Category Archives: Reader Investment & Empathy

Wading Through the Muddy Middles

Even with a fantastic opening hook and an explosive inciting incident, many stories spend time slogging through the “muddy middles.” As the name suggests, the middles are the time part way through act two where the story no longer benefits from the momentum of the inciting incident, but also hasn’t reached the point where it is drawn forward by the climax. This sag in tension is a dangerous time for any story as it allows the reader to put the book down. Therefore, deciding how to draw your audience through the middles is an essential part of any plotting.

If you ask a dozen authors how to best navigate the middles, you will often get fourteen answers. In truth, the “best” method depends on what sort of story you are trying to tell and what are the strongest emotional draws for your audience. Rather than listing all the possibilities, I’ll focus my discussion on four techniques that I think can be used in a variety of different stories.

Many thrillers and action/adventure stories will bridge the middles with a series of explosive scenes. By doing so, the author simplifies their task to propelling the reader from scene to scene rather than from initiating event to climax. As the reader progresses through the story, the duration between action sequences should shrink. This gives the illusion of accelerating right up into the climax.

Consider as an example the action/adventure film John Wick. The introduction and inciting incident occur in the first fifteen minutes of the movie and the climax occurs at roughly one hour and fifteen minutes. Taken at a very high level, what happens during the hour between those two points? First, there is a period of milieu and character work to establish the character of John Wick and the rest of the world. Then there is a beating delivered by the big bad and the big bad’s first try/fail cycle to resolve the issue without violence. This is followed by a gun fight, a short period of world exploration, a gun fight, a brief pause for recovery, a fist fight, a briefer pause for a few wise cracks, a gun fight, a yet briefer pause in which John Wick sets some stuff on fire, and once again a gun fight that ends in a capture sequence. John then escapes captivity and dives straight into the climax of the movie. The tension is not allowed to slacken for a moment because John is near constantly either in danger and/or kicking some ass.

Though the thriller model is effective, it won’t work universally. After all, mystery audiences won’t be satisfied by explosions and flying fists. Instead, they are looking for intellectual stimulation. However, it isn’t enough to simply give them a puzzle. As the story continues, they need to feel as if they are coming closer to the solution. The key here is to ensure that each new answer they find along the way complicates the puzzle by being either incomplete, misleading, or raising yet more questions. The best, recent example I can think of to illustrate this style of plotting is the movie Arrival. Don’t worry about spoilers. Unlike John Wick (2014), Arrival (2016) is still new enough that I will only speak in broad strokes.

I believe that the story of Arrival works as well as it does because everyone goes into a first contact story expecting an overt conflict between humanity and the aliens. However, twists this trope on its head, which is intriguing in and of itself. The main story is a mystery driven by the question, “What do the aliens want?” Along the way, we the audience are given pieces of the puzzle in such a way that they don’t all come together until the very end. This plotting structure latches onto our fundamental human curiosity and pulls us forward with the illusion of progress towards getting an ultimate answer.

Where action/adventure plots seek to satisfy a sense of physicality and mysteries work to stimulate intellectual curiosity, romances play on the human need for connection. Will our point of view character be able to woo their paramour? Can our protagonist choose between two appealing, yet opposing romantic interests? How will our two (or more) romantic leads be able to overcome whatever forces hold them apart and end the story together? No matter the details, the drive is still the same. Will our protagonist(s) be able to achieve their need for connection? As such, we writers need to maintain tension by repeatedly denying our characters, and by proxy the readers, the connection they desire. We can do this in two major ways.

First is by introducing conflict internal to the relationship. By giving the romantic interests compelling personal conflicts and reservations, you allow them to stand in the way of their own happiness. It’s important to note that the reasons holding your characters apart need to be fundamental to their character, something substantial enough that it can withstand several try/fail cycles and significant enough that it poses a legitimate threat to the relationship. An example of this technique can be found in the early relationship between Eve Dallas and Roarke in Naked in Death by JD Robb. During her investigation of a sensitive homicide, Lieutenant Dallas meets Roarke and sparks fly. She feels conflicted because she can’t eliminate him as a suspect in her case, but also increasingly can’t deny her developing feelings for him. Her gut tells her that Roarke is innocent, but she can’t prove it. Robb draws us through the romantic arc by having Dallas’ blooming feelings clash with her sense of duty.

The second option is to introduce some element of external conflict, where your romantic interests strive together to try to overcome a barrier from outside the relationship. Again whatever the threat is, it needs to be big enough to possibly end the relationship. Twenty three books later in Innocent in Death, Robb introduces one of Roarke’s old girlfriends into the storyline to give Eve an extra emotional complication on top of her homicide investigation. The ex-girlfriend’s presence causes friction between Eve and Roarke and in so doing threatens their, by then well established, relationship. In both cases, the emotional distance between the characters drives our readers forward; they want to make sure that Eve and Roarke end up together.

It is important to note that though all the techniques I have described are different, they all appeal to the readers’ emotional draws. Ultimately, we need to ensure that our readers are always having fun, even when the momentum slows. Lucky for us, writers start their careers as fans of their genre. We know what fun is for the genre and our own enjoyment can serve as a metric for how well we are achieving that goal. Granted, this doesn’t hold true for the twenty seventh edit where you brains are leaking out of your ears. Rather, how much fun are you having in the moment of drafting? How much do you enjoy reading your story after letting it rest for a time? If you as the writer aren’t having fun, chances are that your readers will feel much the same way.

So if you ever find yourself drafting your manuscript and just slogging through a slow section, take a moment to step back and reevaluate. Why aren’t you having fun? Is there something about this scene you can change to make it more appealing? Does this scene really need to be here or in the book at all? You don’t always have the luxury of changing or dropping a scene. Sometimes you just need to power through it and fix the problem in editing. However, writing should be a joy. If you aren’t having a good time, it’s okay to take a step back and find ways to make your story more awesome.

Adding Sexual Tension

First off, everyone here at The Fictorians wishes you a Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sexual tension can always be expected in any romance or erotica story, but it can always work as a major or subordinate plot point for your speculative fiction work. While the ideas I point out here are not specific to any genre, they can be used in any work to spice things up.

So what exactly is sexual tension? It’s not people and/or aliens going at it like Captain Kirk and the green-skinned Orion woman. It’s everything that happens before the sexual act. Unfortunately, people don’t really think about some of the details that go into an attraction, especially since we tend to be blind to it.

First Contact Protocol

The sexual tension was overwhelming Kirk…

When two individuals meet, there has to be some kind of signals sent and received that they find each other at least interesting. This is that “chemistry” thing movies and OKCupid accounts always go on about. Sometimes we don’t even realize this is happening. Our brains flip a few switches associated with that person and puts it in the “this other person is someone I’m interested in learning more about” section of your memory.

To really get this across to the reader, you need to show some signs using all of the senses. In addition, using a point-of-view that allows poking around inside someone’s thoughts will go a long way. Have them meet each other’s gaze, which is extremely overused so make the situation unique. Maybe she smells something that makes her think of her first love, and it turns out it is the natural musk of a female Sklorr from Bernard’s Star. Perhaps a man is working on a widget in the engine room and hears someone singing lightly to themselves in three-part harmony, only for him to discover it is a Gnork from Vega, which happens to be a gender-neutral species. Maybe two characters from different worlds bump into each other in the cantina and all they can think about is the feeling of feathers and scales brushing against each other. Get as much in there as you can, but spread it out a bit so you don’t fall into the laundry list problem.

For many guys (and some gals), there is a “checking out the other character” moment. The other one may not even realize it, but there is certainly some ogling and appreciation for the form and figure. They have a strong visual mode tied to their sexual sensory input for their brains. This can be utilized to show at least one has some interest in the other character(s).

Go To Jail, Do Not Pass Go

Since we’re trying to ramp up the sexual tension, the characters cannot decide they like each other and start banging away against the main engine, although that worked great for Kaylee in Firefly. There has to be good reasons why they could never be together. It could be position — no, not that position, I mean one could be an officer and one enlisted. Maybe there’s a taboo against being with that Sklorr… “I heard they eat their mates after they’re done.” One man may be on his way to Jupiter to start a new job as a special investigator while the Gnork from Vega is a jewel thief wanted in three planetary systems. There are plenty of options available to you, but make certain it is a good, logical reason.

Because they are definitely interested in each other in a romantic way, being forced apart will make them constantly think about each other, sometimes focusing on the little details. When we are smitten, we tend to experience everything our romantic other does as a performance. We note how one corner of their mouth doesn’t curl up as much as the other when they smile, or how the tone of their laughter makes our hearts flutter (especially during Valentine’s Day!)

Frustration and Calamity

It’s important that things keep getting in the way of the characters pursuing each other. If they were so close to each other that they can smell each other’s toothpaste, have someone (such as the comic relief character) stumble into the room just microseconds before their lips were going to touch. Have the Sklorr set up a nice date with her human girlfriend, only to have the transport tube break down on the way to the restaurant. The human will be angry and wonder if her date stood her up, while the Sklorr will be frustrated that her romantic date she planned out in detail was ruined because of a tiny component she forgot to replace when she worked on the tube system this morning.

By keeping them apart when they’re so desperate to be together, we create lots of sexual tension. The reader is wondering every time the two characters are in a scene together if they’ll finally get to that all-important first kiss. You want to keep the audience guessing until late into the middle section of the novel. But will they go further? You can fill in those details at the (ahem) climax of the manuscript.


 

About the Author:DeMarco_Web-5963

Guy Anthony De Marco is a disabled US Navy veteran speculative fiction author; a Graphic Novel Bram Stoker Award® nominee; winner of the HWA Silver Hammer Award; a prolific short story and flash fiction crafter; a novelist; an invisible man with superhero powers; a game writer (Sojourner Tales modules, Interface Zero 2.0 core team, third-party D&D modules); and a coffee addict. One of these is false.
A writer since 1977, Guy is a member of the following organizations: SFWA, WWA, SFPA, IAMTW, ASCAP, RMFW, NCW, HWA. He hopes to collect the rest of the letters of the alphabet one day. Additional information can be found at Wikipedia and GuyAnthonyDeMarco.com.

Subliminal Tension

Tension is an emotion.

Making a reader feel tension is, in part, a function of what is happening in the story, and other Fictorians are doing a fine job of covering that. I want to dig down, though. I want to get past plot structure, and characters, and all of the things we usually talk about. Today is not a lesson in simply writing fiction. Today, I want to talk about the words themselves.

Speed is key. Short words mean fast reading. Short sentences mean fast reading. Fast reading means fast thinking. Fast thinking means excitement.

Extended vocabulary, on the other hand, will tend to result in a slower, more ponderous pace of comprehension. In addition, one can expect that a more complex sentence structure will also result in increased temporal periods for absorption of material. In turn, this style of writing can lead to a more leisurely, intellectual feel for one’s reader.

See what I did there?

Tension is a function of two things: excitement and a lack of resolution. You want to keep your reader on a knife’s edge for a bit? Shorten everything. Boil your words down to the simplest form. Boil your sentences down to subject-verb-direct object structure. Lose as many phrases, clauses, or anything extraneous as you possibly can. Make it so a third-grader could read it. Put in a refrain (see above where its X means Y), because once the brain is on a roll it will simply speed up.

The goal here is not to cut back on the amount of information you’re throwing at the reader. The goal here is to get the reader to absorb the information as quickly as you possibly can. From a writer’s perspective, this can be tough. It’s actually faster for us to write one massive sentence than it is to break that baby up into little chunks. When we’re flowing, we don’t want silly little things like sentence structure to stop us. So when one is writing a tense scene, the knee-jerk reaction is to write longer stuff. Bigger words, longer sentences, and massive, hulking paragraphs.

But when you’re revising, you need to break that up. Read those two paragraphs up above again. You’ll burn through the fast paragraph in about half the time it takes to read the slow one.

Don’t think of it as “half the time,” though. Flip the equation. What really matters is the amount of information hitting a person’s brain in a set period of time. In other words, the boiled-down writing style means that your reader is getting twice as much information per second. She’s racing to keep up with you, and her conscious mind is running at a dead sprint to keep up with her subconscious one. You ever run down a hill only to find that you have to keep accelerating or you’re going to completely beef it? Reading a scene written in that boiled-down language feels like that.

Now, don’t write everything for speed. Sometimes, you want to slow it down. Let your reader breathe in parts by lengthening everything. Get a little purple from time to time. I’m not saying you should write for speed all the time; what I’m saying here is that, by controlling the speed at which your reader processes your story, you can create tension in certain scenes by having them accelerate the speed at which they are reading, and you can relieve tension by allowing them to slow down. By controlling the speed of their comprehension, you can make them feel tense and they will never know why.

So don’t use this trick alone. Use it in conjunction with all the other tricks being written about by my colleagues this month. Just remember, your goal is to control all of a reader’s brain, and word, sentence, and paragraph structure is the gateway to triggering that subliminal feeling of tension.

Do It Again With Feeling

As an actor those are words you never want to hear because it means you’re not doing your job, you’re not performing the scene with enough emotion to make it feel real to the audience. As a writer we’re susceptible to the same mistake. Except it’s not necessarily our characters that might not feel real. It can just as easily be the conflict itself.

I realize that it may sound strange for a story’s conflict to be the thing that makes it real and interesting. It’s the reason we turn the page. We have to know if Harry Potter defeats the villain of the month! But if the conflict itself is only half of the equation. The other half — the half that makes it feel real and creates the tension — is how the conflict affects the characters internally.

Every action has an opposite and equal reaction is just as true in physics as it is in fiction. In a fight scene, when the villain throws a punch at the hero, if the hero doesn’t react, either by dodging or being knocked back by the blow when it connects, it’s not believable. Likewise if the young heartthrob dumps the heroine for no good reason. If the heroine doesn’t run away crying or punches them in the face (my personal favorite) then the whole scene falls flat. Without the reaction it’s like it didn’t happen at all. And the reaction doesn’t have to be physical. I’ll use the same examples again to illustrate what I mean. When the not-so-happy couple breaks up, their emotional reaction is just as important as the physical one that follows. Is the heroine angry? Is she in disbelief? Is her heart broken? Is the heartthrob sad? Are they defensive? Impatient? In shock that they’re about to get punched? It’s the same thing in the fight scene. Is combatant A frightened of their opponent or are they confident that they’ll win?

All of this detail isn’t just to fill out the scene and make it breathe. It also increases the tension in your story. All of that description and reaction takes time and that’s time in a critical moment of the story where your readers are waiting for big punch. All the while you’re bringing them deeper into the character’s mind. That punch isn’t being thrown at a stranger, it’s being thrown at them.

It continually amazes me how adding depth can solve so many problems at once. I almost want to call it the Swiss Army knife of writing. Granted, like any tool it helps having some experience using it. I mean you can’t cut cheese with a corkscrew…though it would be fun to watch someone try. Adding the wrong emotion or reaction will do more damage then good. But avoiding that pitfall is a subject for another day.