Friday, May 19, 2006

Middle-Age Spread


Or the case of the sagging middle.
Have seen that term used to describe a structural problem in manuscripts.
It seems that one of the interpretations of the phrase" "We didn't love it enough" or "not quite right for us" may have to do with the structure of the novel.
That's assuming that the plot is original(!), the characters inviting, and the technical aspects of spelling, dialogue, tags, etc. etc. are all sufficiently competent.
Have been wondering what contributes to this condition where the work is in need of a tummy tuck, or - in milder cases - better posture.
Does it result from the writer, having opened with a bang and bravado, suddenly slows the pace by spending time somewhere around chapters three to seven by introducing wads of backstory and groundwork?
By expositions of the whys-and-wherefores they only hinted at at the beginning?
The mistake of unnecessary expansion of scene and character now that they've got them plopped in the pot?
By the introduction of sub-plots and characters they excluded from the opening, leaving the reader wondering wotthehell is going on here and why they should care?
Too much bang at the beginning ( vs. the slow-grow suspense) and the reader is disappointed/let-down that the adrenalin high does not accelerate apace or amuck?
We've all read books where our attention has waned for a time due to this condition.
I'm trying to get my mind around what contributes to these pot bellies.
Any examples or ideas?

29 comments:

Erik Ivan James said...

You've just hammered the nail flush for my novel.
Mine had the potential of having a belly so big that it wouldn't be able to see it's own..um...er...toes.
A significant amount of backstory seemed required in order to properly establish the reasons for the beginning scenes.
The way I'm attempting to solve the "big boring belly" problem, is by interjecting bits and pieces of the backstory throughout the entire book.
Maybe it'll work, maybe it won't. Not done yet.

Bernita said...

I think that's the way to avoid it, Erik, otherwise it's lumps in the gravy.

jason evans said...

I think it's due to a lack of material, cursory storytelling. We have great ideas for a beginning, and a great idea for an end, then we sit down to fill in the middle. The problem is, the middle isn't fill. Every element is vital. As I work on my WIP (my second true novel attempt), I've forced myself to make every scene have a spark. Something unique. Something entertaining. No scenes merely about getting from point A to point B.

Hope it works....

Dennie McDonald said...

shoot, kidnap, throw in a strange character... just keep the good times rolling ... in the middle!

S. W. Vaughn said...

The attempt to weave backstory definitely contributes to a slumped middle. Another thing is lack of planning. That isn't necessarily a bad thing (goodness knows I've never actually plotted every point in a novel from start to finish) -- but it seems most of the time when one starts a book, one knows where to start and where to end, but not, precisely, how to get there.

That's when the middle becomes muddy. When you start off racing toward the finish line, and then your plot throws a mountain range on the race course... now you have to climb this mountain range, and for a while the end is no longer in sight. So the "climbing the mountain" chapters seem tedious, because there is no clear goal.

This may not make sense. My brain's still running on Commodore 64 (man, did I ever love that old clunker. Thanks for the smile, Bernita :-)

S. W. Vaughn said...

Well, looks like somebody beat me to the punch while I was typing...

Yeah. What Jason said. :-)

Ric said...

Examples? That would mean actually having to READ, he said, tersely, while looking out the window at the cloudy rain and wondering if the sun will ever reappear.

Bernita has pointed out a big problem. Most of us can come up with the story, come up with the ending, then - since agents/editors only read the first five pages - we move some large portion of the climax to the beginning of the book.

Then we have to backtrack, backfill, backslide, trying to give the reader the information necessary to make the beginning make sense and lead to the climax.

If you try to write linear, you have the problem of a too slow beginning. Or if you keep the action going non-stop, there is not enough flesh to the story.

Murder mysteries - many will bog down in the middle with red herrings, or in the case of one I read recently - a totally worthless twenty pages of the female detective getting laid while waiting for the coroner's report.

Bernita said...

Hmmm, Dennie's approach is a smooth and steady acceleration and complication - I suspect that's the best way to avoid any slack.
In effect, she doesn't have any "middle" - except in a numerical way.

Jason and SW suggest a lack of clear plotting as well as a lack of proper understanding of the value of the structural middle - both of which leave the reader hanging around picking his nose.

I go for steady acceleration ( I hope) until chapter four - then I change lanes and step on the gas. I worry if my driving is uneven - if I ride the clutch.
Dear me, I appear to have switched metaphors in mid-stream.

Bernita said...

The gratuitous sex scene syndrome, I suspect, Ric.

You bring up another point I wonder about - the red herring - and the fine art of intrigue and suspense, but not to the point of misleading/disappointing/frustrating the reader with perhaps logical but false sign posts.
One almost expects them in mysteries - it's often a game of chess, a puzzle after all.
Even some romances leave the question of who is the hero/villain up in the air for a time.

Dennie McDonald said...

now, what book was that Ric.... HA!

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Waahhhhh!!! No I don't have any ideas for ya', because I have the same problem.

I changed the antagonist's motivation...from a power trip to revenge...now I've got a whole middle that needs to be changed!

Even a girde ain't gonna' help this girth...LOL!

Bernita said...

Only temporary flab, Bonnie - happens sometimes when you change exercise programs.

Flood said...

Maybe the problem will lead to a new appreciation for the short story?

Bernita said...

Do you mean writerly frustration with structure will lead them to try a truncated form of fiction, Flood?
Or that frustrated readers will seek out less bloat in fiction?
I would think the novella more likely in either case.

archer said...

E.L. Doctorow's Billy Bathgate has a trim and muscular middle. The outer two sections of the book are crowded-city gangster sections, and the middle is all country and scenery and hot romance--and because the romance is a dangerous romance, rooted in the city-gangster stuff, the middle section keeps the narrative tension even in its languourous county-waterfall love scenes. Everything works to make this middle a success--the complete contrast of scene and subject and mood, the frightening link to the early violence. It's a terrific book.

Ric said...

Dennie - twas a mystery set in Alaska with a Native/Inuit/female police sergeant - I think there's a whole series - but, unfortunately, I can't recall the author anddddddddddddddddddd if I try to find the book, I won't get anything done today...

My bookcases are like Bernita's problem - tight on the ends but really bulging in the middle.

kmfrontain said...

It's always struck me that every story that kept me interested in the middle had a combination of good character build up (in which we really want to invest time into knowing the characters, because we like them, and so a bit of back story coming from them doesn't hurt)and also that the plot continues to roll along despite whatever the character(s) are currently meandering on about in their heads.

And that only covers stories that get into characters that meander.

For stories that have a lot of complications, it's the steady accleration, as Bernita describes Dennie's method, but also the occasional twist in the road. Not so much red herring twists deep into the bay, as just a sudden twist with no sign post. Give them a threat of the ditch. Shake up the characters, shake up the reader. Make the character meander with fear sweat, or go blank with surprise while he's struggling through the latest evil mess we wrote him into.

Meandering characters, and this includes their back story, should be chased by a red hot fire iron that threatens to blow out their tires if they slow down for more than one page of writing. That's my max-out on backstory. I fade on one page unless the backstory itself is truly interesting. This is not usually the case.

Bernita said...

Hmmm.
That structure parallels my technique, Archer - if I can say so without implying I remotely approach Doctorow's skill.
Interesting. Thank you.
~ any smidgin of justification appreciated~

Are you being provocative again, Ric?

Bernita said...

Well put, KM.
Thank you!

Ric said...

Perish the thought, dear Lady.

kmfrontain said...

Thanks, Bernita. :D

Carla said...

KM has already said what I was going to say - a combination of interesting characters and a plot that keeps ticking along. If I'm interested in the people I want to know their backstory anyway, and as long as something is going on I don't much mind if a mountain range has obscured the distant goal on the far horizon.

Bernita said...

Thank you, Carla.
I wonder if that is the clue?
Those novels with the sag are those where much action has been temporarily suspended while the writer cleans house and moves the furniture around, so to speak?

kmfrontain said...

When the moving furniture feeling happens while I write , I also get a "why am I writing this?" sensation. Whenever I get that, I stop and look at the stuff I just wrote and see if it's truly necessary in some manner. I have a lot of relationships between characters, and that feel like I'm moving furniture sometimes, rather than forwarding where they end up in terms of the major plot. Relationships are a variety of back story, in a way, or a side story, when the plot is supposed to be about action. It's only meant to support, not overwhelm the flow of the narrative.

Sometimes I have to sit back and think, "do I keep this?" It's only yes if the scene has bearing on something in the future, in terms of how those characters will react to later situations, or if it backs up something that happened earlier. The answer is no if it does nothing at all to forward the plot, past, present or future within a novel or series.

Ballpoint Wren said...

Dennie's talking about my kind of stories: lots of kidnapping and shootings and rolling good times. Add a nice little romance and I'm all set.

But then Bernita mentioned the gratuitous sex scene, and I lost my train of thought.

Lisa Hunter said...

One thing I've found helpful is studying the structure of television shows. TV scripts have "act outs" -- especially dramatic moments -- before every commercial break, to make sure the audience comes back. Pretending that you have to lure your reader back at, say, the end of chapters 12 and 24, can help you structure the book in a way that keeps the readers following along.

Bernita said...

It's a good technique to end every chapter that way, Lisa; and you're right, the TV break moments are a good study example.

Goodness, Wren! And I planned to do a sex post tomorrow!

Again, well put, KM.
That may be another cause of the flab - the scenes are nice and comfortable but perhaps do not relate strongly enough to furthering the conflict or character.
Gramma's upright piano may be a fine piece of furniture, but if no one plays it, what is it doing in the hall?

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