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Sunday, 18 November 2012

The difficult middle...


All books have a middle. The beginning sets up the characters, the situation, and above all, the conflict. The ending, and the chapters leading up to it, is where the conflict gets resolved. The ending is what the reader is waiting for, it is the climax, where heroes (usually) triumph and baddies (often, but not always) get their comeuppance. But a bad middle can lead the reader to give up on a book, despite a great start and possibly a terrific ending. Why is that?

The middle is where the author deepens and enriches the story, introduces new characters, ramps up inner conflict, has heroes second-guess themselves, has baddies or events turn up the heat, and releases revelations that change the readers’ perceptions of a character or broaden the plot. The mid-section of a book often contains flashbacks, some stories-within-stories that show characters’ ‘mettle’, some confessions, some secrets and some lies. These story devices are all intended to strengthen a reader’s attachment to a book and its characters, and to heighten the drama and its conclusion.

However, middle sections often fail the reader, sometimes after a fantastic start, and a probable good ending the reader may never get to read. The book seems to lose focus, tension, or even change its tone. The middle ‘sags’, and the reader starts wondering if they should bother to continue. 

So what is the middle section not for?

It is not where the author should relax and produce ‘filler’ chapters
It is not for introducing twists-and-turns that ultimately leave the reader back where she or he was before, i.e. story ‘loops’ rather than true story progression (arcs)
It is not where the author should dwell on his or her hobby horse
It is not where the dialogue should lose its edge and turn into banter
It is not where characters should get real cosy with each other
It is not for gratuitous sex-scenes that don’t increase tension or conflict

In summary, IT IS NOT AN INTERLUDE.

Characters can relax, and can ask each other or themselves questions the reader might have long-harboured. But this must not be just idle chatter. There should still be conflict. It is a good place to show some of the cracks in the protagonist’s fa├žade, weaknesses in the hero, to make things less black-and-white. It is important to have some self-doubt, otherwise the characters are just actors role-playing for the author. If the protagonist must do something really difficult, particularly involving self-sacrifice, the author should step back, and consider – would they really do this? Think of Frodo. Gandalf even, self-questioning themselves in Lord of the Rings. The hero can proverbially ‘wander around in the desert’ for a while – but not for too long! Two books I loved but they both did a LOT of meandering which almost made me put them down and not reach the fantastic endings, were Dan Simmons 'Fall of Hyperion' and Greg Bear's 'Anvil of Stars'.

Here’s one of my characters from Eden’s Revenge, Gabriel, hesitating, deliberating, before embarking on something he has been planning to do all his life. Why does he hesitate? Because he meets someone (Jen) who knew his father, whom Gabriel never met. Jen was the sister of Gabriel’s father, and this is the first time they get a brief chance to talk.

It had been tough in his childhood: not even a photo of his father. Difficult when your only reference to your father is your own reflection. Other kids had lost their parents during the Q’Roth sacking of Earth, but they had memories and usually holos too, anchors to cling to. Gabriel had nothing. He listened intently.
            “Gabriel – there’s so much I want to say…”
He could sense the pain in Jen’s voice. “What was he like?”
There was a pause. “Brave and beautiful. People were wary of him, though; they sensed the inherent danger, even in his teens. One of his teachers described him as an unexploded mine.” She laughed.
Gabriel smiled, but it stirred lifelong suppressed emotions deep inside him. “Go on,” he said, almost a whisper.
“Serious, always looking for a cause, interested in politics when boys his age were discovering girls, though he had quite a few girlfriends. No-one close. He would come out with these profound but enigmatic sayings. My favourite was ‘where there is thought, there is power.’ Kalaran thought that was pretty deep for a human. Sorry, I’m rambling.” She cleared her throat. “Your father found his cause. The only one that mattered in the end.”
Gabriel felt the need to sit, but couldn’t move. He tried to picture his father as a boy, as a young man back in Ireland before the nuclear devastation had blackened that once emerald Isle. He’d watched the history holos over and over, secretly searching the running, confused, screaming crowds for a face like his own. He’d distanced himself from everyone, but if his father had lived… Gabriel couldn’t see where that path would have led him, but he would have liked to have had the choice.
Jennifer continued. “Ramires probably knew more about him as a man than I did, even though he didn’t know him personally – I thought he’d been killed in the first round of detonations. Apparently … he was the perfect assassin, no ego, played the double agent for the Alicians for years before he was unmasked when trying to kill Sister Esma. He died protecting humanity.”
Gabriel had heard it said before, but this time, hearing it from family, from someone that actually knew his father, made it resonate. It firmed his purpose. But he guessed there was little time, and that this wasn’t purely a social call.
 “You need me to do something, don’t you?”

During such scenes where we deepen the character, and the action inevitably slows down, it is useful for other parts of the story to be moving faster. This is easiest in a multi-protagonist book, where chapters or sections can take turns to speed up or slow down, alternatively zooming into the action or zooming inside the character, making them more realistic and ‘dimensional’.

New characters can be introduced in the middle section, but they must advance the plot. Background characters can also come to the foreground, and preferably stay there, otherwise why bother?

Here’s another scene, this time from Eden’s Trial, where two new characters are introduced, Angel and Starkel. The scene occurs in the middle of the book, and does at first sight appear to be an interlude, though Angel tells Micah about the galaxy he and his small crew are just discovering, along with its rules (Angel has been ‘out there’ for some time). They all eat a meal together, and Angel and Starkel are about to leave when things start to heat up. Starkel is a blood enemy of the Q’Roth, and one of Micah’s crew looks human but isn’t all she seems to be…

Angel stood up. “Well, it’s been great, and not just the chicken. Now we really have to go, and so do you by the way – there’s another Q’Roth hunter-destroyer inbound, one hour out. They’ve been tracking us down for two months, and they’re hunting you too, now. So we need you to do us a favour.” She glanced at Micah and the silver ball she’d just given him.
He shrugged, more than a little incredulously. “Sure,” he said, “why ever not?”
“Thanks. Starkel has cleared you from quarantine so you can leave as soon as you’re ready, just place that little ball on your nav console and it’ll do the rest. We’re asking you to wait until the other Q’Roth vessel arrives. As soon as it is in transit range your ball will jump you out of here.”
“And you’ll be..?” Zack asked.
“Far, far away, Zack. But don’t worry. We’ve planted a jump mine on your hull. When you leave it will release and then attach to the other vessel as soon as it tries to follow you.”
“Then what happens?” Micah asked, not sure he wanted to know.
Starkel answered. “You’ll exit the jump, they won’t. If you leave before they arrive, you won’t exit the jump.”
Angel shrugged. “Sorry – again. Funny – it’s been so long since I’ve had to use that word. This galaxy isn’t that big on sympathy, I’m afraid. Anyway, we’re going to leave you some kit. And we both hate the Q’Roth don’t we?”
Micah shook his head; like he had any choice. “Alright. We’ll do it.”
Angel stood up. She looked as if she was going to offer her hand to Micah, but instead nodded to all of them, and without another word headed for the exit, to the sounds of chairs raking across the floor as the others got up.
Starkel held up his arm, blocking her exit. “Just one more thing,” he said, producing a pistol from somewhere inside his tunic.
Micah focused on it, letting the translation globe do its job. Starkel’s pistol was a molecular disruptor. It had only one setting. Everyone else stood perfectly still. Good, he thought, nobody move.
Angel frowned at Starkel, placing her hands on her hips. “What in Orion’s Belt, Starkel?”
“The one over there called Hannah has Q’Roth DNA.” Starkel said, pistol aimed at Hannah’s head. “You’ll be dead before you reach them,” he added to Zack and Ramires, who were both edging towards their weapons.
Micah and Sandy exchanged glances. He looked pleadingly to Angel, but she silenced him with a raised hand, her face set in stone. Her stare towards Hannah tightened with a space-cold hatred.
“Sorry, Micah, but Starkel can smell these things – Mannekhi and Q’Roth are blood enemies. And if she has Q’Roth DNA in her, then it’s just a matter of time before she develops their nasty, aggressive tendencies. Frankly, if Starkel is correct, then I’m right behind him in the queue to vaporise her sorry ass.”


As well as using the middle to render the characters more realistic, less glossy and more ‘grainy’, the same can be done for the plot and the context. Small, petty politics can interfere, because the stakes are not yet realised, and because people are people and this is what they are often like. Alliances can be made, and the foreground set up for later rescues or (better – more interesting) betrayals.

Travel to the place where the end awaits is a useful vehicle (literally) to both deepen the setting and the characters – people usually end up talking to each other on trips, as otherwise they (and the reader) get bored.

But why have a middle at all?

I recently watched Skyfall, the latest James Bond film, and it didn’t do it for me. Nor did Taken2 or the recent Jason Bourne movie. Why? Well, these are action movies without a discernible middle. They can be fun to watch, but honestly, do you end up caring for these characters? To me they are made of cardboard. Bond promises he will protect a woman, then sleeps with her, and she is promptly killed, and there is no time to even feel guilt because the action drags him elsewhere. Contrast these films with the more recent Batman movie, where there is a clear middle where we get to know Batman and his doubts, as well as other characters with their own reversals of fortune by the end. Batman may be a flawed movie for other reasons, but I cared a lot more for the characters, and will go to watch the next one.

A good middle in a book marks the difference between a one-night stand and a relationship.

The middle is therefore a key part of the book, where the story and characters deepen, where you build a relationship with the reader. The beginnings and endings of books are all-important, but – big surprise – the middle is just as important. No one said writing was easy…


The Eden Paradox series is set forty years from now and concerns humanity’s first encounter with alien life, where we find out that the galaxy is a pretty hostile place…

The Eden Paradox is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Ampichellis and Waterstones.

Eden’s Trial is available in paperback and ebook from Amazon.

Eden’s Revenge is being released shortly.

Other short stories (scifi and fiction) are available for free on the main website.

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