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Middle Scenes: A Non-Linear Approach

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?

TRUE SUSPENSE

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.

THE NON-LINEAR METHOD

Let’s turn those thoughts about middle scenes into a plan of action: a non-linear process of building a scene from the inside out.  Choose a scene from the middle of your WIP.  Put into mind what happens, but don’t look back at the text you’ve already got.

Remembering that dialogue does much of the work, first think about the two people who will primarily interact.  What does each want?  For your protagonist or POV character, that is the scene goal.  The person who wants something different is the scene antagonist.

However, there’s a layer beneath that for each.  For your protagonist, that isn’t the overt want, but what he or she really wants.  Deep down.  Underneath.  Fundamentally.  Emotionally.  Same for the other character, the scene antagonist.

Step One: Before anything else, write the dialogue in which those two characters each go after what they actually want.  Directly.  Cutting through the clutter.  Down to brass tacks.  No holds barred.  Do not lead into it.  Do not bother with incidental action.  Minimize attributives.  What’s really going on here?  What is each actually trying to get from the other to satisfy, sooth, elevate, affirm, protect or enhance the self?  Who wins?  How do we know?

Next, let’s look at two types of change that might occur in the scene.  The first is how plot circumstances change.  What occurs, or is learned, during this twenty or thirty minutes will radically alter what your protagonist knows, assumes, or that he or she must do?  What has been held back?  What has not been revealed until now?  What bombshell can you explode?  What’s the Black Swan, the news that cannot possibly be foreseen?

Now let’s look at character surprises.  What doesn’t your protagonist yet know about someone else in the scene, or someone in the tale who is not present?  What did your protagonist get wrong?  How did your protagonist misjudge?  What would shock your protagonist to learn?  Not sure about those things?  Make something up.

Step Two: Write the moment in which that bombshell explodes: both the explosion and what the shock wave does, visibly and audibly, to your protagonist and others in the scene.

Now let’s look at internal change.  What can your protagonist discover or reveal about self in this scene?  What secret shame?  What undisclosed need?  What private knowledge?  What prior role?  What past association?  What dimension of any of those things can be revealed, deepened or seen anew in this scene?

What about purely internal changes?  What shortcoming or strength does this scene show your protagonist?  In what way is his or her identity, in this moment, becoming different?  How is the world no longer the way that he or she imagined?  How is he or she no longer the self that he or she hopes to be?

Step Three: Write a paragraph capturing the change to self, or in self-understanding.

Step Four: Create a zinger last line.  A shock, insult, slap in the face, threat, buzzkill, warning, sudden clarity, deep comfort, leap in status, dots connecting, new question with no answer, or any kind of cliffhanger whether actual or emotional.

When you have all of the above elements in hand, write a 750-word version of the scene.  Use what you came up with—and as little else as possible.  What should result is a trimmed down version of the scene that does not just record the scene’s chronological progress but that maximizes its impact; a scene grounded in the emotional imperatives and genuine surprises that are the scene’s true reason to be.

Should your manuscript be composed of 750-word scenes?  I don’t think so, but I do think the scenes in your manuscript’s middle can be mined for drama and be fully focused for effect.  Thinking in a non-linear way is a good way to do that.

In the middle scene you chose, what is your protagonist’s true need?  What bombshell did you drop?  What revelations arose?  What’s your zinger last line?

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].