Swamp Survival Strategy 5: Surprise Central

The center of novels written for the commercial genre market generally serves up a shocking plot twist or a large, highly anticipated pivotal event that marks a turning point for the characters and sends them rushing toward the finale.

Either approach is fine. Each has its own merits. Let’s look at them separately.

Wowza Surprise Injection:

We owe this method in part to thrillers and their dominance over the entertainment market. Yet any genre can utilize this technique. After all, what’s better than jolting readers with a logical but unanticipated plot twist? Depending on the type of story, this stinger can be funny, tragic, heartrending, scary, horrific, tragic, dangerous, or intensely romantic.

Two evenings ago, I was reading the latest John Sandford thriller, OCEAN PREY, and the middle of the book served up a doozy I didn’t see coming. I won’t spoil it, but it was a big shock. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t like it. I wish it hadn’t happened. However, it was logical. It made sense. The story events supported it. It raised the stakes. It fit the thriller genre perfectly by providing both thrill and chill. It’s the kind of plotting that put Sandford on the bestseller list to begin with and keeps him there, year after year. It gave me my money’s worth even before I finished reading the book.

Unexpected central events can come into a story as a huge confrontation between oppositional characters. It can be a startling revelation. In whatever form it takes, the surprise should deliver maximum entertainment value (up to that point in the story; remember the climax must top this.) Whatever it does, it should grab reader attention in a big way.

Spoiler Alert: In the mystery novel HOT MONEY by Dick Francis, the protagonist’s father’s home is exploded by a bomb in the book’s middle. In the urban fantasy, FOOL MOON by Jim Butcher, a horrific demonic monster breaks loose in a police station and kills cops, nearly destroys the building, and injures the protagonist who tries to stop it.

Even in quieter stories, the surprising plot twist is placed to wake up the saggy middle and give it fresh dramatic punch. In romantic fiction, for example, the center of the book can be where either member of the couple reaches the realization of intense physical attraction for the other. Or it may be the first bedroom scene of the book.

Disadvantages to the shocker plot twist:

  1. It may prove impossible to top this plausibly. Evaluate this plot development carefully to make certain you have a bigger and more compelling finish.
  2. You must plant for it, so that when it occurs it seems logical to readers, but take care you don’t give it away.
  3. It can be so shocking and destructive that it generates an enormous letdown in the aftermath. This can slow pacing too much, and some writers find it difficult to regain their story’s momentum.
  4. Avoid the temptation to kill your protagonist in the middle of the book. Although this may seem clever to you while you’re deep in the throes of swamp floundering, it’s rarely a brilliant idea. It’s extremely difficult to persuade readers to shift over to a new lead character.

Anticipated Pivotal Event:

This confrontation or story event is dangled before readers and characters from the book’s opening. Signals are clear that it’s coming and it won’t be pretty. Anticipation–and its by-product of suspense–builds scene by scene, leading up to whatever is going to take place.

The central pivotal event is a signal–well understood by readers–that the swampy middle is ending, and the author is about to lead everyone into Act III of the story. Up until this point, the protagonist probably had a safety line of some kind that would allow retreat. From the central event, however, there is no turning back. Whatever happens, the story stakes should go up. A gauntlet is thrown.

In some mysteries, a major clue is discovered that may turn the investigation around. In some thrillers, the killer’s identity is exposed. In some women’s fiction, marital infidelity may be revealed, shaking the relationship apart. In romance, the couple may break up. In science fiction, the ship may be severely damaged, putting everyone’s life in danger.

This type of looming central event must fulfill all the anticipatory buildup leading to it. Therefore, it must be large and it must be long in word count. That’s because in reader perception, length equals importance.

In the twentieth century, book chapters tended to be much longer than they are now. For example, Dean Koontz’s breakout thriller, WHISPERS, features a 7,500-word scene of intense, dangerous action between two characters. It’s tightly focused. The goals are directly oppositional–one wants to kill the other–and there’s nothing extraneous, nothing padded. With a single scene exceeding the length of a conventional short story, this is obviously of deep importance to the plot. We call this type of confrontation a Big Scene. It’s long, dynamic, impossible to put down, and very much delivering on reader expectation.

However, thanks to the influence of marketing guru, James Patterson, writing in the twenty-first century has become broken into smaller segments reflective of how people absorb information in quicker bursts, with myriad distractions vying for attention. Chapters today may be only 1,000 words–or less–so does that mean the Big Scene has become extinct?

It does not.

Instead, authors employ what we refer to as a Scene Cluster. This is three or more very short scenes jammed together without aftermath or character reaction. The clustering allows authors to keep the intensity or danger going, and the pacing very fast, but the segmentation allows viewpoint cross-cutting or stopping points for readers who may be interrupted. Once the cluster is over, then a long reaction is supplied to carry across all the scenes that were clustered into a single pivotal event.

While the Big Scene and the Scene Cluster are two very different writing structures, they accomplish the same result of spinning out and fully developing a momentous, terrible, horrific event taking place in your characters’ lives.

Disadvantages to the Central Pivotal Event:

  1. It can be challenging to build anticipation for the coming confrontation while not boring readers. The solution lies in finding fresh ways to keep raising the stakes just a little, just a little more, and more until the suspense seems unbearable. Simply relying on repetition will make readers impatient and jaded.
  2. Scene clusters can be difficult to manage without splitting story focus or losing control of what’s happening in a logical, cause-and-effect pattern. If you’re trying to juggle two or three viewpoints, stay aware of your protagonist and don’t let other characters seize too much limelight.
  3. Scene Clusters run the risk of losing reader involvement since the story action doesn’t stop to allow viewpoint character reaction to what’s happening. This is dangerous ground. Tread carefully.
  4. Either a Big Scene or a Scene Cluster must deliver whatever has been built up for it, and then add a little extra.
  5. Remember that the Climax of the book must top whatever happens in the story’s middle.

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Swamp Survival Strategies 4: Managing Viewpoint, Part b

Some writers–including the late mystery author Tony Hillerman–consider single viewpoint to be the perfect POV. It is by far the easiest to manage, and keeps your plot focused.

However, if your story is one that requires multiple perspectives, then you need to know

when to switch,

where to switch,

to whom to switch

for your story–especially in its middle section–to achieve its full potential as reader-enthralling entertainment. In genre fiction, multiple viewpoints means you’re shifting from one limited viewpoint to another at strategic points for specific reasons. Viewpoint is not shifted at random or just because you can’t think of anything better to do with your story.

By limited, I mean you stay in one viewpoint at a time, for the duration of a scene, or a chapter, or a section of the story, and then you change to another.

Viewpoint shouldn’t jump at author whim.

Viewpoint shouldn’t float, uncontrolled, meandering from the perspective of several characters within a scene or conversation.

Limited viewpoint means that you maintain the illusion and integrity of any given viewpoint as long as you are inside that character’s skin.

Now, for any character in your cast to be given a POV, that character should meet the following criteria–even if only temporarily:

*Will this character be at the center of the story action?

*Will this character have everything at risk?

*Will this character’s struggle toward a goal be the fuel driving this portion of the plot?

*Will this character be altered or changed by the scene’s outcome?

If a character in your story lacks leadership qualities, is not a doer, is not someone who gets involved, is passive and stands aside from what happens to others, is dispassionate, and is content to watch the world go by, this individual should NOT be a POV.

Therefore, only proactive characters should carry viewpoints.

Viewpoint Rules

#1–Never switch POV just to show what another character is thinking.

As you write a book, you develop an idea of how well a the protagonist’s viewpoint is working and whether you need more perspectives.

A careful selection of POVs will help focus the story and keep you on track.

One or two viewpoints is sufficient for short books.

Up to four viewpoints are enough for longer, complex books.

Remember that each viewpoint you add to your story serves to expand the plot and render it more dimensional. That, in turn, makes your job in writing it more challenging.

Consequently, with multiple viewpoints you should plot and graph where and at which key, dramatic points these different plots will intersect because each viewpoint constitutes a subplot. That’s why you should limit your POV selections to characters with whom you can empathize, understand, or care about. Even more importantly, limit your POV selections to a number you can comfortably handle.

If you can’t find some emotional link between you and a character, don’t include that perspective just for the sake of variety.

#2–Change POV to follow the story.

If you story bogs down–possibly during the dismal middle–then perhaps you need a viewpoint shift. It will perk up a story that’s losing momentum. It will give you fresh material, and it will intrigue readers.

Anytime your protagonist must be sidelined for a short time in the story world, if exciting events are taking place, shift to whatever character is at the center of those events.

It can be fun also to put your protagonist in a tough spot, then shift away to a different character. You follow this second perspective through a setback and leave Character 2 teetering on a metaphorical (or actual) cliff edge, then shift back to your protagonist’s POV.

#3–Change POV to heighten danger or suspense in your story.

For example, when you shift to the villain’s perspective, and this individual is busy planning some way to foil, defeat, or harm the protagonist, then threat is immediately heightened because readers are now aware of impending danger while the hero is not.

This tactic carries with it advantages and disadvantages, which should be weighed.


Shifting viewpoint to show impending danger will cause readers to turn pages more quickly. They’ll read faster with heightened involvement. They want to warn the protagonist, but, because they can’t, anticipation rises within them. They read anxiously, not wanting to miss a word of the approaching danger.


Shifting viewpoint to the villain destroys the element of surprise. When danger strikes the protagonist, there’s no plot twist.

Also, if readers know too much more than the protagonist for too long, they tend to grow impatient. They unfairly expect the protagonist to solve problems more quickly.

#4–Change POV to show character motivation.

This isn’t the same thing as jumping between characters from paragraph to paragraph to share what they’re thinking. Instead, you limit yourself to a single perspective from start to finish within a scene. Then shift POV after the scene ends to show Character 2’s reaction in viewpoint.

For example, in a romance story, doing this serves to keep the hero sympathetic early in the plot when he might be acting rude, arrogant, or unhelpful. Shifting into his viewpoint shows readers why he’s behaving the way he is, and also that he’s really a decent guy.

#5–The most effective POV shifts occur at the end of chapters.

You gain the advantage of a natural break point with a structural separation that helps readers transition smoothly into the perspective of the new POV character.

Most chapters end at the setback of a strong, conflictful scene. That setback provides a powerful hook where things look bleak for the protagonist. Then, when you switch chapters, shift to a different POV character. Doing this entices readers to keep going instead of putting the story down for a while.

#6–Viewpoint can also be shifted between scenes within a chapter.

I don’t see this technique used much these days. Chapters have become very short, thanks to the influence of writers such as James Patterson. But in older fiction, you’ll see a long chapter separated by a space break and possibly a POV shift.

#7–NEVER shift viewpoint within a scene.

Doing this disrupts reader suspension of disbelief. It splits the scene’s focus. It also muddles the identity of the scene’s protagonist. Finally, this muddles the scene setback because who wins and who loses? Shifting perspective within a scene creates a diffused goal intention, split focus, confusing stimulus/response, and a weak or missing setback that fails to firmly resolve the scene or set a hook for what’s to come next.

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Swamp Survival Strategies 4: Multiple Viewpoints, Part a

Viewpoint in fiction is a vital component to a rich, entertaining immersion of the reader into your story world and the heart and soul of your protagonist. Viewpoint is what prose writers bring to the party that the razzle-dazzle color, moving images, and special effects of movies and television just can’t deliver. Movies can’t put audiences into the mind of a character. Therefore, watching movies–while helpful for plot, pacing, setting, and character design–won’t teach you how to handle viewpoint.

Movies show their audience what’s happening from the outside.

Novels let readers experience what’s happening from the inside out.

Viewpoint, remember, is about placing readers in the thoughts and emotions of a person at the center of the story’s action.

Simple plots fare better with a single viewpoint–that of the protagonist–from start to finish. However, some stories are long, complex, intricate, and need multiple character viewpoints to bring an author’s vision to the page. Novels with several subplots may require a viewpoint shift to follow the story action.

Very often, the middle of a novel brings a decided change of pace after a frenetic first act. The midsection is where writers seek to fill in background explanation that’s been deferred or they want to open up subplots or they want to twist the plot by revealing the villain’s identity. Therefore, it’s common to utilize a shift of viewpoint to the villain’s perspective. Other viewpoints may be utilized as well to follow the story, especially if the protagonist is going to be sidelined for a few pages.

Keep in mind that if you decide to shift to the villain’s perspective, you are in effect creating a subplot with the villain as its protagonist. The subplot will have its conflict progression and conclude with its own miniature climax. Each viewpoint you utilize in a novel manuscript should, in fact, launch and carry a subplot.

By approaching multiple viewpoint this way, you avoid the bad habit of jumping at random into the thoughts or emotions of various characters just for the sake of variety or just because you can’t think of what should happen next.

The very basics of viewpoint management are as follows:

In genre fiction, you choose whether you intend to write your story in first-person viewpoint (me, myself, and I) or third-person viewpoint (he, she, or it).

Single limited viewpoint means the story is restricted to the protagonist’s perspective only (either in first-person or in third-person) for the duration of the book.

Multiple limited viewpoint means that at any given point, the story is restricted to one viewpoint at a time. Most often, multiple-viewpoint plots are written in third-person. Occasionally they do appear in first-person, although you’re asking readers to make a larger mental leap from one character to the next.

To decide whether you want to focus your plot on a single viewpoint or expand to two or more, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Will changing viewpoint make my story better?
  2. Will changing viewpoint make my story more dramatic?
  3. Will changing viewpoint make my story less predictable, or will it rob my plot of twists?
  4. Do I need to change viewpoint to improve my story?
  5. Do I want to change viewpoint to share with readers what all my characters are thinking?

Forget what you want. Write what you need.

To be continued …

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Swamp Survival Strategies–Part 3: Managing Subplots

A subplot is any plot thread that’s secondary or subsidiary to the central plot line. Consequently, a subplot receives less emphasis and fewer pages than the central plot. Subplots can revolve around the protagonist by bringing out internal conflict or a relationship conflict aside from the external conflict of the main story.

You don’t have to wait until the middle of a book manuscript to bring in a subplot. These secondary story lines can begin almost anywhere in a novel except the climax. Most of them, however, enter the book near the end of the first act or in the book’s middle section.

If you’re somewhere in the dark, dank, miserable, swampy middle of your story … if you feel your main, central story line sagging and losing impetus … if you feel bogged down and unable to keep your story going … then you should try the strategies I’ve mentioned in previous posts (toss in some new plates and increase conflict) or introduce a subplot.

Writers frequently start a subplot at the end of the first act as a transition into the second. This gives readers a jolt of renewed interest from the story taking a fresh direction or a different perspective. The pacing usually changes here as well, and the middle of a story is an adroit place to insert some background explanation or to deepen characterization. Sometimes, the protagonist will become involved romantically here, or an old flame can be rekindled. New characters and their problems may be brought into the story, giving the protagonist additional challenges to solve.

However, as exciting as it is to launch a new subplot in the story’s middle, readers tend to expect that. It can be less predictable and potentially far more exciting to conclude a subplot in the middle of the book.

While not all plots lend themselves to opening with a subplot, and most books don’t, doing so can be effective whenever there’s a plausible reason for delaying the start of the central conflict.

Some stories require a longer setup than others. For example, the current trend in modern mysteries is to delay the murder almost to the middle of a novel. This allows readers to get acquainted with the victim-to-be and to see how this individual’s behavior contributes to motivating the other characters into potential violence. By striking the victim down in the book’s center, an exciting and pivotal plot event occurs that keeps the middle section from sagging.

The Dick Francis novel, ODDS AGAINST, has remained in print since its first publication in the 1960s. This is due to the complex arc of change within the protagonist. The book opens with the subplot of the protagonist being shot and undergoing a slow recovery. As soon as he’s on his feet, the mystery investigation of sabotage against a seedy racetrack begins and carries the story forward.

In the classic film, CASABLANCA, the central story line is delayed until after Rick the protagonist is introduced, the political situation is dramatized, and Ilsa and her husband Viktor arrive at Rick’s cafe in search of safe passage from north Africa.

While delay involves advanced writing technique and it’s seldom advisable to delay the central plot for long, a small subplot can engage reader interest while you acquaint readers with your protagonist and story world. Tying off that subplot then–as mentioned above–becomes an exciting little spike within the book’s second act.

You can use subplots to generate additional forces of antagonism against the protagonist. These serve to make life more difficult for the main character, but they can focus on a romance or create comic relief from the central plot’s violence or tensions.

To return to the CASABLANCA film as an example, the central plot involves the love story between Rick and Ilsa. There is also a political subplot revolving around Ilsa’s husband, an anti-Nazi agitator desperate to escape arrest by the Germans. Additionally, the movie contains a thriller subplot that deals with a petty crook’s attempt to steal possession of vital passports. There’s a tiny subplot about the corrupt police chief’s attempt to seduce a young bride, also a political subplot with the arrival of German forces in Casablanca, and an endearing little cameo of an elderly couple trying to practice their English in preparation for immigrating to America. That’s a lot to pack into a two-hour movie.

Many threads can add dimension to a story, but beware the temptation to overload your book with more subplots than are good for it. Subplots that don’t focus on the protagonist will tend to split attention away from the central story line. This is how some writers–despite good intentions–lose their way in the dismal swamp.

If a subplot is threatening to overtake the rest of your story, or it’s splitting the focus away from your central plot, then it needs to be de-emphasized. You can do this by not dramatically presenting certain key elements in scenes and reducing the number of pages you devote to it.

On the other hand, if such a vibrant, compelling subplot takes over by consuming your imagination, then ask yourself if this subplot should be your central plot instead. That could involve enormous revision work and a complete rewriting, but if it will make a better book, by all means consider it.

If you’re planning a multiple-viewpoint story, keep in mind that each POV is in fact running a subplot, with that POV character serving as the mini-protagonist of this smaller story line. There will be a small central goal and story question to be answered in the subplot’s mini-climax with a YES or NO.

This is why indulging in an over-abundance of viewpoints can make juggling subplots complicated. Until you feel ready to tackle something so ambitious, you might prefer instead to confine yourself to the protagonist’s viewpoint, with maybe an internal arc of change subplot.

Beware, also, the so-called “inspired idea” of dividing a book between two characters. Such a construction focuses equally on two parallel plot lines or two equally important viewpoint characters. I’m mentioning it only because it’s become trendy in teen fiction in recent years, yet it is a misuse of classic story design principles and leads to a split focus that in turn botches climax construction.

Classic story design involves a hierarchy of importance with the protagonist being the star character. The protagonist receives the most viewpoint pages–if not all of them. The protagonist’s goal drives the central plot and forms the main story question. Anything else is split focus.

Therefore, the most important plot thread in a book should be the one driven by the protagonist’s objective–and not resolved until the very end of the story.

The next important plot thread is a subplot involving the protagonist’s inner story and/or arc of change.

After that, the next plot thread should belong to the second-most important viewpoint (probably the antagonist).

And so on, moving down in descending order of importance.

Also note that all subplots do not run as long as the main plot because you don’t want everything ending in your book at the same time.

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Swamp Survival Strategies #2 cont. (Plot Progression–Part 2)

In my previous post, I was explaining how to escalate conflict, especially in the middle of a story where it tends to naturally lose its momentum.

As we writers strive to keep stories accelerating to counteract story sag, conflict and more conflict is an excellent tool at our disposal. But there’s more to it than two oppositional characters standing toe to toe and shouting at each other.

There are, in fact, three levels of conflict:

Inner conflict

Emotional/relationship conflict

External conflict

Now, it’s perfectly viable to write a story–long or short–dealing with conflict on a single level. Stories plotted through external conflict alone sweep readers along. As long as plenty of events are transpiring and the pacing is kept quick, readers are going to enjoy the adventure.

For example, action hero and super spy James Bond faces conflict solely on the external level. He has no inner conflicts. He has no true relationships, preferring instead recreational, fleeting encounters with women. Miss Moneypenny, who would adore establishing a real relationship with Bond, is adeptly dodged.

Since Bond lacks internal conflict to support an arc-of-change subplot, stories about him must “fill the gap” through a large cast of characters. Bond faces arch-villains as well as minor villains, along with their minions, assassins, femmes fatales, and even armies. He busies himself rescuing civilians in need of help and from time to time he has helpers or semi-sidekick characters for assistance.

Although typically a Bond adventure features numerous characters, most of them are minor roles. They serve up a progressive succession of obstacles, danger, and conflict for Bond to face and overcome as he strives to complete his mission.

Stories that deal with conflict only on the level of relationships focus on the personal and emotional interaction between the protagonist and every other character in the plot. The protagonists suffer when they meet disappointment or fail to get what they want, but they aren’t deeply torn inside or facing soul-shattering internal dilemmas.

Women’s fiction and romance are two genres that favor relationship conflict. In these plots, the external conflict operates softly and exists primarily to bring additional characters into the protagonist’s life so more relationships can be explored. For example, the protagonist’s external conflict might stem from a divorce situation or sisters in disagreement over how to deal with their mother who’s developing dementia, but the primary conflict can stem from how well or poorly these characters get along and what they feel about the events happening. In more mainstream women’s fiction, external conflict can be negligible, the merest nudge of change to put the protagonist where emotions can be explored or new people met.

In romance stories, focus remains on the courtship of the couple through a depiction of how they meet, what they feel about that first meeting … and the next … and the next … and so on. It revolves around the gamut of emotions they experience as they move from initial dislike or attraction to deeper emotional connections.

Complex novels, however, don’t limit themselves to one type of conflict alone. Instead, they put their protagonists through a combination of two or three. Very often, the central act of a novel is where one of the three conflict types will move into prominence over the others.

For example, if the story has been primarily operating on external conflict in the first act with only hints of inner conflict and relationship conflict, then act two will bring the relationship conflict forward as the protagonist clashes with a loved one or copes with another character strongly attracted to (or repulsed by). Act three might bring the inner conflict up as whatever is happening in the climax starts to pressure the protagonist’s ethics. Dick Francis mysteries serve up a lot of complexity and offer far more than a simple whodunnit plot. For example, in Reflex, the protagonist is trying to investigate blackmail and murder (external conflict) but must also cope with his difficult grandmother, who wants him to dig up old family issues (relationship conflict), plus he struggles to decide whether to give up his career for another one (internal conflict).

Whichever approach you use–single level of conflict or multiple levels of conflict–your story can work fine. Just keep the conflict strong in the midsection of your plot.

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Swamp Survival Strategy #2–Plot Progression (cont.)

In building story progression–especially in the middle of a book manuscript where the story typically loses momentum and sags–it’s important to increase conflict rather than let it slide.

Nothing moves forward plausibly in a story except through conflict. Anything else tends to be a writer contriving events by stringing them together, or stalling because inspiration is not coming, or simply telling readers about character activities through narrative summary. These tactics will sink your plot faster than anything else you can try.

As long as conflict engages the thoughts and emotions of readers, they remain involved with your characters. They will travel through hours of reading time unaware of anything except the unfolding story. They are enthralled.

Hurrah! That’s what we writers want.

When the conflict falters, fades, or disappears, the spell you’ve woven dissipates. Readers detach from the story with a sigh of disappointment. They skip ahead or put down the story.

Boo! That’s what we writers don’t want.

Therefore, in the midsection, make sure your antagonist is bringing more trouble. Keep your scenes strong through opposition to whatever the protagonist is trying to accomplish. End scenes with setbacks, not success. Make sure each scene is progressively tougher, more exciting, and lands the hero in bigger trouble than whatever came before it.

A book’s middle benefits hugely from a big spike of intensity and excitement. That’s supplied by means of a central plot twist that hits the protagonist unexpectedly and sends shock waves through character and readers alike.

Or there can be a big scene of confrontation positioned in the book’s center that’s been planned, plotted, and anticipated all the way from the book’s opening.

Either way, this so-called central event should have dynamite. If you examine, say, a half-dozen genre novels that are either your personal favorites or written by some of the most popular authors in recent years, you’ll find this big event is located pretty much right in the middle.

Example–the suspense novel, HOT MONEY, by Dick Francis revolves around death threats made to the protagonist’s father, a super-successful entrepreneur whose familial relationships have been rocky at best. A succession of dangerous near-misses against dear old dad builds progressively, heightening the anticipation of bigger and bigger trouble, yet the explosive plot twist in the book’s center is anything but what readers expect. It’s violent and shocking. It creates a definite turning point in the story, and it galvanizes the protagonist into taking more assertive action in finding/stopping the villain from committing more violence.

Another example–the book, HOMECOMING, by women’s fiction author LaVyrle Spencer–deals with a man who thinks he’s happily married with a loving wife and two fine teenage children. The Chapter-One arrival in his community of his pre-wedding one-night stand and a son he never knew he had shake this man’s world and threaten to break apart his family. Although his first instinct is to confess everything immediately to his wife, he loses his nerve and chickens out, procrastinating, worrying, and waffling until his best opportunities fade and he is forced to talk to her at a point where her trust is badly shaken. His delay generates considerable reader involvement and anticipation. It also guarantees that his wife will not believe anything he tells her.

By being aware of the need for such a big, exciting plot development as you initially plan and outline your story means you can build to it. You have a firm destination within the middle swamp. Knowing this–and the trouble awaiting your protagonist–helps you avoid that feeling of being lost while slogging endlessly along.

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Plot Progression–Part 1

The second Swamp Survival Strategy is a lengthy one that will take more than one post to cover.

It deals with how to fill the central portion of a book manuscript by making things harder for the protagonist. Ending scenes always with setbacks/hooks is one way to tackle this, but a writer should have more methods than that to use.

When you complicate your story progressively, you should be generating increasing amounts of conflict for your protagonist through stronger and stronger forces of antagonism.

Each clash of conflict between the protagonist and antagonist should create points of no return.

For example, many novels open with a drastic change in the protagonist’s circumstances–some kind of change with consequences impossible to ignore. Although it’s human nature to resist change, fiction is all about forcing the protagonist to do exactly that.

Typically, your protagonist will take at first a conservative approach toward attempting to solve the story problem. That minimal action will, however, stir up opposition. They clash, and the protagonist’s cautious attempt fails. In effect, this is a point of no return because minimal effort will not work.

Realizing that minor actions must be abandoned, the protagonist gathers fresh determination and takes a new, somewhat more difficult course of action to solve the story problem.

This effort is met immediately with direct opposition and antagonism. It fails. Once more, we have a point of no return because neither minimal nor moderate effort has worked.

With risks increasing and circumstances worsening, the protagonist should be more desperate now and willing to take a bigger, more dangerous attempt–one that’s risky, dangerous, with more at stake, and harder to achieve. But once more, antagonism is there pushing back and thwarting this attempt also. Again, it’s a point of no return because extreme effort has not been successful.

These progressive, incremental attempts and setbacks show how plot progressively escalates. The harder the protagonist tries, the stronger the opposition becomes. That means the scene setbacks grow harsher, and the stakes go higher.

From the beginning to the ending, each story event should top the ones that occurred before it. Make sure you don’t lessen the problems besetting your protagonist. Find plausible ways to make the difficulties worse. The central antagonist wants to win at any cost and will not back off.

In the dismal swampy middle of a story, when it’s easy to bog down or lose your way, you may find that your story conflict is circling or stalling, rather than moving forward. If that’s happening, look at whether you’ve been building progressions or letting your story slow and falter.

Are you protecting your protagonist? Are you holding back this lead character from new or worsening trouble? It’s natural to want to safeguard your favorite story person, but you must not do it. Let the trouble roll forward. Imagine what your protagonist most fears or dreads. By the middle of the book, you should bring your protagonist face to face with that fear. It won’t be conquered in the mid-section of the story, but it should appear as a sort of preview. Doing so will raise the stakes higher also because readers know and expect this psychological issue to be dealt with fully at the climax.

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Swamp Survival Strategy #1: Juggling Plates

Here in the Professional Writing curriculum at the University of Oklahoma, we call this particular writing technique juggling plates after the type of juggling act involving spinning plates. We define a “plate” as a tiny question designed to pique reader curiosity or make readers worry. Plates are small bits of trouble or potential trouble for the characters.

If you examine published copy–choosing, say, a book chapter or even a scene–and comb through the sentences, chances are you’ll find many tiny little hooks or questions thrown into the narrative and dialogue.

The whisper of furtive footsteps came from behind Polly Protagonist. Was someone following her? Why hadn’t she noticed before? Who was it?

If she looks over her shoulder and recognizes the individual coming up behind her, the plate is said to have been brought down–i.e. the question it raised is answered.

If she looks over her shoulder and doesn’t recognize the individual coming up behind her, she may stop and confront the person, thus discovering identity and bringing down the plate.

She may decide not to look back. She may decide to look back but evade a confrontation by abruptly running across the street and catching a bus.

When a plate is brought down, new ones should be raised to replace it. Liken it to sprinkling a trail of breadcrumbs along a low wall to entice a wild bird to land and peck at the treat. We spin plates to entice readers to keep turning pages while we introduce characters or set up scenes of confrontation or have our viewpoint character mull over the story problem.

Plates are spinning usually from the opening pages of a story. Chances are, even if you’ve never heard of this technique before, you’re probably using it instinctively to some extent. After all, we can’t plop a single major story question in front of readers and expect them to concentrate on that alone for the duration of the plot. Instead, we remind them of the big question from time to time and then spin plates between setting chapter-ending hooks and chapter-opening hooks and raising the stakes and escalating the conflict.

Besides the curiosity that plates provoke, they also serve to generate anticipation in readers. Like an actual juggling act, plates are raised and lowered, spun again just as they’re about to wobble off their pole, but in no particular pattern that could become predictable and monotonous. As a result, readers never know when they’re going to find out something or when new little issues to worry about will appear.

While it would be fun to just keep raising plates and plates and more plates, writers have the responsibility of playing fair with readers. That means we can’t spin infinite numbers of these tiny questions without answering them. Each and every one has to be brought down at some point and not all at once.

Some plates get repeated to keep readers guessing and hold them in suspense. If, after you complete the rough draft of your story, you find that some plates were forgotten or never answered, address that or delete them completely.

Now, I introduced this technique as a middle-of-the-book strategy to keep the story from slowing down and becoming a soggy mess. While plates start spinning from the beginning of the plot, it’s advisable to answer the longest-spinning ones in the book’s second act. Immediately raise new ones and add more. A book’s midsection should be filled with new information, new questions, new suspicions, new worries, and lots of suspense.

In my next post, I’ll continue with Swamp Survival Strategy #2.

(Notice I didn’t mention what it is in the above sentence. See how I just spun a plate to make you wonder?)


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Swamp Strategies

I was driving recently atop a levee built to contain swamp land. It’s spring. The rains are falling in drizzles and torrents. The rivers and lakes are swelling, backing extra water into sludgy swampy places where varmints like snakes and alligators await the unwary who dare venture there.

Sounds fanciful, right? Well, the man who taught me most of the writing craft I know–Jack Bickham–had an apt term for what fancy book writers now tend to call the second act. Jack called it the “Great Swampy Middle.” In my books on writing craft, I refer to it as the “Dark Dismal Middle.” Neither term makes it sound appealing, but they are–I think–apt descriptors.

It’s the longest section of a book manuscript. It’s possibly the most challenging segment to write. It’s where a writer can become lost, flounder, and sometimes sink. It’s the perfect portion of a story to release plot twists that Jack used to call “alligators.”

Although ideally a novel should start in an intriguing or exciting way, escalate strategically through increasing trouble and conflict, and wind up the story problem in a smashing climax, all of that is easier said than done. Once the thrilling opening of your story loses momentum and you reach that section of your plot outline where everything becomes vague because you hoped you’d be inspired by the time you got there, it’s not uncommon to find yourself in a slump. The story’s not so fun anymore. It can seem bewildering and endless. It can become a flat, dull slog. Savvy writers equip themselves with multiple techniques of the writing craft to fend off such problems.

So in this blog series, I want to address what I call Seven Swamp Survival Strategies. They are as follows:

  1. Juggle plates
  2. Check plot progression
  3. Introduce subplots
  4. Use multiple viewpoints
  5. Execute a large or pivotal central story event
  6. Heighten plot suspense
  7. Reveal hidden and back story

They’re by no means all a writer can utilize to keep the middle from sagging or stalling, but in my career I have found them to be effective and useful. I’ll be explaining them one by one in the posts to come.

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My official stance on editing as you write your rough draft is don’t do it. I always say, keep going and don’t second-guess yourself until you’ve completed the draft.

Yet, how do you follow that sweeping advice if you honestly don’t know what you’re doing? What if you’ve never written fiction before, or are tackling your first novel? It’s like being trapped in a fun-house, with dead ends, distorted mirrors, and wobbly floors. Just as you think you see the path ahead of you in whatever scene you’re going to write next, the dialogue falls apart, or it doesn’t go as planned, or you hate it. How are you supposed to keep going while the whole structure of your premise is crumbling around you?

It’s next to impossible.

However, if you began your story with an ending in mind, you should keep floundering forward. You may have to rewrite certain passages or redesign certain scenes because your first effort flopped and the artist inside you is howling with frustration. But rewrite that troublesome character conversation once or twice and then–if you still dislike it–flag it for later and move on.


QUESTION: If you’re rewriting chapter one for the fifteenth time and still not getting anywhere with it, what are you accomplishing?

ANSWER: A big case of writer’s block.

Grinding a problematic section over and over and over and over without having a clue how to fix it is only creating frustration. Meanwhile, the story isn’t advancing. And you aren’t making progress toward anything except the death of your idea.

I’m sure you’ve read or heard the adage about the best way to learn how to write is to write, but while that’s glib and seems wise superficially, it can’t be your sole mantra.

If you perpetually write in error, violating story principles you don’t know, and you hit one dead end after another, grind your story to death, then abandon it–all you’re accomplishing is the reinforcement of error. You’re creating bad habits and training yourself never to bring any story you attempt to completion.

It’s been said that it takes 30 days of repeating a task or action to form a habit. If you start a story, get stuck, and toss it aside–how long until that variety of non-production becomes a habit?

Conversely, skipping over problems every time you hit one carries the danger of creating another bad habit–one of never solving plot holes. It’s entirely possible to blithely disregard a technical flaw in the cause of forcing a story forward no matter what. I did exactly that early in my writing career because I had a book deadline and I wanted to take a small vacation, so I hurried along by hammering out my daily page quota and paid no attention to a scene I goofed up. I took the trip, did not enjoy it because my story sense was screaming by then, and–once home again–had to work many long, hard hours to rewrite over 100 pages of material to correct my mistake and still meet deadline.

Now, here I’ve told you to keep going, but I’ve also told you not to skip/disregard problems. Is that contradictory? Yes, I think it qualifies, so I’ll explain:

Keep going, but when you stumble over a problem or find yourself facing a scene you don’t know how to write, pause and think it over. Is it an issue of changing viewpoint but you’ve never written multiple viewpoint before and you aren’t sure this is the right thing to do? Is it a difficulty in that your scene is long and complicated with six characters to juggle, and nothing is coming out where you want it to?

Pause and seek technical assistance. Look up scene construction in your books on writing technique. Consult the rules of changing viewpoint. Then think about what you’ve read and consider how your problematic passage is meeting those technique rules or falling short. Think about how you might approach your material differently and how the consequences of such change might affect your story outline.

In the viewpoint example, ask yourself why you want to change viewpoint at this point in the story. Is it to follow the story action? Has your protagonist suddenly become sidelined and is no longer central to the exciting story events? Why has this happened? Have you lost focus? Is another character becoming more intriguing to you than your dull protagonist? Why did you let your central, lead player become boring? What could you do to enliven your star again?

If you really want to show the villain making plans to ambush your protagonist and you think switching viewpoint will heighten the suspense, that’s a sound dramatic reason for doing so. However, do you plan to use the villain’s viewpoint more than once in the novel, and if so, have you plotted that? Before you make a decision, weigh the pros and cons of heightening suspense with the risk of giving too much away versus the advantage of an unexpected plot twist striking your hero without warning. It’s a judgment call of anticipatory suspense versus an unpredictable jolt of danger.

As for the complicated scene example, juggling six characters who are all upset, angry, or distraught is a difficult challenge for the most seasoned writer. Generally, scene conflict works most efficiently and dramatically when it’s narrowed down to two characters. Could you possibly divide your conflict into three smaller scenes, with your protagonist confronting one or two irate characters at a time? Or, could you push five characters into the background while the most vocal among them becomes the spokesperson?

After you’ve researched and thought, write a correction. It may wobble and still fall short, but chances are it will be on track enough for you to continue forward.

If it still doesn’t work, ask yourself if your story needs it at all. Experience has taught me that one or two futile attempts means I need to cut that section. There’s nothing to be gained by stubbornly beating your head against an immovable wall.

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