Tuesday, February 17, 2009

I'm Not Published Yet

Story Structure: Pressing Through the Middle

Tyora Moody

If you are reading this article, you may have written the first chapters of your book and like many writers, you've reached an invisible wall. You've been wondering how you can stretch your story idea to 85,000 words? When you think about it, there's a bit of pressure to keep a reader's attention from beginning to end.

For my first manuscript, When Rain Falls, it took me months to get past Chapter 10. I kept revisiting the previous scenes and trying to figure out where to take the story next. I eventually pressed my way through to the end. I will share a few techniques that helped me keep the story flowing.

1. Adding Conflict
Life is messy. You really can't avoid conflict. I recently re-read the Book of Job. If you are familiar with this Old Testament story, you will recall life was all good in the neighborhood for Job. He was wealthy, blessed with ten children, well-respected among his colleagues and he loved God. The antagonist (or villain) stepped forward to spice the story up. With permission from God, the greatest adversary of all time, the devil, brought one catastrophe after another on poor Job. The chain of events happened with such swiftness, Job barely had time to catch his breath. There are many biblical lessons from this story, but the one a writer can take away is the art of making life difficult for your protagonist (main character).

For a mystery or a suspense thriller, the villain, may appear periodically, sharing their diabolical plot. The reader can see what the killer is plotting, having knowledge that the protagonist doesn't have. In a suspense book I read recently, the author took the time to introduce a character in the first few chapters. To my horror, in the middle of the book, this really likable character was killed. The plot twist upset me, but it also motivated me to really want to find out who was the villain.

Now, it's not necessary to have a bad guy or villain to bring in conflict. If you write romance, you know even with love at first sight, a man and a woman are going to bump heads at some point. Maybe the man mislead the woman by not revealing the whole truth about his past. What if the woman's ex-boyfriend returns town? There are variety of ways to keep this couple apart, even though they are clearly attracted to each other. Just be creative and think of new ways to write the storyline with a twist.

2. Add Subplots
Subplots help strengthen the main plot as well as lengthen the word count. By the time I started the second draft of When Rain Falls, I realized that I could work in more scenes with my protagonist, Candace, and her two children. She is widow who has become attracted to the male protagonist in the story. The problem. Her teenagers are old enough to remember their dad very well. Accepting another man in their mom's life would not be easy, especially since the tragedy was still in the not too distant past. Adding this subplot, allowed me to deepen the character development as well.

One thing about subplots, you don't want to get to far off course from the main plot. I ran into that trouble and needed to remove scenes so I still kept the "who-dunnit" part of the story in focus.

Just remember your characters have families, friends, jobs, co-workers, etc. Use current events like the economy or global warming to add depth to the storyline and make it relatable.

3. Add Supporting Characters

You can probably think of a movie where the supporting character almost stole (or did steal) the scene from the main character. You don't want that to happen, but don't forget you can use supporting characters to strengthen the story. I mentioned adding more scenes with my protagonist' children above. I also included two older women in the protagonist' life, with woman bringing comic relief and the other one sharing wisdom. Each woman had their role in Candace's life during certain pivotal moments of the story.

Now you have to be careful not to build a cast of characters until you acquire enough skills to not confuse yourself and the reader. Not many authors can write multiple points of view without at some point confusing the reader. There are some books I've read where I have had to flip to previous chapters to figure out where did this character come from and what was his/her purpose in the scene.

Keep in mind that word, "purpose." Don't add characters just to lengthen the story. Be sure all scenes relate back to the main plot.

4. Take a break.

Okay, so this suggestion isn't very literary. Sometimes you have to put the story down. Maybe you need to revise your outline. You might need to cut a character. Get a notebook and brainstorm scenarios. Read books and study how particular authors keep the momentum going in the middle.

One of my favorite references for structuring a novel is Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell. He provides way more tips for beefing up the middle than I do in this article.

A lot of writers mention they already know the ending of the novels. It's just getting there is hard. Next month, I will talk about endings. Even if it is a rough draft, it's always exhilarating to be able to type "The End."


Tyora Moody is the editor of WrittenVoicesBlog.com where she features “AA Literature that Edifies the Soul”. She often finds herself trying to juggle various hats on her short frame. Those hats include being a military wife, writer, blogger, book reviewer, web developer, and “momma” to two spoiled cats. Follow her journey to publication on TyoraMoody.com.


Rhonda McKnight said...

This is great work, Ty. I appreciate the reminders as I am approaching the middle of my current WIP.

Monica Marie Jones said...

Love it! This came right on time. Thanks for sharing!

Monica Marie Jones

Ty said...

Rhonda and Monica, I'm glad the tips were helpful.



Patricia W. said...

Great article, Tyora. Just what I needed.

Fon James said...

This was great TY. The middle is exactly where I am (or was) and your article is right on point. I tried a few of your suggesttions and they DO work! Back on track!


Ty said...

Thanks Patricia and Fon for stopping by to read the article.

Thanks Rhonda for allowing me to guest blog on Urban Christian Fiction Today. It's actually been great for me to go back and record the process. Hopefully sometimes this year, I will write another manuscript and these tips will help me with the flow. :)

Veronica Johnson said...

Thanks for the encouragement to press on Ty!