Category Archives: Plot Structure

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.

Starting Over Again … Again

Ungrateful God, the second volume of Unwilling Souls, is with my copy editor as we speak. While I’m not quite ready to announce a release date yet, it’s time to start thinking about the next volume. Beginning a new book is an exciting time full of a blank page’s endless possibilities. That being said, I’ve never done the third book in a series before, but before Ungrateful God, I’d never done a second volume in a series before, either. So it’s worth reflecting on some of the lessons I’ve learned when writing sequels. After all, a lot of those blank-page possibilities will lead to a pretty crappy book.

Do a better job outlining: Ungrateful God will be released many months after I’d originally hoped it would. The main driver for this was the substantial content edits my editor handed back. These were very necessary edits from the standpoint that the book was not living up to its potential (it is now, big time!), but they were also very unnecessary from the standpoint that I could have avoided them if I’d done a better job outlining. So that’s the plan for Book 3, a thorough outline followed by a call to my editor to go over the book’s structure and remove any large weak points before I ever put a word down. I’ve already begun this process, and given that Book 3 will be even more complicated than Ungrateful God (itself more complicated than Unwilling Souls), I’m hopeful I can avoid some pain and suffering later by doing this work up front.

Decide what kind of story I’m telling: I don’t mean to imply I’ve got no idea where the story is going. I have rough notions of major plot points for each of the remaining books in the series. But I also don’t want this series to feel too formulaic. Each book, while both standing alone and telling a portion of a larger story, should feel different than the other books in the series (at least, that’s my desire, but every author’s mileage may vary). So while Unwilling Souls was a chase book with a mystery at its core, in Ungrateful God the pure mystery element is much more front and center, leading to an explosive ending. Similar stylistic decisions must be made before the outline for Book 3 can really resonate. I have a good idea what the answer is, but telling would be, well, telling.

Decide how long between books: I don’t mean the time it takes to write the books, though that’s important too (see below). In this case, I mean the in-world time between books. Ungrateful God begins more than a month after Unwilling Souls ends, so quite a lot has changed between the volumes, and the author has to convey that information to the reader in a way that neither confuses nor bores them. Time jumps are a good way to skip straight over stuff that would otherwise bog down the story into parts that are more interesting and relevant to the story at hand. But they aren’t appropriate for every book, and as it turns out, Book 3 will begin right where Ungrateful God leaves off.

Decide how long between books, the other way: Simply put, I wrote the bulk of the first draft of Ungrateful God too damn fast. I’d set myself (and my editor, more importantly) a deadline I was determined to meet, and I burned myself out getting there, another reason the draft needed so much work. I’m still learning the answer to this “how fast can I write consistently?” and I’ve given myself more time for Book 3. It will help avoid unrealistic deadlines and ensure I can turn in a more quality draft to my editor when the time comes. I’d like to be able to put out more than one book a year, but the reality is I work a full-time day job and I’d also like to, you know, see my loved ones on occasion.

Determine if the formula needs shaking up: Above I said I try not to be formulaic. But the truth is that if books in a series bore no resemblance to one another, they would make for a pretty poor series. I decided early on that in order to make the story as epic as I wanted it, I’d have to play around with the viewpoint format from book to book. In Unwilling Souls, Ses Lucani is the lone viewpoint character. In Ungrateful God, Ses remains the primary viewpoint character with the vast majority of chapters, but I add a second, minor viewpoint character as well. In Book 3, I plan to continue that trend, with a second minor POV (for three total), and so on. At the moment, that works for me as a way of expanding the stories I can tell. Harry Potter fans know that JK Rowling occasionally broke with a strictly Harry POV in later books to give us an idea of what was going on in the wider world. One extra POV per book is a nicely pleasing number to me, but I reserve the right to change my pattern should the needs of the story demand it.

All this pre-work is a new experience for me, a dedicated pantser of a writer. But after several attempts at this and taking honest note of the delays the style has cost me, I’m confident the increased productivity (and decreased wait time of my fans that will result) will be worth all that unpleasant change.

About the Author: Gregory D. Littleheadshot

Rocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (all right, during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, is available now from ebook retailers and trade paperback through Amazon.com. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens, A Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology, and Dragon Writers: An Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

You can reach him at his website (www.gregorydlittle.com), his Twitter handle (@litgreg) or at his Author Page on Facebook.

 

Always Be Film Friendly: Blue Beetles vs Vietnam Jeeps

After four years spent studying for an engineering degree, I was left with one final semester to fill with a handful of electives. Wanting a change of pace, I signed up for a class in cinematography. It fulfilled the requirements for my degree while also allowing me to stretch my creative muscles in a new way. Looking back, I’m very glad that I did. Not only did I thoroughly enjoy the class, but getting a glimpse into how our colleagues in film live and think has helped me with my own writing.

book-to-movieLeveraging your IP into a film or miniseries adaptation is one of the best ways to make money as a writer. Not only can you get the income from licensing your rights, but having a major motion picture or miniseries made will give your works access to a much larger audience. The phrase “based on a bestselling series” is good for both sides of the business. It attracts attention to the movie, but it will also give a healthy boost to your book sales leading up to the release.

Therefore, it is in your best interest as a writer to be “film friendly.” But what does that mean in practical terms? While there are many aspects to consider, I want to focus on what I see as the four key points I took away from the class.

First, while there are many elements of story that an author needs to balance when writing, there are a few that top the list when it comes to translating a work from page to film. Chief amongst these are strong characters, vivid setting descriptions, compelling plots, and powerful dialog. Focusing on these skills will not only make your writing better, they will also make your property more attractive as an adaptation.

As an example, look at how Jim Butcher structured the early part of his series, The Dresden Files. Though each book built upon the events of the previous volumes, they were also fairly episodic and self-contained. They showcased strong characters that would catch and hold the reader’s attention. These characters and the world they lived in were described in concise, yet catchy ways. The books had all the hooks needed for a reader to jump in at any point in the first five or six volumes without getting lost.

These stylistic choices were also very good for the SciFi Channel when they adapted the series to television. One book became one episode without too much lost in translation. The strength of the characters inspired the actors and the descriptions were able to guide and influence the visuals of the series.

Second, an author needs to consider what details will be lost in the translation to film. In prose, we have the advantage of being able to use all five senses and deep penetration to convey the character’s experiences to the reader. However, films generally rely on sight and hearing with limited character depth. That’s precisely why the book is almost always “better” than the movie. The reader experiences more than the viewer.

harrydresden-profileHowever, film has significant advantages in its ability to employ complex visual elements. As authors, we rely on the power of our language to inspire our audience’s imaginations. Film, on the other hand, relies on the skill of the special effects, costuming, and set design teams as well as the training of the actors. When you write a book, be sure to feed those teams with strong, iconic visuals. Furthermore, a five second panning shot can show the thousands of tiny details that would take an author five pages to describe. You get the same effect without having to worry about slowing down pacing.

Harry Dresden was designed to be very visually striking. Nearly seven-foot-tall, big billowy duster coat, glowing staff, and both the ability and inclination to throw fire at all his problems? That man will stand out in a crowd! Consider also the fantastic scenery of the Never-Never, the ominous cloaks of the Wardens, and the horrifying creatures Harry faces.All these elements provide fodder for the creative teams of the TV series to work with.

Additionally, we authors need to balance the “wow” factor of our stories with the movie’s potential budget and physical limitations. As writers, we don’t need to think twice about scenes set in busy cities (a gigantic logistical pain in the ass), on the high seas (you’d be surprised at how expensive it is to shoot on water), or having massive armies clash for the fate of the world (where are you going to find all those extras anyways?). Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying to avoid anything that would be expensive or challenging to film. Each of those examples have been done, after all. Just be aware that production price will be considered when making an offer on your IP. If you can pack the same “wow” factor into a smaller budget, your work will be that much more appealing.

illinois-chicago-dresden-files-harryThough many of Dresden’s spells were fantastic, they were also remarkably low budget. Making the pentacle necklace glow? Not hard. Blasts of fire would take more skill, but can be done in a number of film editing softwares. As can Bob’s glowing campfire sparks.

The very best example comes from a sequence in Fool Moon. At one point, Dresden takes a don’t-notice-me potion and the world goes all sepia. Only people who notice him appear in full color. There are many ways that Butcher could have written that scene, but the one he chose was excellent for film. Super easy to execute while also being very visually appealing.

Finally, authors need to be willing to compromise with their artistic vision. The book may be ours, but the film adaptation is a collaborative work. After all screen writers, directors, and actors are all artists too and deserve to have the freedom to ply their craft. Secondly, there are certain practicalities to filming that cannot be ignored, but that the author might not even be aware exist. A good adapter will account for these changes will still honoring the original work.

blue-beetleFor example, the directors of the Dresden Files TV series chose to eliminate the beloved Blue Beetle in favor of a Vietnam era jeep. While the Blue Beetle provided good comic relief in the books, it would have been an extremely difficult set piece to shoot. The director’s camera angles would have been severely limited by how small and enclosed the vehicle was. The only way to get around this problem would be to have multiple Beetles – the first for exterior shots, and a second that was partially disassembled accommodate to the cameras for the interior shots.

Instead, they chose to use a Vietnam era jeep as Harry’s vehicle of choice. Jeeps are wide open and extremely camera friendly. Need an interior shot? Remove the fabric roof. Exterior shot? Put it back on. Even better, the jeep honored the spirit of the original piece. In the books, Harry drove the Beetle because it was cheap, easy to maintain and repair, and a low enough tech level that his magic wouldn’t do too much damage. All the same things can be said for the jeep. Personally, I think the screen writers made an excellent choice with the swap.

I’ve long suspected the Jim Butcher was heavily inspired by television techniques when he wrote the Dresden Files. I can’t say if that comes from him being a fan or if he has had formal training somewhere along the line. Either way, his strong characters, episodic early volumes, and striking visual descriptions made it easy for the SciFi Channel to adapt his books into a series. Additionally, his talent for “wow” inspiring magic that could be made real through relatively low budget special effects helped breathe life and wonder into the series. Finally, his willingness to step back and allow others to make creative decisions on the show allowed them to bring their expertise and experience to the project. All in all, I found both the books and series to be very enjoyable, if for very different reasons.

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit Trilogy Good?

 

Contestant: I’ll take Geek Controversies for $500, Alex.

Alex Trebek: A Smaug-sized question of cinematic taste to tongue-tie any dwarven fellowship of thirteen or less at one’s local ComicCon.

Contestant: Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good?

Alex Trebek: Yes, well done. You are now in the lead.

The Hobbit

Was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy good? Now there’s a hobbit-hole-burner for the ages, and the deeper you’ve burrowed into the gentle slope of Bungo’s figurative Hill, the more fervent your opinion is likely to be. While it’s less fashionable to impinge on the honor of Jackson’s near-hallowed Lord of the Rings trilogy, a plurality of fans have been giving The Hobbit films the side-eye since the first installment premiered. For many, those side-eyes turned to full-fledged eye-rolls by the time the credits faded on the final film two years later.

I prefer to shift to a slightly different but closely related question: was Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy a good adaptation? Note that this is different than asking if it’s a faithful adaptation; as many have observed, a faithful adaption would have been… well, much shorter, it’s safe to say. It seems clear to me that Jackson wasn’t so much interested in faithfully adapting J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel as reimagining it as an epic precursor to Lord of the Rings. I doubt there will be many dissenters to that. After all, Tolkien didn’t have the later events clearly established in his mind when he wrote The Hobbit, so the two works aren’t quite as much of the same piece as Jackson might have preferred.

Despite that, were The Hobbit films a good adaptation?

And now we get to the part where there will be more dissention. Deciding whether the films are good adaptations requires you to decide a few things about the original novel. If you have come to the conclusion that Tolkien’s novel is an untouchable classic, one of the high water marks of English literature—nay, of all literature anywhere—then the films must by definition fall short, because even the most charitable reviewer must acknowledge that the films are merely good films, not the high water mark of cinema.

But I’m not sure the book is all that and a bag of lembas bread. (I bet you didn’t know it came in bags.) Don’t get me wrong; I love the book. I have very fond memories of it, going back to my Grade Five year when our teacher guided us through the story chapter by chapter. I’ve read it several times since, and enjoyed each successive re-read.

The thing is, like many books written a long time ago, I’m not sure this book is good by current (modern) standards. Which is certainly not a problem for the book itself, because it must be judged according to its context, and The Hobbit is revolutionary in context with everything that was going on contemporaneous with its release.

But Tolkien makes some rather strange literary choices. Some might go so far as to unkindly call them shortcuts.

Let’s cast an analytic eye to the book’s structure. Bilbo Baggins is the central figure, the eponymous character, the dominating point of view for most of the novel, to the point of eclipsing the other characters with him. You’ve got Gandalf (who disappears midway through and returns only for a cameo at the end), you’ve got Thorin Oakenshield, you’ve got Fili and Kili… and as for the rest of the company (there are 15 of them in total), they are hardly mentioned.

Peter Jackson rightly points out in the supplementary materials that while this can work in literary terms, it’s impossible in filmic terms.

Not to sound too much the Jackson apologist, but he really had no choice but to flesh out the other dwarves as fully as he could, constrained by the fact that the dwarves really aren’t important; they don’t contribute much, and they don’t exert influence on the plot. They seem to have been inserted by Tolkien to serve as a bit of poetry, a literary grace note.

Tolkien was a minimalist. If a character didn’t significantly further the story, he all but erased them from the narrative. Gandalf is important, but the moment he’s not, he’s off to Mirkwood and out of sight; Thorin is a tragic figure, slouching toward his eventual demise (and redemption); and Fili and Kili are likewise destined for death. Sure, there’s Elrond and Gollum and Beorn and Smaug. They serve their purpose and exeunt stage left.

The movie can’t get away with this, so perhaps it overcorrects. Jackson gives us a bustling Hobbiton full of memorable characters. All thirteen dwarves are painted larger than life and given distinctive traits, running gags, and backstories. The small role of Radagast is writ large. Galadriel joins the fun in Rivendell, perhaps unnecessarily—and Saruman, too. The Goblin King wrests the spotlight from our heroes for an extended musical sequence (in fairness, this probably hews closely to Tolkien’s intent). We get a resplendent and scene-stealing Thranduil. Oh look, there’s Legolas! And now an all-new elven maiden named Tauriel who gets an awful lot of screen time. There’s Azog and Bolg, footnotes in the book but major villains fighting for relevance and attention on the big screen. Once we get to Lake-town, whose denizens barely register on the page, we get a host of named characters who demand motivations and personalities on their own. Did I mention Sauron, glaring at us all the while? At last, Dain rides over the hill in undercooked (overcooked?) computer-generated glory.

The oddest of Tolkien’s literary choices/shortcuts is the fact that the entire climactic battle, around which Jackson created a whole movie of its own, is played out in a few pages of exposition, told to Bilbo after he is knocked out in the opening frame. This is the best example of Tolkien getting away with something that no author today could get away with. Some would charitably call it a quirk.

My thesis is basically that Jackson didn’t have a choice but to flesh this all out. I suppose he could have fleshed it out a bit less comprehensively, and delivered two films instead of three. Maybe Galadriel and Saruman stay on the sidelines. Maybe you don’t bother to show Gandalf’s investigation of Sauron. Maybe you resist the urge to bring back Legolas. Maybe you leave out Tauriel and just accept the fact that this movie has no women in it. Maybe Lake-town gets limited only to Bard. Perhaps the extra dwarves are reduced to window dressing.

I contend that several of these choices would have been very bad choices indeed, and every fan is going to pick and choose which of them were most and least essential. Essentially Jackson didn’t pick and choose; he expanded everything, leaving on stone unturned. I don’t think it’s in Jackson’s DNA to do things halfway, and I don’t really blame him for that. (Granted, others do.)

In short, Jackson turned Tolkien’s one-man play into a 50-man ensemble, thus entirely changing the character of the story. But my god, if The Hobbit had been filmed in the same manner it was written, it would almost certainly have been the most baffling film of the modern era.

So the movie is different than the book, a wildly different experience. Is it better? No. But if you’re dead-set on adapting a strange, nigh unadaptable story like The Hobbit, you could do a lot worse. Peter Jackson didn’t give us great movies, not by any stretch of the imagination, but he gave us serviceable ones that at least hold together and stay consistent with his previous work.

And if you can’t have greatness, consistency is a pretty good consolation prize.