Plotting a novel is tough work – keeping characters in line is even tougher! There is so much to take into account! After the initial new story glow (insert magical music here) wears off and the reality of all the work ahead sets in, the walls can start to close in around you. Not necessarily in a bad way – but there’s a blinder effect that creeps up when you’re plotting. At some point, you start to become set in your ideas and it can become harder to stay open to new thoughts.
I talked about this effect in my post about new ways to explore the What If question. I’m always trying different things to help me push past that point when my mind starts saying, “But I know this part already.” Sure, it’s great to know things about your story. But if you really want to make that plot bunny hop, you need to keep thinking outside the box until you hit the tripwire that tells you to stop.
The Dreaded Sagging Middle
It lurks in the shadows. It watches you and waits for its moment to strike. When you least expect it, it will reach for you in the nighttime. Its long, spindly fingers will stretch out from the darkness to clutch your shoulder and pull you under.
Okay, so it’s not that scary. But the middle of the story does tend to give many authors grief. You’ve got a fantastic, exciting, mysterious beginning! You already know the perfect, heart-racing, awe-inspiring ending! But what about all those bits in the middle? Uh oh.
One of my favorite plot structures for coping with a sagging middle is the Hero’s Journey. It teaches new and aspiring authors a great way to re-think their story and characters because the Hero’s Journey comes with built-in questions that – when used correctly – naturally guide you to boost that middle. (The same goes for the Save The Cat method, if you prefer it!)
Remember, there are some basics for each story: a character, a villain/struggle, and a resolution. If you look at it that way, the whole middle is seated in struggle. And that’s kinda true. Yes, you’ll want some other elements so you can vary pacing. But the part I want to focus on today is what happens to your character and how your character deals with it.
One sure way to keep your readers interested is to keep your characters frustrated. If they win too easily every single time, they’re not as interesting or approachable. We don’t all win every single day. Many of us don’t win much at all. So it makes it all the better when we do get a win in there every once in a while.
But how do you do this in your writing?
I’m going to point you to an unusual source: Netflix’s Sick Note.
A Master Class in Frustrating Your Character
**This post does not contain spoilers about the show – I’m only using rough examples so I won’t spoil anything. You’ll have to watch the show to catch my meanings. And, no, I’m totally not affiliated in any way. I just watch shows and movies with my writing brain and love to share the conclusions I draw!**
My husband and I recently watched Sick Note, and I shook my head in awe the whole time. I would love to be a fly on the wall of the writing team meetings! They have perfected the art of frustrating their characters. But they also handle the tougher parts – giving the characters mini-wins to vary the pace and giving them reasons to grow (for better or worse) – with impressive skill.
If you’re looking for a master class in how to frustrate your characters, you should absolutely watch this show!
If you don’t have Netflix, I encourage you to rea like a writer. You do know you should be reading, right? Every time you pick up a book from now on, use one part of your reading brain to catalog what works, what doesn’t, and why. Especially watch that middle area – how does the author kick the can away from the characters?
Characters Should Be Angry
Okay, not necessarily angry. But every antagonist and protagonist should have times when they don’t get what they want. Try making a list of five things your characters would consider a win. Then, find two to three ways to throw an obstacle in the path of each of those wins. If you don’t find writing gold in that first round, try another five wins – or change up the obstacles. The more you can put in your character’s way, the more interesting your story will be.
Of course, the obstacles should make sense within your writing world. If you’re writing contemporary romance without fantasy elements, you can’t just throw a dragon in because it sounds good at the time. Well, you can, but then you might need to reevaluate the genre you intend to publish under! The obstacles should also relate in some meaningful way to your characters. That can be as simple as merely getting logically in the way of something they need – like a traffic jam when they’re on their way to a critical job interview. It can also be more complex or symbolic – say a woman who was adopted and wants to become pregnant so she will feel biologically grounded to another human finding out she is incapable of having children. (That’s a deep, tragic example – sorry!)
In Sick Note, nearly every event that occurs further complicates the lives of the characters. These new complications cause them to act and react – and each new thing they do brings on new challenges. That original What If spreads out wider and wider. What If this happens? And then What If that happens because of the other thing? It all builds on the initial What If
This is what you’re aiming for. A mountain of What If:
But Not Too Angry
So, I know I just got done saying, “The more obstacles, the merrier!” That’s only kinda true. Just like an action movie that never slows down can be too much for some people, a middle that never lets up on its character can cause some readers to put a book aside.
Writing a book is a marathon – you have to maintain your stamina over a long, long period of time to get the job done.
Reading a book is more like a scenic hike. Some parts are probably going to be harder than others, but hopefully, there will be moments where you can slow down and enjoy the view.
That’s the reason you want to give your characters mini-wins. And a mini-win can be super-mini. Just a moment for the character to breathe and relax and feel like, one day, all might actually be well again.
Going back to Sick Note, this happens now and then. When characters are backed into corners, literally hiding behind curtains, they finally get the tiny joy of not being discovered. Then, they’re plunged into the next problem and chasing solutions again.
Characters Should Grow
When I say grow, I’m not talking about the bad guys learning a lesson and promising not to do anything bad ever, ever, EVER again. And I’m not talking about the good guys winning and living happily ever after every single time.
Growth is simply that – growth.
A Relevant Aside
I have this beautiful orchid that my husband gave me on our last anniversary. Orchid growing runs in my family. My grandfather bred award-winning orchids – like, whole new ones the world had never seen before. It was never anything I intended to get into, but something about this orchid from my husband lit a spark in me and I’ve spent the past eight months learning everything I can about orchids. One of the characters in my next series has become an orchid expert, even.
One big thing orchids dislike when they’re growing is a change in their sunlight. They don’t want the angle or source to vary from day
But Back To Growth
The same goes for characters. Maybe your characters grow in a not-so-perfect way. That’s totally okay. They still have to grow. If the characters in your story are no different at the end than they were at the beginning, you’ve missed something somewhere along the line.
(Of course, there are some authors who do this on purpose as a literary device. If you fully intend to cement your characters in place for the purpose of using your writing as
Back to my Sick Note example, the main characters get deeper and deeper into a web of lies. We wouldn’t necessarily celebrate this as
So, To Recap:
Frustrate your characters in as many ways as possible. The more (logically) creative, the better.
Give them time, here and there, to breathe and have a false win or a real mini-win. This gives readers a chance to breathe and feel something different, too.
Use those moments of frustration to show growth in your character. For better, or worse, the things going on in a character’s life will inflict change. You, writer friend, get to be the one who shows us how.
Now, it’s over to you! Take a few moments to work these tips into your writing life today – then let me know how they work for you or what I’ve missed. And if you watch Sick Note, let me know if you agree about the examples I’ve given above.
Until next time, cheers and happy writing!