The Stealers Wheel said it best. “Here I am, stuck in the middle with you…And I’m wondering what it is I should do.” Stuck in the Middle should be the official song of lamenting writers. Afterall, that’s how most of us feel as we slush through our book’s boggy middle.
It’s often in the middle that a book loses its reader’s attention too. We don’t want that to happen. We want our reader to keep asking, “How will this turn out?” We want him to stay emotionally invested with our character’s problem to the very end? We want our middle to lead to an ending that gives emotional closure and answers the questions of how and why.
Currently, I’m working on a picture book about a subject close to my heart – light pollution. It’s a serious topic, but I’m trying to make it palpable for young readers, adding in fun and excitement. I’ve tackled the fun and exciting part at the beginning; I think it’s working. I know what the basic ending will be and the exact last two lines. But I’m definitely stuck in the middle.
I can stay stuck in the middle much too long. I wander around the house and make a cup of tea. I take walk after walk to clear my mind. I listen to an inspiring interview. I read about plot. Sometimes these things are helpful, but sometimes they simply keep me from doing the work. They keep me from answering the questions that will help me see a path through the bog more clearly.
Yes, I’m talking about those basic “what if” questions and a few more. Beyond the “what if’s,” we must ask "who, what, how, when, where, and which".
?? ?? ??
“Who” – “Who is going to do what?”
“What” – “What is the problem?”
“How” – “How is my character going to resolve this problem?”
“When” – “When is this going to happen?”
“Where” – “Where is my character going to go?”
“Which” – “Which of these possible scenes am I going to choose?”
“Why” – “Why is this the right resolution?”
You’ve heard it said that questions can be more important than answers. That could be true when figuring out your story and your plot. So let’s ask some more. Here are some starter questions to ask about your story. But these don’t just help with the beginning. They are questions that can lead you through your plot.
?? ?? ??
What happens first?
Why does this happen?
What is wrong? (Which is just a bit different than “What’s the problem?”)
Now ask your main and secondary characters these questions:
?? ?? ??
Who are you?
What do you need?
What’s your problem?
Do you have an enemy?
Let’s look at Swim! Swim! by James Proimos and ask a few of these questions.
“Who are you?”
“Lerch the goldfish.”
“What do you need?”
“ A friend.”
“What’s your problem?”
“I’m lonely.” (Lerch says this on the very first page.)
But Lerch’s problem escalates as he talks to pebbles, a plastic diver, and bubbles (Yes, Lerch lives in a fish bowl.) and it becomes clear that none of these will work as a friend.
I took the time to ask myself all of the questions above for my light pollution story. Am I through the bog? Well, I'm not home yet, but some things were definitely illuminated (pun intended.)
Approaching your story in different ways, both physically and mentally, is also helpful. Go ahead and type the story on your computer, then write it out in longhand. You’ll be using a different part of your brain and feeling things in a slightly different way. Then do a storyboard. That’s a different way of looking at the story too. Stand on your head and look at your story, if it helps! Each way can bring new ideas to your middle, and with perseverance and more questions, you will be stuck no more.
(If you have tactics or other questions that help with plotting, please share.
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