I think every writer has a personal Hell – a part of the working process that makes them want to moan and hide under the doona.
Maybe it’s starting the novel or script. Some writers fear that first blank page staring up at them. And other writers hate ending a story. Writing a thrilling climax can also be daunting. And don’t get me started on rewriting. Rewriting is Purgatory, and deserves its own post.
For me, the hardest part of writing a novel is the middle. Specifically, the second half of the middle of the book. I call that the Second Act bog. When I reach the Second Act bog, either when I’m plotting a novel or writing the first draft or even rewriting the darn thing, I feel a shiver of hopelessness and despair. I feel sure the book is appalling and I’m a sucky writer, and I walk around the house gibbering and kicking doors.
The second half of the Second Act is crazy-specific, right? But it makes sense that I get stuck at this point.
The middle is the longest part of a novel, and if I haven’t built my story well, it’s easy to enter the second act with vigour, propelled by the actions set up in the opening of the book, then find myself lost and flagging.
This is how you can tell you’ve entered the Second Act bog.
Your story has been set in motion, it’s zinging along, the characters are doing their thing … and somewhere around the halfway mark, you begin to run out of steam. At first you tell yourself you’re imagining it, but soon, everything that’s happening to your characters feels meaningless, or as if it’s happened before. If you squint, you can see the ending in the distance, but you’re not sure how you’re going to get out of this mud and struggle towards it.
I’ve discovered that the Second Act bog is easiest avoided if you plan your outline properly. Yes, it’s as boring as that – designing the plot in detail is the quickest way to write a book. I’m not going to argue that it’s the best way to write a book, as that depends on the writer, but it’s almost always the fastest.
For me, the middle of a story gets bogged down when the action is episodic.
By ‘episodic’ I mean that a series of things are happening, but none of those things advance the main character towards their goal or push them away from their goal. To flog a metaphor, I’m adding fabric and rope and tying knots all over my plot yurt, but the building isn’t getting any higher or stronger.
One test is to go back to your plotting outline and delete the scenes or major plot points in this area. If the story that follows stands without it, those actions or scenes were probably episodic, and definitely unnecessary.
OK so you’ve done that, and lost five fantastic scenes.
Your characters were having chatty dinner parties with deep conversations, or fighting dragons in caves (dragons that had nothing to do with the main story), or holding each other hostage on ferris wheels, and now you have a gaping hole where once was story. How to plug it?
This is the point where I circle back to my main theme and characters.
I look to my subplots, and try to figure out how each relates to my story and how I can deepen them. Usually, I discover I haven’t exploited the subplots I’ve set in motion in the opening of the novel.
So if you’re stuck like the guy above, read back and pinpoint the subplots you’ve opened. I find the easiest way to do that is to find important characters I’ve introduced, apart from my main character. What’s their relationship to my protagonist? Are these love stories or buddy stories? Parent-child relationships? Can these other characters do things to move the main plot forwards and challenge my main character?