Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Craft Book of the Month: February 2011 "Beginnings, Middles & Ends"

The Muddle in the Middle

Nancy Kress begins Chapter 6 by asking if you are one of those writers who finds writing middles exciting. After you've launched your characters and charted your plot, are you skimming across the waves under full sail?

Her answer? "I don't know any of those people. For me, as for many other writers I know, middles represent a genuine psychological problem: We get stuck."

However, if you study part 2 of her book, you will come up with several strategies to do more than muddle through the middle of your novel. You will be able to use the middle "to set up the ending--to make it a plausible, satisfying fulfilment of the implicit promise. The middle does this by clearly dramatizing those forces that will collide at the climax, including any potential character changes."

Kress believes (and I do too) that in fiction your protagonist must undergo a significant change, a change that the reader will buy. To do this, she lists four things that must happen:

  1. The reader must understand your character's initial personality, and especially her motivation: why she's behaving the way she is.
  2. The reader must see evidence that your character is capable of change (not everyone is).
  3. The reader must see dramatized a pattern of experiences that might reasonably be expected to affect someone.
  4. The reader must see a plausible new motivation replace the old one.
The important thing, Kress points out during this chapter, is that by creating a pattern we make a character's change believable. She uses Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice as an example: (Sorry for the long quote, but I'm a bit of an Austen nut.)
"Though Elizabeth dislikes Mr. Darcy for most of Pride and Prejudice, we believe her eventual change of heart toward him for two reasons. First, we see that Elizabeth is capable of changing her opinion when there is real evidence: In earlier scenes she revises her opinion of George Wickham, Charles Bingley, and Charlotte Lucas. Second, we see that she has a high regard for behavior that is ethical, generous, and self-effacing. When Darcy behaves in those ways about (Elizabeth's sister) Lydia's disastrous elopement, it's not difficult to accept that his behavior would have an effect on Elizabeth's opinion of him."

Kress encourages us to use the following exercise to help our Middles:
"Choose a short story or novel you know well, one in which the protagonist undergoes a significant character change. (Michael's note: I'll insert my answers from Pride and Prejudice.) Consider:
  • a. What did the character (Elizabeth Bennett) want at the beginning of the story? (To see her sister Jane happily and well married, and to annoy Mr. Darcy)
  • b. What did she want by the end? (To marry Mr. Darcy)
  • c. What experiences helped change her? List them. (see the above paragraph)
  • d. How did the author show the character was even capable of change? (ditto)
Kress ends her chapters on the Middle by outlining several reasons why a writer might get stuck ("fear of failure," "fear of success" etc.) and gives some very useful tips on how to combat this. Check it out!

Next week: Endings

(Remember, I'm having a blog party this coming Saturday. Don't forget to stop by. I have some great prizes to offer. All will be revealed soon, I promise.)

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