Although writing styles and reading interests change, authors still must have an engaging yarn to spin. Otherwise, no one will read beyond the first chapter, or even the first paragraph. To quote Jerry Jenkins, author of 200 books and counting, “grab the reader by the throat with the first sentence and don’t let go” until the last word.
Therein lies the challenge. So often we writers start off with a bang (in “media res” – the middle of action), and after the beginning third of our yarn, begin to loose momentum. It’s the deadly “muddle in the middle.” Our fingers threaten to loosen from your throat and your escape from our imaginary world looms.
Story arc is what happens from point A to point Z, the situation at the beginning to how it changed by the end. In mysteries and thrillers, the protagonist may or may not experience change (Sherlock Holmes remains the brilliant violin playing, drug addict throughout all his adventures), but the story line answers the burning question. Who killed the Count? How did the hero save the nation from annihilation? Were the Vampires finally killed for good?
In literary fiction, the story is more about how events cause the protagonist to change over time. Perhaps he or she conquers a huge challenge or experiences a life changing moment. All challenges must be “life threatening” — either literally threatening life, or possibly killing a career or reputation. Stakes need to be that high. In the end (Z) the protagonist is a different person than what he/she was at the beginning (A), with tension-raising events and challenges driving the change. So, while the protagonist struggles with the big issue, he or she encounters setbacks, mountains to climb, threats to conquer. These are the makings of the middle of the novel that keep the reader glued to the end.
As you can imagine, this is why writers call the middle of a novel the “muddle.” What trouble can I brew to foil my hero now? How do I weave the yarn to block him at every turn? The protagonist needs to be as smart as the reader, or the reader will shout, “Don’t open the door, you idiot!” and close the book forever when he does just that. By now the reader should be vested in this character and have no idea how he will rise to the challenge before him. So you turn the page to find out.
The Divine Meddler
In The Divine Meddler, I faced a unique challenge. For me, place is as important as the characters, and works as a character itself. I placed 2/3rd of my novel in a cloistered monastery. I chose the most routine driven, isolated place imaginable to try to come up with enough tension to keep readers turning the pages. Yet I had no choice because only such an environment could drive this story arc. I needed this “character” as much as I needed Lou Skalney, my protagonist.
So I lived in the “muddle” for a while until the other characters stepped up to the plate with their issues, conflicts, and behaviors that challenged these so-called monks and their medieval ways. Why do people disappear during the night? What revenge could that brilliant sociopath wreak inside the monastery walls?
The literal translation of deus ex-machina is “a god from the machine.” It originated in Greek tragedies where a god figure (deus) was lowered by a platform (machine) to resolve the plot. In modern literature, it could be an unexpected occurrence that happens just in time to save the day, rather than actions of the protagonist. For the most part, this lets the reader down. Here the reader plowed faithfully through all the protagonist’s ups and downs, only to have the resolution created by an outside force. Talk about anti-climactic!
However, I can see where this may tempt the Christian writer, because doesn’t God provide for us? As much as we embrace the idea of God miraculously stepping in (and he sometimes does), real life is usually not like that. The protagonist’s actions should bring about the resolution, even if those actions are possible only through God’s grace. After all, don’t you want to know how the heck he/she pulled it off and see how inner change occurred?
Outliner or Pantser?
An outliner is a writer who creates a detailed plot. From the big story arc to all those tension building stumbling blocks in the middle, the writer has outlined the novel’s plot structure before its birth. A pantster, on the other hand, writes by the seat of his pants. Tolkien once said, he wrote Lord of the Rings to find out what a hobbit was.
I think most writers are both. Even the most devoted pantster must set off from somewhere and have an idea where he is going. And the outliner may find one of her characters doing something totally unexpected, which calls for a change in the story structure and outline.
Whether reader, writer, or both, this world of words we share is created from all that makes us human. And, hopefully, by “The End” we are better humans for our journey together.