Have you ever felt impatient listening to a co-worker, friend or spouse relate a story? While you were listening, did you mentally drum your fingertips and think to yourself, get to the point!
If you’ve had that feeling, then you know how I feel while reading many middle scenes in many manuscripts. They can be flabby. They stall around. They take their time. They work up to something, or try to, and sometimes that something is less than terrific. Dialogue meanders, interrupted by pointless pencil twirling and tone of voice emphasis. There’s plenty of discussion but little tension. Instead of mood there is fog. Twists and turns lack centrifugal force. Revelations occur in mid-paragraph. The POV character could be anyone.
WHERE PROCESS GOES WRONG
Why do middle scenes fall into a coma? Is it because such scenes inherently lack drama? Is it because the point of such scenes is not action but something else? Is it because the purpose of the middle is to deepen dilemmas and build rising tension, especially the inner peril of protagonists? Actually, I think middles scenes suck not because of content but because of process. Middle scenes often are written not with the intention to create a planned effect, but out of a need to discover the scene’s point in the first place.
You can tell that’s the case when a scene wanders in. We get what in movies is called an establishing shot: a picture of where we are. The protagonist or POV character enters. The action—such as it is—is described visually, as if we are watching through a camera lens. Where dialogue should commence, a discussion starts. What a protagonist or POV character wants isn’t clear or gets lost. The big revelation feels more like repetition. Surprises may snap open like Christmas crackers, but the pop fades as we must slog through a few more pages.
What’s happening is that the author began writing the scene with a mental picture of what’s happening, then proceeded in linear fashion through the next twenty or thirty story minutes, trying to twist a chronology of that duration into a tight dramatic event. That approach mostly doesn’t work. Twenty or thirty minutes of real time are not all dramatic. The same goes for twenty or thirty minutes of fictional time, and certainly not for twelve to fifteen pages of manuscript time.
A NON-LINEAR APPROACH
The solution is not to make chapters short, although there is—trust me—not a middle scene in any manuscript which could not afford to lose a few words. One solution, rather, is to take a non-linear approach, building a scene from the inside out. Knowing the purpose, point and effect of a scene in advance isn’t necessary. It’s okay not to know much about a scene before writing it but transcribing a video tape of twenty or thirty imaginary minutes will probably only reveal a lot of words that you don’t need.
Instead, try discovering the elements that make any scene dramatic in advance, thinking ahead instead of hacking through. What makes a scene dramatic? If a middle scene is not action-packed, then much of the work is done by dialogue. Tension arises not because of physical danger but in the transaction between two people. Asking and resistance. Appeal and denial. Seduction and succumbing. Orders and mutiny.
That’s what we see on the surface. However, when any two people talk with each other there are hidden agendas. There are extra layers, meaning that what humans believe they want is not the same as what they actually are seeking.
Dialogue is a dance. Who is leading, who is following? Who has power, begs, insists, demands, denies, manipulates, twists, entices, teases, plays games, speaks from the heart, dodges responsibility, submits to a whipping, or rises to the moment? What is your protagonist really asking for? What is his or her opposition actually hoping to get?
The mild tension in flabby middle scenes often derives from pure worry. Plot problems are okay, don’t get me wrong, but hand-wringing about them is the weakest form of tension. More electric than what is happening externally in a story is what is happening to a protagonist. The uncertainty of our existence—who we are and what that means for us—is the greatest form of suspense.
Strong middle scenes are not reported from the outside but experienced from the inside. Close third person POV takes us part way there. Immersive, experiential POV, though, does a more thorough job. Suspense is strongest not when we see through another’s eyes, or hear through another’s ears, but when we feel a character’s fear and wonder, especially when those feelings are handled in a way that’s fresh.
WHAT CHANGE REALLY MEANS
Stories are about long-term change; scenes enact temporary change. There are many ways to make temporary change. Realizations about self or others. Insights into a situation. New information, especially when that information goes against what we expect. Still, information is just information. What gives it impact—the force of surprise—is its timing, delivery and import, meaning its meaning.
Anything that suddenly alters the story circumstances, or what must be done, or which switches, distorts, deepens, turns, reverses or explodes a protagonist’s understanding of anything, is a surprise. Big or small, without some type of surprise a scene will fall flat. On the other hand, properly placed a surprise will feel to readers like the scene’s point. In the surprise, the reader will sense meaning.
What triggers surprises? Surprises can drop from the sky or can well up from inside. It’s fine when they’re delivered like pizza but are most effective when characters reveal things that they previously kept hidden—even kept hidden from self. What’s nice about that is that the supply of self-revelation is inexhaustible.
Unreliable narrators aren’t needed to shock us. Surprise can arrive in a box from anyone who has much to learn about the world, others, self and what the hell is really going on. [Read more…]