Today, I'm excited to re-introduce Lin Anderson for Part 2 of her 3-part series on The Structure of Story. Lin has a lot of writing experience, having published eight novels, which feature forensic expert Dr Rhona MacLeod. Her books have been translated into several langauages and are in development for TV. Her short stories have appeared in a number of collections, most recently Dead Close was chosen for the Best of British Crime 2011. Also a screenwriter, her film River Child won a BAFTA and the Celtic Film Festival best fiction award. Lin's website is: http://www.lin-anderson.com/
Part 2: The Muddle in the Middle
As I said in my opening piece, human beings intuitively understand when a story works. That’s probably most obvious when sitting in a packed cinema. The collective intelligence of the audience knows when things are going slack in the story. This happens usually in the middle section when the audience starts to fidget and eat their popcorn. They’ve dropped out of the story. They’re back in the real world. Something that should never happen. In the case of novels, it’s where you skip bits you don’t feel engaged with and hope to be recaptured later on. Or even worse you lose interest and stop reading the story altogether!
So what went wrong with the storytelling?
One of the most obvious reasons for giving up on a story is because we don’t care what happens to the people who inhabit the story, particularly the main character, our protagonist.
Because a story is a character in action.
A story should present us with a character we empathise with, who is presented with a situation that propels them into action. Through a variety of escalating challenges they're tested to their limits and emerge usually having learned something about themselves in the process. We have lived vicariously through them.
A story is deepened when we also follow secondary characters and become involved with their lives, but these characters’ actions should always impact on our protagonist’s story. Switching viewpoints and using dramatic irony makes the storytelling dynamic. However, if you tell a story from too many viewpoints you can lose your reader, because we have to buy into a character enough to really care.
As a writer you should ask yourself:
Who is my protagonist?
What do they want?
Why do they want it?
What’s stopping them?
What’s the result?
These questions will eventually present you with the theme of your story i.e what it’s really about. Crime stories usually have a main theme of justice or the restoration of order, but there can be many subthemes operating within the crime story e.g Love, revenge, coming of age etc
The conflict your character faces can be external or internal and is usually both, but it must be big enough to sustain the reader’s interest and for them to want the protagonist to succeed.
We have already considered the beginning and the inciting incident (sometimes called the first crisis.) This is what propels your protagonist into action. Most people would rather have an easy life, so your protagonist may prevaricate, but eventually they must move. Once they do, nothing will ever be the same again.
Once into the ‘muddle in the middle’ the antagonistic forces rise even more against our main character. This is the part of the story where things often go wrong. The story slackens. We lose the reader’s attention. One common error it to make the antagonistic force too strong, too soon, leaving nowhere to go. To prevent the story from going slack, you need to build momentum towards the middle of this section of the story. It’s that old saying that things will get worse before they get better. When our protagonist deals with what some call their deepest darkest cave, you can provide a little respite. Stories differ a lot in this middle section. Some peak around the midpoint, some go on slow burn and peak towards the end of this section. In a short story, because of its length, the 'peak' or 'deepest darkest cave' moment is usually placed towards the end of the middle section.
To keep your story tight and your reader engrossed, it's sometimes useful to timeline it. Mark where each obstacle is met and matched and where exactly the big crisis happens. Also check that the conflict is always on the increase. The pattern of three is often seen here. Try, try, try again is something we all recognise, from nursery stories onwards.
Any secondary stories will also have a three part structure and a character arc. It's good to know that the really big moments in a story occur when a key moment in a subplot clashes with a key moment for the protagonist. Those are the scenes we remember the most.
Next time… the resolution (and the twist in the tail). After which I'll use a short crime story to illustrate what we've learned about structure.