Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sagging Middles and Desire

If the novel you're working on suffers from the middle saggies, the problem most likely lies in the beginning of your book.

It’s a common error for writers to assume that wherever some symptom crops up, therein lies the problem. Not necessarily so, when we’re talking about story structure. Consider your storyline as a rope that you want to pull taut. You find that the rope is sagging in the middle. Is that where the problem will be fixed—by shoring up the middle? No. You have to go to one end of the rope (in this case, the beginning of your story), and pull it tighter. Then, voila, up comes the middle.

In my how-to book Getting Into Character I talk about the basic story structure I call the Four Ds (Secret #2—Action Objectives). Those Ds stand for Desire, Distancing, Denial and Devastation. The foundation of your novel is the first D—the character’s Desire. This Desire—what the character Wants, with a capital W—is what pulls your character through the story. It is the path upon which the character has set himself and wants to keep on as conflicts come along that want to push him off that path.

We all know that our stories must have conflict, or they’ll be really boring. When it comes to story, the word conflict means obstacles in a character’s path as he/she tries to pursue something. Well, if you’re throwing out obstacles that stand in the way of some pursued thing, it might help to know exactly what that thing is. The more you know about that thing, and why the character wants it, the more possibilities for conflict in your story.

What’s typically happening in a saggy middle? The story runs out of gas (to bring in another metaphor). In other words, you run out of conflicts to throw at the character. When folks come to me with their saggy middle tales of woe, I always take them back to the Desire concept. Nine times out of ten, I find that this is where the problem lies—the author does not fully understand the character’s Desire.

The Desire makes that “rope” of your storyline taut. It pulls the character through the story. No matter what happens, the character doggedly pursues this Desire (whether he realizes that’s what he’s doing or not). You’ve got to fully understand what your character’s Desire is if you’re going to have a taut storyline with no sagging middle.

A couple guidelines about discovering your protagonist’s Desire:

1. It needs to be stated in the form of an action verb. What does your character want to do? State of being verbs are too general to give rise to specific action. For example, Jill’s Desire: to be successful as a realtor. Be successful—what does that mean? Success means different things to different people. Does it mean make a certain amount of money each year? Does it mean sell more houses than her competitive cousin? Does it mean make just enough so she doesn’t have to worry about putting food on the table? You’d need to define success for this character, then state that in the Desire. Perhaps after success is defined for Jill, her Desire would be: to sell enough houses to make $1 million a year. Okay, now you’re getting somewhere. Ideas for conflict start to pop. Maybe Jill sells lots of houses, but the commissions are too small to equal $1 million. Maybe she finally hits that amount of money, but some huge bill, like medical costs for an injury, sets her back financially, or she gets swindled out of some money. Etc.

2. The Desire needs to be very specific. You might think that the more general your character’s Desire, the more possibilities you’ll have for introducing conflict into the character’s path as he pursues that Desire. The exact opposite is true. The more specific the Desire, the more you’ll understand about the exact actions the character must take to obtain that Desire. And the more you know about exact actions the character needs to take, the more ideas you’ll have for possible conflict against each of those actions.

Sometimes a character’s Desire will be two-pronged, with one prong leading to the next. Example: to sell enough houses to make $1 million a year so that I can send my three teenagers to the colleges of their choice. Two prongs give you more possibilities for conflict. In this example, the protagonist, against many odds, could make $1 million a year, only to have one teenager decide not to go to college, and one not get accepted into his choice of university.

3. The Desire needs to be absolutely correct. One small tweak in the Desire will make for a very different story, just like two lines that begin together but proceed just a tiny bit away from each other will grow farther and farther apart as they go on. In Getting Into Character, I use the analogy of a flawed female protagonist whose Desire is: to build a trusting marriage by never again lying to her husband. Now look at this small tweak: to build a trusting marriage by never again being caught in a lie by her husband. The outcome she wants is the same, but the possibilities of actions and choices that may arise from the two Desires are very different indeed. The result would be two very different stories.

BTW, we are talking here about your protagonist’s conscious Desire. Sometimes characters have an unconscious Desire also, but that’s another subject.

So—what is your protagonist’s conscious Desire? State it in active verbs, make it very specific (two-pronged if possible), and make it absolutely correct for the story. When you figure out this Desire, you’ll have more ideas for what your character must do to pursue it (action), which will lead to more ideas for obstacles that can stand in the way (conflict). And with more ideas for possible action and conflict, the less likely you’ll be to deal with a saggy middle.

Writers: what is your protagonist's Desire? Readers: think of a novel you've read that was weak. Can you trace the weakness back to a lack of a clear Desire on the protagonist's part? Or on the contrary, can you think of a novel that was strong due to the protagonist's clear, strong Desire?


Timothy Fish said...

I agree that the protagonist's desire can have an impact on the rest of the story, but often the protagonist's desire doesn't solve the underlying problem. For the story to have a successful conclusion, solving the problems we see at the beginning, the protagonist has to grow and the desire has to change. One way to do that and a way that naturally eliminates a sagging middle is to give the protagonist what she wants at the mid-point. In your example of a protagonist that wants to make $1 million a year so her children can go to the college of their choice (or perhaps her choice), we would give her a job in which she makes $1 million a year at the mid-point. After the mid-point, we introduce this problem with one kid deciding not to go to college and the other not getting accepted. We might want a bigger problem than that for the latter half or we might want to switch the college thing with the job thing, to keep the problems escalating, but by showing that the goal she was shooting for doesn’t accomplish what she hoped we keep the tension tight because the reader sees how much trouble she went through to accomplish it, but now she needs she has much less time to reach her goal.

Richard Mabry said...

Good advice that comes at the perfect time for me. Thanks.

Jessie at Blog Schmog said...

My protaganists desire is too non specific.

Originally "To be heard and be right."

Really he is prejudice and wants his opinion to be heard and agreed on by the majority so that he can go on with his life in peace enjoying the liberties of American ideals.

Problems: the majority disagrees, heads of state consider him Anti-patriarchal and the govt. takes away all his liberties BECAUSE he is right. His prejudice, suspicions are correct but the world doesn't care.

Elaina M. Avalos said...

I didn't have a chance to comment until now though I read it soon after you posted it. This is invaluable advice for me. And couldn't have come at a better time. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

This is good advice, and I went and took a look at my character's desire. She wants to escape a deadly stalker and begin a new life. I think that's a specific desire. However, I'm still in the beginning stages of the novel rather than the middle so I'll see how it turns out.


Michelle Reneee Kidwell said...

Great advice, advice I can definitely use
In Christs Love