Plotting the Middle–One Attempt to Find a System

I don’t know about you, but my brain does strange things in the early stages of thinking about a novel. Many of those things are strange in a good way. Others, not so much.

Lately, as I spend time with my current WIP, I’ll be immersed in some wonderful, creative brainstorming about my hero or another character or a setting, and my mind starts going off in tangents about scenes that need to happen or about the big, dramatic choices my hero will have to make by the end. Fun things like that. And then, all of a sudden, I’ll have one of two thoughts. They are:

  • I have WAY too many actions/events that have to happen in the middle of this story!
  • How in the WORLD am I going to find enough actions/events to fill up the middle of this story?!

Note: Exclamation points denote panic.

Double Note: Yes, I realize those thoughts are extreme opposites. Donald Maass would love me as a character.

The point, today, is that I did spend a little time the other day thinking, again, about how to plot out that middle. How to find a way to place it–as a craft element–somewhere between a dense, overcrowded mess and a gapingly empty maw. And here’s what I came up with.

I’m getting a pretty good idea of what both the beginning and the ending of this story need to be doing. As I work, my brain goes back and forth between those two points, thinking about how they connect and what layers they share.  And I’m making myself slow down a bit and think about ways to weave those threads through the middle.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I’m writing a story about a tortoise and a rabbit. No, let’s call that second character a hare. The hare challenges the tortoise to a—okay, you know the story. You’re probably thinking it’s a pretty simple plot (which makes for a good example!), but there are a few layers here. We need to show the hare’s speed, and its cockiness, and its lack of manners. We need to show the tortoise’s slowness, its confidence, and its style.

Let’s take one set–speed and slowness.

In the Beginning, speed is strength and slowness is weakness. By the End, the tortoise has reversed that valuation–slowness can be power and strength may not be so good over the long haul. (Sounds like an ode to my running, but let’s not go there.) Obviously we can’t just snap our fingers and have that change happen–that’s wishful thinking, not storytelling.

We need two or three plot points in the Middle to make the change happen.  And this is where I’m taking a few minutes, to ask myself, “What could those plot points be?” And for each thread I think about, I’m making a quick list of possiblities…like this:

  • The hare could laugh at the tortoise and all the other animals for being slow.
  • The tortoise could stop in the middle of the race to help a young animal that is hurt or lost.
  • The other animals could have a meeting and decide to help the tortoise.
  • The elephant could fill up its trunk with water from a nearby lake, then flood the path so the tortoise could swim the race.
  • The bees could magically polinate a nearby field of poppies into bloom, so the hare would fall asleep–oh, wait, that’s another story.

Anyway, you see the point. Each of these possibilities could (I’m not necessarily saying should!) be a scene in the story. In sequence, they show the progression from the hare being the one with power, to the tortoise earning the strength and support of friends and turning the tables on his long-eared antagonist. Et voila, some of your middle is filled.

What do you think? Is this a possible tool to help make that middle less scary, less intimidating? Do you have techniques you use to plot your way across the void? I’d love to hear them, because–whatever may or may not work–I’m pretty sure I’ll be trying them all in the next few months!

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12 thoughts on “Plotting the Middle–One Attempt to Find a System

  1. I love this post! So helpful. I’m normally of the latter thought – how will I find enough to fill up the middle. And yet I seem to. The question is whether it is the right stuff or not.
    Thanks!

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  2. beckylevine says:

    Thanks, PJ. I just really struggle with this when I’m plotting, so I’m grabbing at anything I think might help! And I’m going to worry about whether I’m coming up with the right things, well…later! 🙂

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  3. I think this is a great way to muddle through those middles, Becky. It seems a wee bit more sensible than my “I hope I can figure it out when I get there,” method. 🙂

    I do brainstorm a ton of scenes that I think might belong in the book but when I try to think of these turning points, I have trouble. I can spend so much time thinking about what is going to turn them around that I stop moving forward anymore.

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  4. beckylevine says:

    I do the brainstorming thing, too, and then I start to panic that I’ll forget them all or not be able to put them in sequence. This is at least keeping the panic down; we’ll see how well it works for the rest!

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  5. Shawna says:

    Hi Becky,

    Excellent post. Usually I know where the characters start and where I want them to finish so I just brainstorm ways of them getting there and write it all down.

    In between are little goals such as ‘how to did the hare meet the tortoise?’

    I think your method sounds a lot less frantic, with less ‘oh, oh’ moments when loose ends don’t quite meet up. : )

    A wonderful way to plot the middle.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Shawna–I think you’re doing just what I’m talking about–cool to know it works! And this probably came out of my franticness. 🙂

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    • beckylevine says:

      I did that on my very first book for too many years and never finished it. Maybe it was that I was less far along understanding all this stuff, but the feeling of not knowing where I’m going is still a bit too scary. Even WITH a bit of plotting, I still don’t know, so I try and do what I can to help move myself forward.

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  6. I often get stuck in the middle if I don’t have an outline, or I run into a situation where the story can go in more than one direction.

    Excellent advice. I’ll have to remember your technique.

    Thanks again!

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    • beckylevine says:

      I’m hoping that all the work I’m doing with Maass’ book is going to help me at those more-than-one direction possibilities! 🙂

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