cause and effect?

Motivation layer holes are less straightforward. Character motivations are more nebulous than the physical reality of the action layer. Just as it isn’t always easy to understand why real people do what they do (or even why we ourselves act in a certain way!), it’s not always easy to understand why characters take action. Often, as authors, we want to be circumspect and only gently imply a character’s motivations, instead of beating the reader over the head with precise, detailed explanations of why the character does what they do.

How Plot Holes Happen

It’s certainly possible to accidentally write a character doing something that goes against their personality or goals. Plot-focused writers can have this problem, if they’re more worried about the sequence of the plot and not paying enough attention to the motives of the characters driving that plot.

It’s also possible that we intend to make the character’s motivations drive the actions they take, but fail to make the relevant motivations clear enough to the reader. This is one of those challenges where there’s no right answer. Some readers may have no trouble following, while others are thoroughly confused. As an author, this kind of problem is very hard to catch without the help of critique partners or beta readers.

Exploratory writers (a.k.a. “pantsers”) may end up with plot holes due to the way they approach the writing process. If you don’t know the path that the story will take when you’re in the middle of writing it, it can be easy to include accidental incongruities. Usually, exploratory writers will have to look for these inconsistencies in the revision process, once they have a better idea of the shape of the story.

However, just because you’re a planner who follows an outline doesn’t mean you’re immune to plot holes. Outliners can get plot holes because they go into the story knowing a lot of it so well that they forget to adequately explain something to the reader. When you know all the back-story and exactly why each event leads to the next, it can be surprisingly easy to forget to include a vital piece of information that you simply take for granted.

Identifying Plot Holes

We’ve established that plot holes can happen to anyone, and they can happen in the action layer or the motivation layer of the story. So how can we find those plot holes in our own work and fix them?

As I mentioned before, mysteries are magnets for plot holes. You can think of a mystery as a purposeful, temporary plot hole. The author picks specific bits of information to withhold from the characters and the reader in order to create tension. It may be a mystery of what happened (in the action layer), or a mystery of why it happened (motivation layer).

For a mystery to be effective, the reader needs to trust that the author is doing this on purpose. A mystery that looks like a plot hole can bother the reader just as much as a real plot hole. As authors, we need to make it clear from the structure of the story that the mystery is supposed to be there, and understand that the reader will have the expectation of a payoff where that hole is filled in later.

To identify accidental action layer plot holes, it helps to look at places in the story where a lot of action is happening. If you have complex, interwoven plot lines, you’ll want to look closely at those areas of the story. It may help to make simple lists of events in sequence, or even a flowchart for complicated plots. A missing piece in the sequence is often much more obvious when laid out in this way. Does each event lead to the next in the sequence?

To identify motivation layer plot holes, you need to think about how character motives lead to character actions. Complex motivations make it easier for something illogical to slip past, so you might want to pay special attention to a character with several conflicting goals, or situations where multiple characters are at odds with one another, or have shifting allegiances and animosities.

Just as you can map out the sequences of action with lists and flow charts, you can map character goals and personality traits to the actions they take. If you can’t describe why a character would do that thing, you have a problem.

Finally, your last and best line of defense may be your readers. Critique partners or beta readers — really anyone can help find plot holes that you miss by virtue of being too close to the story. Ideally, you want readers who read a lot of your genre. Readers who prefer murder mysteries may have a slightly harder time catching inconsistencies in your politically charged sci-fi space opera. Still, the most important thing is to get extra pairs of eyes on your story to double-check your work.

Fix That Plot

Often, identifying a plot hole is the hardest part, and the actual fix just requires adjusting or adding a scene. A nasty action layer hole may require you to rethink how the events around it are laid out. A bad motivation hole may force you to change what a character does in the story, or change the character. You may find that you can add some backstory or personality trait earlier in the story so their actions make sense. Just try to make it feel organic. If done well, this can add depth to the character.

Instead of looking at it as just a fix for something broken, treat a plot hole as an opportunity to make the character or plot richer than it would have been. You can fill that hole with whatever you want, so you might as well fill it with something great.

Reference Desk – #3 – Scrivener

What’s the Good Word (Processor)?

Scrivener is a word processor and organizational tool for writers. I’ve been using it for years, and I don’t see myself stopping any time soon. This might seem odd, when we have good general-purpose word processors like Microsoft Word and Google Docs, and good general-purpose organizational tools like Trello. However, what I like best about Scrivener is the combination of organizational and writing features, and that it caters specifically to writers rather than trying to be everything to everyone.

Weaving a Story

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m more of an outliner and planner than an exploratory writer, but the truth is that my process always varies from project to project, and it’s never perfectly linear. Some of my plans change in the process of writing, and ideas that started out vague necessarily become more detailed as more words land on the page. Planning, organization and writing are interleaved.

When an idea starts to develop in my head enough to resemble a story, I often start by putting down a few paragraphs in a plain text or Word file. Inevitably, I quickly reach a point where I stop and evaluate: I have som ewords – maybve the start of the story, or a scene that interests me – and some ideas. This is the point where the text file suddenly feels useless. I need to organize my thoughts, extrapolate from them, and figure out how they might fit together.

Usually, that’s the point when I open up a project in scrivener. Within a project, I can have many files: chapters, character descriptions, research notes, and anything else I want to track.

Scrivener's "Binder" - a simple file tree

This might seem like a small thing – a collection of files in a simple hierarchy – but I find it much more effective to have everything for the story one click away (as opposed to files in a collection of folders). Even when I’m in the middle of editing or writing, I can quickly find my notes. Scrivener includes some templates for characters and settings that you can use or ignore, as you prefer. Parts, chapters and scenes can also be broken down in as much detail as you would like. I personally prefer to have each chapter in its own document, but you can choose more or less granularity.

Outlining

When I write the outline to a novel, I generally take a two-pronged approach. First, I tend to write out chapter summaries in sequence, in a single file. When I start writing a chapter, I take that summary and paste it into the chapter document’s “synopsis” field.

In addition to the file tree, Scrivener has a cork-board view. In this view, you can see notecards with the synopsis of each chapter (or even each scene, if you like). Reordering is as simple as dragging notecards on the board, or documents in the tree.

Writing

When it comes to writing, Scrivener doesn’t compete for the most comprehensive formatting options. It can’t do the fancy layouts of something like InDesign or Publisher, or even Word. It gives you the standard tools you’d expect: text fonts, colors, sizes, emphasis, alignment; a handful of preset options like quote, heading or title; and some basic layout elements like lists and tables.

As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough. I’m not designing a magazine, I’m writing fiction. That said, you may find the options a bit limited if you’re trying to put together something like a travel guide, where you have lots of pictures, maps, or charts among and alongside your words.

If you like to split up your long works into individual chapter or scene documents, you can easily see them combined together by selecting multiple documents in the tree and selecting the “composite” view. Scrivener will instantly stitch all the documents together in the order you specify (with or without page breaks).

Project Tracking

Scrivener allows you to set word count goals for an entire project, or a single session – useful if you’re tracking progress for a deadline, or participating in something like National Novel Writing Month. You can also pull up stats like word counts or printed/paperback page counts for the entire project, or an arbitrary selection. Tools like Word Frequency can even occasionally help you spot your writerly tics.

There are also color-coded labels and keywords that can be applied to documents and searched. This is honestly not a feature I have ever used, and it seems a bit clunky, but if you’re incredibly organized and want to put in the extra effort to be able to cross-reference certain things across many documents, it may be useful. For me, the full-text search has generally been adequate.

Other Features

Scrivener includes a few other features I haven’t used, mostly because they’re for other styles of writing. It supports scriptwriting in a number of different formats. It also handles bibliographies, citations, and footnotes. It includes some simple tools for translating or looking up terms via various websites (e.g. thesaurus and dictionary.com).

Backup and Sync

Unlike many products today, Scrivener is a desktop application. There is no web-only option. It’s available on Windows, Mac, and iOS, and the different versions must be purchased separately (although they’re still relatively cheap, and there are slightly discounted bundle deals).

Scrivener also doesn’t handle its own backups or syncing between devices. It does offer some support for integrating with Dropbox for backup and sync, and I’ve found that this works pretty well between my Windows PC, somewhat outdated MacBook Air, and my phone.

Scrivener is not a cloud application by any stretch of the imagination, and this is one of the few places where I personally feel there is some room for improvement. I don’t particularly want an online Google-Docs-style editor, but seamless syncing with less setup would be nice.

Publishing

Scrivener provides some import and export options, which are mostly useful if you want to pull in plain text files or get them out of Scrivener as plain ol’ text. It also offers “compilation” options, which combine the text of the chapters or scenes into a single file, with many formats available. This can be used for e-publishing (epub, mobi, PDF), or to import into other tools (Word, Open Office, HTML, Post Script, Final Draft, LaTex). You can even print, if you prefer words on paper.

Try it Out

Scrivener is one of my most-utilized writing tools. It’s not perfect, but it contains a blend of features that really work well for me. In a world where everything seems to be subscription-based, I also appreciate their customer-friendly business model. They offer a 30-day free trial (that’s days-used, not calendar days), and if you do buy, it’s a one-time purchase to own the current version forever.

It’s also worth noting that they have modest student discounts, and they typically offer discounts for participants of NaNoWriMo in November, if that’s something you’re into.

Check it out at Literature and Latte.

Outlining vs. Exploratory Writing

It’s the classic battle of writing styles! Is it better to plan a story down to the smallest detail before you begin writing, or fly by the seat of your pants, figuring out everything as you write it?

Of course, this is a false dichotomy. If you really plan a story down to the smallest details (the actual words), then you’ve written the story. And you can’t really write a story without having some sort of starting point. But there is clearly a spectrum between extensive preparation and very little preparation.

Like so many religious wars, adherents on both “sides” have strong feelings about the right way. I’m going to talk about feelings, because there’s a strong emotional component to writing. But there are logical and structural components to writing as well, so we should consider those too.

First, let’s define our terms.

What is Outlining?

At first glance, it may seem silly to even ask, but I often find that taking the time to define something sheds light onto what I’m actually trying to accomplish. Let’s take a crack at it.

An outline is a recipe for a story. In software development, we would call it an algorithm. It describes the story by breaking it down into small, ordered ideas.

A recipe has a limited level of detail, but different recipes might be more or less specific. They will probably tell you a temperature to preheat the oven, but they probably won’t tell you to open the door to put things in, or close it afterward.

The outline of a story has many more axes along which it can be more or less detailed. It could describe the plot of a novel in a few paragraphs, in chapter descriptions, or down to individual scenes. It could map out the emotional arcs of characters, or the flow of conversation in important dialogue. It could track the locations of characters or the web of their relationships.

In short, an outline can track many different aspects of a story, but it’s generally going to break them down in terms of the plot, and usually chapter-by-chaper or scene-by-scene. It will usually place them in chronological order (although it may be out of order in a non-linear story).

What is Exploratory Writing?

Exploratory writing starts with one or more ideas – “story seeds” or anchors that start to define what the story will be about. From there, you simply write to find out what will happen next.

Much like exploring a new land, you don’t know what’s ahead. You might try a path, only to discover that it leads to a dead-end and you have to back-track. You might also go a long way, only to turn back and see that there was a much better way you could have taken.

Exploratory writing embraces the idea of discovering what a story should be by going through the process of writing it.

The Feeling of Writing

There is an emotional, and some would say spiritual, aspect of writing. More than one author has connected the act of writing to the sculptor “discovering” the statue embedded in a block of marble.

When the words just seem to flow, it can feel like writing a story is more an act of discovery than a work of skilled craftsmanship. The story seems to already exist, somewhere out in the ether, and it’s the author’s job to snag it from thin air and pin it to the page.

Being a conduit for the power of a muse like this feels good. However, there are dangers to this brand of writerly mysticism. It rejects the agency of the author in their own story. It favors blind intuition at the expense of forethought and careful craftsmanship.

The Illusion of Discovery

People have been telling stories for thousands of years – before cities, before agriculture or writing. Human brains are built for narrative. Just as eyes will see phantom shapes when exposed to complete darkness, human mind will find stories and narratives in meaningless coincidences and mindless systems. It’s the fuel that drives everything from conspiracy theories to astrology.

In modern times, stories are more ubiquitous than ever before. There is an incredible abundance of stories across a wide variety of media. We are all inundated with narrative and steeped in stories from birth. An amazing side-effect of this media-rich environment is that it trains our writing intuition. We learn, instinctively, many of the shapes that stories can take.

Intuition is the brain’s subconscious pattern-matching system. We train our intuition by feeding in examples – in this case, stories. Unfortunately, intuition is an unconscious process. Recognizing that a particular pattern or trope “feels right” doesn’t automatically give you an understanding of why it works, or what the trade-offs might be. Analyzing those patterns and working to understand them helps us to improve, tweak, or fix the bits that don’t quite fit.

Pre-Editing and Post-Editing

Let’s assume for a moment that all good stories need revision. I’m going to write a first draft, and if I rewrite it several times, it will be better in some way after each revision.

In my personal experience, when I write without an outline, I end up with a rough first draft. I’m discovering what the story is about as I write it, so it’s meandering. It starts down a path, then veers off in another direction as I find the “good stuff.” The tone of the writing sometimes changes as I try to figure out what sound matches the plot. Character and their motivations may be muddy and confused.

In this case, the revision comes after the first draft, and it’s a lot of work. A lot of things need to be cut, changed or rewritten. The cost of not following a recipe is that it may take a few attempts before you manage to cook something tasty.

If we call traditional revision and rewriting “post-story editing,” then one of the advantages of outlining is that it allows for “pre-story editing.” It’s much less effort (in terms of number of words) to write the outline than it is to write the entire story, but it forces you to do a lot of the same work – figuring out the story beats, defining character motivations and arcs, and so on. Some of the problems that would eventually be obvious after writing the story out are also obvious when looking at the outline. But the cost to fix the outline (in terms of number of words) is considerably less than the cost of rewriting those portions of the completed story.

Of course, some problems just don’t reveal themselves until you get deep into the details of the story. Even with a great outline, you’ll still have problems to resolve as you write. But there’s a balance to be struck here.

The Obligatory Razor Mountain Part

Ultimately, I want to write a good story. I want to shape it into the structure that works best for it. Razor Mountain is going to be a serial. By outlining up-front, I can make sure my mysteries have pay-offs. I can make sure I’m not painting myself into a corner. I can plan my characters’ plot arcs. I can more easily keep track of the non-linear portions of the story.

However, I also want to be open to happy accidents. I want to be able to discover things about my story and incorporate them. Having an outline doesn’t preclude this.

You might say, “How can we incorporate new ideas if we already have an outline of the story?” Well, the answer is to change the outline. The outline is a guide, a recipe. A good chef tastes the food while cooking. Maybe it turns out to need a little more seasoning here and there, and they make adjustments in the middle of the process.

The outline is the clear path. It’s a way of knowing that there’s a guaranteed line from the start of the story to the end, and it’s a good path. But you can still veer off and come back to it if you notice something scenic along the way.

Even better, an outline is a record of the challenges you faced as you first built the story, and also a list of ways you thought to solve those challenges. You might think of other ways as you write. New ideas can be plugged into an existing outline to see how well they work. Maybe the new idea causes some problems. Good! Now you know the problems you have to solve if you want to incorporate that idea. You can see the trade-offs and make informed choices.

Looking Behind the Curtain

I have been in the process of outlining Razor Mountain as I wrote these last few posts. I think it’s interesting to see how other writers work, so I may end up posting my outline and other prep materials. Since this will obviously spoil the plot of the story, I may wait until it’s done. It might also be interesting to compare the initial outline and the completed story.

Are other writers interested in this sort of peek at another writer’s process? If so, would you rather be able to see everything as it happens, or get more of a recap at the end, to avoid story spoilers? Let me know what you think.