When first attempting a novel, many writers have a great idea. They’re clear about the conflict – they know what it is their character wants and who or what is preventing him from achieving his goal. They may even know precisely how the story will end. It’s just the middle that is problematic – the 200 pages or so that take the reader from start to finish.
Not knowing how to develop their plot, beginners often make the mistake of adding too many characters, digressing into tangents that are not essential to the story, or overindulging in backstory or internal monologue – none of which help in developing plot.
It can be useful to think of a novel in terms of three acts, the way that screenwriters are taught to think about movies. While Act One is the set-up (establishing the world of the story, introducing the characters and the conflict, and providing the inciting incident that sets the story in motion) and Act Three is the resolution (in which a battle, often internal as well as external, is fought and won), Act Two is the place to complicate the plot, raise the stakes and heighten the tension.
It often begins with a sense of false victory, but hopes are soon dashed and the hero suffers. Here are some examples:
Act One: Betty, who is very shy, is head-over-heels about James, who doesn’t even know she exists. She keeps this secret to herself, not even confiding in her best friend, Sandra. One day, when James walks right by Betty on his way home from school, she decides to speak to him the next time she sees him.
Act Two: Betty has mustered up the courage to approach James and she’s feeling hopeful. But just as she’s about to approach him, Sandra tells her she has developed a crush on a guy – and that guy is James. Sandra tells Betty she has decided to ask James out. Betty secretly hopes James will turn Sandra down, but he doesn’t. Soon James and Sandra are inseparable. In the meantime, Betty finds out that James helps out at the local nursing home where her grandfather is a resident and her crush is intensified.
Act One: Marion’s favourite necklace, given to her by her beloved grandmother, has been stolen. She decides, despite the danger involved, to track down the thief and get it back.
Act Two: Marion is making progress with tracking down the thief, but while doing so, she discovers that he is wanted for murder. She also finds out that the necklace is worth a great deal of money.
Act One: Max, an athlete who has lost months of training due to a prolonged illness, sets his heart on winning an important race, even though his odds aren’t good.
Act Two: Max’s persistence and determination seems to be paying off, and he feels like he’s getting somewhere. Then he has a relapse and another precious week of training is lost. Meanwhile, he discovers that winning the race will mean a scholarship to university and his only chance of a higher education. Just when he’s beginning to think that with renewed perseverance he might have a hope, he finds out that he’ll be up against the formidable Victor, who has never lost.
What all three examples have in common is that Act Two presents the hero with greater obstacles and heightened stakes, both of which serve to increase the tension. It’s important to make things as difficult as possible for your hero, because the harder it is for her to achieve her goal, the more your readers will respect her when she does.
In most successful novels, Act Two ends with an act of surrender. The character recognises the impossibility of getting what he wants or thinks he needs, and surrenders because he has no choice. In that moment, he becomes conscious of the true nature of his dilemma and reframes his relationship to his goal. It is this transformative shift in perception that allows him, in Act Three, to overcome his demons, fight the battle and emerge a hero.
For example, in the case of Max, above, Act Two might end with his understanding that winning the race isn’t what’s important – the only failure is in not trying. This change in perception enables him, in Act Three, to run the race and emerge a hero, regardless of whether or not he wins it (though chances are he will).
If you’re struggling with the middle section of your novel, ask yourself how you could make things more difficult for your hero and what he still needs to figure out in order to grow.
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