Jim Butcher calls it the Great Swampy Middle. That no-man’s land midway between the first door of no return and that final door to the climax. You know where you’re headed, but you just don’t quite know how to get there.
We’ve been pretty airy-fairy around here lately, readers, so let’s get back to the nitty-gritty. I hit the Great Swampy Middle of Conspiracy in the late summer and autumn of 2009. I had the timeline of my novel, and midway between Big Event 2 and Huge Event 1, there was a big blank space, especially for one character.
So what did I do? I introduced a love interest. A needless character and subplot planted just to move the middle along. This new character was cute and fun, and I had a good time putting awkward Albert into cutesy situations, but I can tell you right now (without having gotten to this part of the book in my reread) that I’ll be cutting that character and her entire plot.
This was one of Kristin’s Bad Ideas ™.
Those of you who have written this much of a book already know exactly what I’m talking about. You hit that point where you’re not sure what to do next–when small details and points of logic start tripping you up. Where your story begins to veer off from your outline, and feel fairly confident that it’s never, EVER going to veer back. You aren’t sure where things went wrong, exactly. Characters and situations start popping out of your fingers as if of their own volition. They’re often fun, even intriguing, but they’re really a form of denial, you poor deluded, benighted sap. You’re lost. You just don’t want to admit it to anyone, least of all yourself.
Oh, boy. It’s so true. If you’re so bored with your plot that you’re wildly inventing things, your readers are probably bored, too. And they’ll know that sudden, random love interests were planted just to shake things up.
Jim also gives several ways out of the Great Swampy Middle. They are:
- The Big Middle, in which you drop a plot bomb in the middle of the story. However… you need to plan this plot bomb, otherwise you run the risk of blowing your entire story to smithereens. Think strategically, or you’ll end up like those NaNoers who get bored and introduce ninjas midway through their book. If you want ninjas, you need to plan for ninjas and build up to them.
- The Mini Arc and the Subplot. These are big and little versions of a mini-story in your story. The key here is to make this smaller story fit into your work as a whole: don’t just send your characters off-track for awhile and then bring them back if it doesn’t add anything to the story. (That would fall under the category of zany hijinks.)
- The New Character, like I described above. The trouble here is that popup characters can be like popup ads: annoying, irrelevant, and distracting. Don’t add a character (like I did) who contributes nothing to your overall plot or some other character’s development.
Like Jim says, the key is to keep writing.
Are you noticing a theme on this blog?
Don’t give up.
Have you fallen into quicksand in the middle of a plot? How did you escape?
The only way I’ve found out of the Big Swampy Middle is to hack my way out with an axe or a cleaver.
Boy, is everyone appropriate with their timing today. Between you and Kristen Lamb, I have a lot to ponder.
Because of blog posts, today I have:
-Rewritten the pitch lines for all three of my books and the trilogy arch as a whole
-Chopped almost a whole chapter from my draft of Primeval
The reasons for those two things are actually tied together. My protagonist has a goal, which I rooted out after chucking the passive goals like survival and protection out the window. She wants revenge. That goal meets the conflict of the story and gets married, which propels the story forward. The chapter I hacked out of the Big Swampy middle floundered the story around at the bottom of the bog. Now it’s gone, and I feel much better for it.
Still knee-deep in it. I think outlines can help. Maybe. Also, going back and revising your outline till it makes more sense and then, as you said, keep writing.