new file: chapter7.txt

Steven Laidlaw authored
revision 6a01f219579ec457f88c0c84f9c6db4090df3261
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# The Great Swampy Middle

Every writer runs into this, generally in every single book. The middle. It lurks between the beginning of your book and the exciting conclusion, and its mission in life is to Atreyu you right down into the yucky, mucky mire in order to prevent you from ever actually finishing.

The Great Swampy Middle (or GSM) knows no fear, no mercy, no regret. It doesn't come after you. It darned well knows that you're going to come to it. It knows that you're going to be charging along, sending up the spinning plates, ripping out the strong character introductions, planting cool bits into your story for the future, and generally feeling high on life. And just then, as you get all that fun opening-story stuff done, it pounces. And suddenly, you're staring at a blank word processor screen trying to figure out how to get your story through the next paragraph.

And it laughs at you. It laughs and dances on the ashes of your enthusiasm. It knows full well that you are going to be its bitch from now until you somehow finish the book or else give up in despair and slit your wrists with the edge of one of those index cards you're using to try to figure out the rest of the plot. It rejoices and dances around a primal bonfire, howling its glee at the uncaring stars.

The smug bastard.

Okay. Maybe I'm anthropomorphosizing it a little. But not by much.

The middle of books is HARD, especially for beginning writers. Why? Because the middle of a book gives you the most flexibility in terms of telling your story. The beginnings and ends of stories share many similar demands, craftwise, but the MIDDLE is where your personal style has room to play. IE, there are a berjillion-and-one different things you can do in the middle of a story, and since you're a beginning writer, about a berjillion of them are probably the wrong things to do.

It's like a swamp. There are apparent paths all around you--but sometimes the ground that looks solid actually sucks you under and paralyzes you and strangles you. Sometimes the water that looks deep and unpleasant is actually shallow and safe. Sometimes apparent paths aren't paths at all--they just wander all over and wind up at a dead end. Sometimes the safe-looking waters are teeming with alligators and poisonous snakes just below the surface.

Man. The middle of a book is _dangerous_.

It's when an author starts getting lost that the book's middle becomes the Great Swampy Middle. Once you've taken a wrong turn in the GSM, you've got to be smart about which way you move, because if you just keep wandering around, you (and by "you" I mean "your story") is just going to keep bumbling around in circles and never get out of the GSM.

Those of you who have written this much of a book already know exactly what I'm talking about. You hit that point where you're not sure what to do next--when small details and points of logic start tripping you up. Where your story begins to veer off from your outline, and feel fairly confident that it's never, EVER going to veer back. You aren't sure where things went wrong, exactly. Characters and situations start popping out of your fingers as if of their own volition. They're often fun, even intriguing, but they're really a form of denial, you poor deluded, benighted sap. You're lost. You just don't want to admit it to anyone, least of all yourself.

News flash: the reader is going to get that, and it's going to kill their fun. Readers are not stupid. They have a surprising amount of insight, even if they don't always consciously work out why something seems to be wrong with the story. Many readers, God bless every one of them, will plow ahead through the swamp, trusting you to get your act together eventually.

But most won't have that kind of patience. You'll lose them.

That's bad.

But I say unto you, fear not. For though the GSM be all around you, there are ways to escape its fearsome grasp. I'll share my own favorite methods with you, and go over several other techniques and tips, and finish off with the WMD (Weapon of Middle Destruction) which can snickersnack that GSM monster back into the slivy toves with 100 percent reliability.

Here we go:

The problem with GSMs is that most writers don't have a very good idea of exactly where they want to go. I mean sure, they want to get "to the other side of the swamp," but that's sort of like saying "I want to get to the other side of the continent." It's a good plan, as stated, but it lacks clarity, specificity, definition. Instead of saying "the other side of the continent" it might be more helpful to say something like "I'm taking I-70 out through the midwest to Denver, then hopping on Highway Suchandsuch southwest through the Rockies before taking Route Whatever across California to the Pacific."

Same thing applies in the story. If you have a good idea of your next landmark, waypoint, stepping stone, what have you, it's a lot easier not to fall off the path and get sucked down into the mud. SO. One way to help yourself do that is to create something to help you keep on track--a structure specifically designed to keep the pace of your book strong throughout the middle. My favorite such construct is called THE BIG MIDDLE.


Here's the nutshell concept: Plan a great big freaking event for the end of the middle. You want it to be a big dramatic confrontation of whatever kind is appropriate to your genre. The fallout from your big bad Big Middle event should be what boots the book down the homestretch to reach the story's climax. Really lay out the fireworks. Hit the reader with everything you can. PLAN THE BIG MIDDLE EVENT. Then, as you work through the middle, WORK TO BUILD UP TO IT. Drop in the little hints, establish the proper props and motivations and such. Make sure that everything you do in the middle of the book is helping you build up to the BIG MIDDLE.

(I've used the Big Middle concept in EVERY book I've ever published. It works. It ain't broke. It ain't the only way to do the middle, either, but it's one way.)

Example: The Dresden Files, Dead Beat. The Big Middle event in this book is the zombie attack on Harry's apartment. Corpsetaker and Grevane show up in the same place, at the same time, and kick off a full blown Necrobattle. There are zombies and ghosts, tons of magic, Harry's wards frying everything in sight, Butters gets captured, Harry and Thomas have to save him, plenty of special effects and a narrow escape.

(That's the drama part.)

In the course of the Big Middle, Harry gets information he needs to continue his pursuit, the bad guys blow out the city's power, Butters picks up a new mantra about courage, and we segue into the next day, with Halloween and the Darkhallow charging down from the horizon.

(that's the set things in motion part)

Big Middle is a good counter to the GSM. It helps you stay focused and gets you through the chapters more smoothly.


Some authors get through the GSM by creating a whole little storyline of its own and plopping it down smack in the middle. Normally, it's intertwined with the main story in some fashion, but the focus of the characters shifts onto a new track, one that is wholly contained in the middle. It is, essentially, a smaller story, which interfaces with the overall story well enough to expose cool character stuff that is relevant to the main plot, that kind of thing.

Example: The Two Towers. For the non-Frodo non-Sam characters, the main goal (destroy the Ring and defeat Sauron) changes (to catch the orcs and rescue Merry and Pippin, save Rohan from getting suckerpunched into the great beyond). They haven't given up on the Ring or whacking Sauron--but they've been diverted into a smaller story which still carries emotional weight. They'll get back to antiMordor insurgency soon, you know. But for the time being, we're learning more about their characters, establishing some of the best character interaction in the whole of the story.


A watered down version of Mini-Arc, a new subplot is just that--a subplot that suddenly develops and has to be dealt with, without actually becoming a big overwhelming part of the story on its own. The new subplot begins and ends in the middle, and generally introduces you to some cool characters or threats native to that subplot.

Example: Trash Compactors and Tractor Beams. Luke's main goal (save the princess and defeat the Empire!) gets altered (don't get squashed flat! Escape! Come in, Threepio, where could he be!?). It doesn't change the overall goal--but it DOES take the story into a new direction, and you get the cool periscope-tentacle monster, a new setting, and a really suspenseful impending doom scene. Kenobi gets an even tamer version of the same thing, because his presence would make rescuing the princess way too easy. He gets sent off on the tractor beam sabotage mission. Again, a small subplot bound to the main goal, but NOT the main goal, and it creates tension by separating him from the others, letting him smell Darth's BO coming steadily closer, and showing us cool Jedi tricks that only seem to work on Stormtroopers.


A new character tromps out onto the stage in a more flamboyent or memorable fashion than most supporting characters would do. They aren't on stage long, but they serve an important role in forwarding the story, and they entertain the hell out of the audience while they do it.

Example: The Incredibles, Edna Mode. Edna shows up to make Bob a new suit, make the whole family new suits, and to tip Helen off to the fact that Mister Incredible is off on Fantasy Island with Storm's bolemia-stricken baby sister. Edna is a freaking riot, but her total time on stage is a bare fraction of the main cast, and she's there to keep the plot moving quickly.


There. THAT hatful of techniques should be able to help anybody sinking into the quicksand. Be aware that using this stuff is simple--but not EASY. It takes practice. Play with it and see what works best for you, but PRACTICE.

Which leads me up nicely to segue into the ultimate Vorpal Sword for slaying the GSM:

Keep writing.

Here, let me repeat that.


One more time, only louder.



The ultimate way to get out of the GSM is to keep on plowing ahead. Sooner or later, you're bound to pop out the other side or else stumble onto a discernable path.

Note, I say that this is the ultimate way. It isn't the fast way. It isn't the smart way. But, by God, if you sit down, grit your teeth and WRITE WRITE WRITE, ONWARD ONWARD ONWARD, you're bound to get out eventually. You'll do ten times the work and probably need to cut and slash your story with a whale flenser before you move on to the next draft, but it WILL get you unstuck and out, sooner or later.

Okay, I think I'm about metaphored out. So, one more, and then I'll shut up.

Finding your way through the middle of your novel is like finding any other path. You're best off if you NEVER GET OFF IT. Solid outlines are the best way to stay on it, but they aren't an easy way, either. That's just as well. Devloping some skills you'll need to find your way when accidents happen and you get off track is important and useful.

These techniques above are tools, stuff you can use to help stay focused on the proper path (IE, your PLOT) so that you don't veer off on accident, slow the pace of your story and kill the interest of your audience. If you get off track, employing one of the tools (or about a million others I've forgotten about, never heard of, or can't quite remember just now) can help you get your story back on track, charging for that big finish. They're best used in the planning stages of a book, as preventatives, but you can use them after the fact with just as much success.

The Great Swampy Middle doesn't love you. It wants you to never write a book, ever. The GSM wants you to give up and go home.

So take my advice and take a few tools with you--mine or someone else's, you won't hurt my feelings. If the GSM so much as looks at you crosseyed, go upside its head with them.

That'll learn the smug bastard.