The last technique I want to address in this series on coping with a book’s second act has to do with Hidden Story. This is the third of three story lines that books contain. It’s not a subplot. It is instead what’s happening among your characters who are offstage.
You dramatize the Ongoing Story (your main plot line) in successive scenes and present them onstage for readers. But while that story action is happening, what is going on behind those scenes?
Hidden Story runs parallel to and simultaneously with Ongoing Story. Consequently, it’s far more challenging to handle than Back Story. The Back Story is about character secrets and motivations. It’s invented as needed. Hidden Story is about staging the next conflict that will take place. It’s about the trouble that will hit your protagonist next. Most of the time, Hidden Story is far more important to a book’s progression than Back Story. Hidden Story should be plotted with as much care as the Ongoing Story.
Don’t let this intimidate you. In your first few learning-novel manuscripts you may not deal with Hidden Story other than indirectly as you keep track of what your antagonist is doing, plotting, scheming, and planning when not confronting the protagonist in scene action. It can be sufficient to focus on the central, dramatized plot and simply figure out where and when the antagonist will throw a plot twist at your hero.
However, you may find yourself with that empty stretch of pages in the middle where nothing seems to be happening the way you planned. You may find your ongoing story action stalled while your protagonist waits passively for plot developments to unfold. You may feel that you’ve lost your way. You may worry that the excitement of your opening is fading.
When you start to want more from your book idea, when you find yourself eager to add dimension, when you feel ready to stretch and grow a bit, then it’s time to take on the strategy of where and when you’ll reveal glimpses of Hidden Story to your readers. Doing this in the book’s swampy, dismal, gloomy, dark middle can spark new interest in moving the plot forward.
Handling Hidden Story can be managed in either single viewpoint or in multiple viewpoint. Most of the time, Hidden Story involves tracking the movements of the antagonist, although the POV shift can move focus to any secondary character capable of carrying a subplot.
If you choose to write from a single POV, the Hidden Story will be much more hidden. Readers don’t know what’s going through the villain’s mind. They have to settle for allusions through character action, behavior, reaction, and dialogue.
If you choose to shift viewpoints, Hidden Story becomes much easier to handle because the characters are onstage more often. Readers gain the privilege of seeing much of the antagonist’s plotting and planning against the protagonist. Readers are privy to actions which serve to raise new threats over the hero or endanger people the hero cares about.
Of course, if you’ve never tackled multiple POV before, you may not feel ready to take it on. That’s perfectly okay. Remember that I’ve shared six other strategies for keeping your book’s middle from sagging, bogging down, or drowning. However, if you decide to shift viewpoint to try this strategy, please remember that changing viewpoint effectively requires adept story sense and timing. You need to set hooks and switch clearly from your protagonist’s perspective to follow story action that doesn’t involve your primary character.
Please understand that if you stick to one viewpoint, your story’s plot twists will be less predictable and more surprising to readers.
On the other hand, if you choose multiple viewpoints, you can raise threat and generate suspense, but it’s possible to reveal too much Hidden Story and thereby undermine your plot twists.
The proper handling and management of the three story lines can make a vital difference in whether your manuscript seems to flow plausibly from character goals and motivations instead of featuring puppet characters being moved too visibly by the author’s hand.
The proper handling and management of these three story lines will also affect your decisions of how to order your scenes and their reactions for the best dramatic result. Just remember that although Hidden Story often will be revealed for the first time in the dismal middle, you should have plotted it carefully in your initial outline. You will also wait for the revision process to best determine where you’ll allow Hidden Story and Ongoing Story to intersect.
And so this wraps up the seven strategies for dealing with the dismal swamp. Using one or several of these techniques should help you navigate the most challenging section of a novel and make it as much fun to write as it is to read.