On Writing

The most common mistake a fiction author can make
– and how to keep your story moving in the dreaded middle

1.  Your Story is Character Driven

Trust me, whether you think your novel is plot driven or character driven, it’s really character driven – at least if you want your story to appeal to most readers. A good story is somebody’s story.  It’s tough to have a story without a character. Characters do things, but before they do things, characters make decisions. A character could simply be trying to get to work in the morning, or striving for a seemingly unobtainable goal, or trying to stay alive. It’s those actions, the result of decisions, which lead to story conflict. This is because you, the author, make sure that almost every decision your character makes has dire consequences for that character and others. When your character’s decisions create trouble for others, suddenly you have conflict, and conflict is what makes your story interesting.  Conflict is what makes a story a story, and not a mere recitation of events.

2.  The most common mistake an author can make is failing to motivate characters

 Mark Flanagan, self-styled Expert in Contemporary Literature, says, “Conflict is the struggle between the opposing forces on which the action in a work of literature depends.”  He’s right, of course, but I would add that those “opposing forces” are characters, or the result of decisions by characters. So, what is it about conflict that makes it so critical for a story?  And how can you use conflict to keep your story from sagging in the middle?

My friend and multi-published author Sharon Mignerey puts it this way, more or less.  A successful novel must have:

(1)  A character with a goal,
(2)  who faces seemingly insurmountable obstacles,
(3)  and who must accomplish that goal or face disaster.

A character’s decisions should arise organically from the nature of who they are. A hardened Marine colonel will make decisions differently than the mother of the soldier that colonel must send into battle. It is the character’s decisions or failure to make decisions that create the particular conflict that defines your story, the character’s story. The character’s efforts to accomplish their goal in the face of obstacles is what drives the plot forward.

Bottom line, the plot doesn’t drive itself. The characters do.

3.  How to Fix that Muddling Middle of Your Story

If your story is sagging in the middle, it could mean your main character’s motivation, or perhaps the motivation of an antagonist, isn’t significant enough to keep the story moving. Remember, if your main character doesn’t achieve her goal, it’s a catastrophe.  What keeps a character from achieving a goal? Obstacles. What do the obstacles cause? Conflict. Some thing or somebody is standing in your character’s way. Your antagonist’s goal is to make sure your protagonist fails, and fails spectacularly.

In my first mystery, Dead on Cuban Time, policeman Enrique Cienfuegos must find his brother-in-law’s killer, even though his department prohibits investigations by a family member, and even though his supervisors think it’s a matter that should be left to the secret police. It’s this decision that gets Enrique in trouble with his supervisors, with the secret police, with his own father, and with the killers, all of which drives the story forward. Enrique’s decisions also lead him to discover clues to the mystery, which drives the plot forward, even as Enrique gets into more and more trouble. The story is not simply finding out who-dunnit, it’s wondering how Enrique is going to survive the danger he encounters and deal with the characters he comes in conflict with. All the while he’s making choices as he persists in the face of repeated setbacks. In this case, Enrique’s goals and decisions are more personal, more true to Enrique’s character, and, I think, more interesting than simply those of an objective detective doing his job by following clues.

So back to the muddling middle.  Whenever a story I’m writing appears to be falling apart and going nowhere in the middle of the book, I know the problem lies in the decisions my characters are making, or not making. Every decision my hero makes must get him deeper and deeper into conflict. If it doesn’t, the conflict loses steam and the story suffers.

Without characters and the conflicts their decisions create, your story would simply be a series of pointless events. If your story is series of pointless events, you’ll know it by the middle of the book, because the plot will be going nowhere, or it’ll be going in a direction that has nothing to do with your story. 

It helps if your main character is somebody we want to root for, and your antagonist is someone we should love to hate. Interesting characters make interesting decisions, but that’s another story.

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