Know the Colossal Danger Caused by Missing your Story’s Middle

Know the Colossal Danger Caused by Missing your Story’s Middle

I talk about writing a lot. Probably because it’s what I devote the majority of my time to. Writing novels is my full-time gig after all. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. Because stories and how we tell them have fascinated me for as long as I can remember.

When I was younger, I spread my creative energies among various artistic pursuits. I spent as much time drawing and creating maps as I did writing stories. But at a certain point, I realized I needed to devote the full measure of my creative enterprise to one type of creation if I ever wanted to master it.

It wasn’t a difficult choice. Books got me through my darkest days as a child, so I’ve always wanted to write stories that would do the same for others. But beyond a voracious enjoyment of stories – especially the fantastic and exciting – I enjoy studying language and the various ways we’ve used it. Language is not a static entity. It changes over time. And the ways we utilize it resonate and reverberate throughout our lives in different ways.

Language is the essence of stories, their most fundamental building block. And the best stories, I have always found, are those that understand the intricate and complicated interactions between their base parts. Only thorough understanding allows the kind of creative experimentation that leaves a lasting impression with the audience.

I could babble at length about the various tools available to writers for the perfection of their craft. (I’ve already discussed several in previous posts.) I regard writing as a life-long learning process and constantly challenge myself to add new tools to my arsenal for the sharpening of my craft. That’s the main reason I write so many posts about story crafting.

Speed isn’t Everything

Pacing is a topic that comes up a lot. In fact, I’ve devoted several previous posts to it. Because no matter the length of the story you’re writing, from the briefest of vignettes to the most epic of sagas, the speed at which you move through the story is incredibly important. Too slow and you will lose the reader, too fast and you’ll confuse them instead.

I’m not sure if there is a perfect pace. I’m sure a lot of people would be happy to argue about that. But the fact is, every story has different needs. Depending on your goal, depending on what you’re trying to achieve, you need the reader to connect with different concepts or different characters. Sometimes you can achieve that bond with a couple of sentences. Sometimes it takes chapters to achieve the same effect.

How do you know when to move fast and when to move slow? How much middle should your story have?

I’ve said before that narrative pacing should be tight. And it should be. You don’t want to devote entire scenes to interactions that bear no importance on the overall narrative. That bogs the story down and causes it to drag. This means cutting anything that could be considered fluff. Fluff is any time your characters are essentially just wasting time or waiting for something else to happen. Most fluff can be compressed into a summary usually during a chapter transition.

But that doesn’t mean that every interaction should be of high-stakes intensity either. Sometimes incidental moments are just as important to the plot as a revelation of major plot details. This is what ultimately makes the balancing of plot pacing so difficult.

The Problem of Missing Middle

The last time I talked about pacing, I mentioned the problem of sagging middle. This is where the characters just kind of spin their wheels until it’s time for the ending to happen. Usually, it means there’s a plot beat missing. It’s noticeable because the middle will feel like it drags until the action picks up again.

But it’s possible to have the opposite problem. Sometimes writers are so eager to get to the epic climax of their story, they skip the middle entirely. For shorter fiction, you might be able to get away with no middle. But for anything longer than a few thousand words, a missing middle might cause a fair amount of whiplash.

Sometimes you need incidental moments between characters in order to establish their relationships, or to allow readers to get in touch with the complexities of a particular character. Case in point, I started building a relationship between Domerin and his main love interest in the first book of the Aruvalia Chronicles series. And by the third book, the two have established they want to try having a devoted relationship.

But it wasn’t until the fifth book that I started delving into the intricate history shared between these two characters. One of my betas left a note on that particular book saying they didn’t realize how much depth their relationship had until that moment, and it changed their view of the two of them as a couple – which was exactly what I wanted.

It can be incredibly difficult to fit enough details about a character’s history and past experience into even a lengthy novel without feeling like you’re dumping information in the reader’s lap. But sometimes it’s critical to establish history, emotion or even a cultural perspective to give events the desired impact.

When Fluff Stops Being Fluff

One genre that relies heavily on seemingly incidental character interactions is horror. In order to make you care about the imminent death of the characters, you first have to be invested in them as people. You have to care about the things they stand to lose before it matters whether or not they lose them.

A fine example of this is Until Dawn. I have never been a huge fan of horror, but I have watched dozens of play-throughs of that game to see how people interact with the various characters and choices. On the surface, this is a slow moving game. It devotes several hours to what the characters are doing before the horror elements kick in. It might initially seem boring or pointless, but it’s actually brilliant.

By showing tiny slices of each character’s life and desires before tossing monsters at them, the audience gets a sense of the people they’re trying to save – or possibly murdering. Those first few hours are critical to the building of tension and emotion for the second half of the game, which is packed with non-stop action. In addition to devoting time to the characters’ relationships, focusing on the characters for the first half of the game instantly makes them more relatable.

After Until Dawn, the same developer crafted a series of horror shorts, released one at a time. I assume these types of games are easier to fund, thus allowing them to keep the series more easily in development. But in all honesty, none of the shorts interested me. They moved too quickly to the action elements without devoting the opening sequences to character development. In every case, the characters felt flat and uninteresting, meaning I didn’t care what happened to them when the bad things started.

Learn When to Linger in the Middle

Time and again, I think about Until Dawn and the reasons it resonated so deeply with me when few other horror story seems to. And I truly believe it was the care put into the initial character development that hooked me. The same could be said of Doki Doki Literature Club; it relies heavily on character development (and in one case, a distinct lack thereof) to craft its narrative. That’s why it stays with so many people who play.

Unfortunately, I have read a fair number of stories and comics lately that completely skip this critical character development process. It’s heartbreaking to read a story that has set up a complex series of character relationships but is too eager to get to the action to sit with them. Sometimes you need to see a character’s daily life in order to connect with what’s going to happen to them. Sometimes characters need time to discuss their feelings so that readers get a chance to experience them.

It might seem like I’m saying that a story needs fluff after I said to avoid fluff. But if an incidental interaction establishes core information that influences and affects a character’s actions, it stops being fluff and starts being an integral portion of the story. Sometimes the story is the emotions of your characters and how they ultimately work through them. Even if the story is also about an epic war or wizard battle.

It’s painfully obvious when those interactions are missing because you end up not caring what happens between certain characters at the end of the story. So while it’s critical to know when to speed up and cut the fluff to craft an epic and exciting story, it’s equally important to know when to slow down and linger. It could mean the difference between a story that is merely okay and one that rends the soul of the reader for months to come.

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