Staying focused to avoid 'story-sag'; using exclamation points in dialogue
ONLINE COLUMN: Writing Q&A
Published: February 12, 2008
|I am so paranoid about having a "sagging" or boring middle. I think it makes me afraid to write. I'm not sure of all the things that need to happen, despite knowing the last part of the novel. Any suggestions?|
Writing a novel is a true endurance test, not only for your devotion to the material, but also your ability to sustain tension over the long haul. Once you introduce the characters and conflict, the remaining unwritten pages can feel like an empty, blustery wasteland. It sounds like you know the end of your novel, so there is, at least, an island out there on the horizon; something to move toward. Still, the bulk of a novel is its middle, so this is certainly a concern. To dispel your fears, here are a few essentials about middles that may give you avenues back into writing.
Plot grows out of character: Once you have a character and a conflict, follow your character's attempts to ease or remedy that conflict. Your character's choices are bound to bring up additional concerns, keeping the engine of the story humming. Perhaps this sounds overly simple, but don't dismiss it without giving it a try. Putting the emphasis on character can take the pressure off the question of what happens next. A character's personality and feelings in any given situation will create an action or reaction. Follow that and you'll find what happens next. And don't worry that you don't know exactly what happens after that. The writing process is one of discovery and many writers don't know what's ahead-until they're in the thick of it.
Dramatic questions: These are enigmas and curiosities that arise, which the reader is eager to have satisfied. A novel's middle is a series of dramatic questions. Some are satisfied quickly, others take longer. (And all of these questions work toward the main aim of the novel.) In Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, Jacob Jankowski, a veterinary student, joins the circus and uses his skills to care for the animals. He meets Marlena, the star of the equestrian act, and is taken with her. The reader wonders: Will he find happiness with her? Silver Star, Marlena's horse, is sick. Will Jacob be able to help the animal? When the lemonade starts disappearing from the vat before circus-goers arrive, the reader wonders who might be the culprit. When it is revealed to be Rosie, the elephant, a new dramatic question comes up: What might befall Rosie given the earlier violence against her? Look for dramatic questions that you've already created. Are any ready to be answered? Perhaps you could introduce new ones.
Causal chain: Novels are often a series of causes and effects. One action causes the next to happen. In Carson McCullers' novella The Ballad of the Sad Café, Miss Amelia, a grouchy storeowner, unexpectedly falls in love with Cousin Lymon, a hunchback who shows up in town claiming to be her kin. Miss Amelia's ex-husband, Marvin Macy, returns after a stint in jail and Cousin Lymon grows fond of him. The causal chain in this novella is strong: Cousin Lymon invites Marvin into Miss Amelia's home and because Miss Amelia loves Cousin Lymon, she lets him stay. Because Miss Amelia and Marvin Macy must be in such constant contact, tensions rise. Eventually, they have a fistfight. Because of this fight, Cousin Lymon casts his allegiance by helping Marvin Macy when he is on the brink of losing. Look at the action in your own novel. Given your characters, what are the effects of the actions you've already written?
Intensity: The intensity should rise as the novel unfolds. You might reveal something new, like information that the character discovers. Or raise the stakes, making the consequences of his action even more significant and worrisome. You might introduce a new character, if appropriate, or bring one previously in the background to the forefront. Make sure you're also increasing the intensity of the dramatic questions. As your character(s) get closer to the end, there should be a more powerful sense of hope (that events will turn out well) and fear (that they won't). Each outcome should seem plausible and possible.
There's no set structure for the middle of a novel. As a result, it is the place where writers are most tempted to toss in extraneous material. Always make sure to stay focused on your novel's main aim. At the same time, don't be afraid to experiment with the development of the conflict. Instead of thinking of the middle as an aimless place to fail, give yourself the freedom to take risks and make discoveries about the story and your characters. You can always toss what doesn't work and you're bound to learn something from the failures. And keep in mind: you will be much more productive with an imperfect draft than you will with blank pages you're too worried to approach.
I understand the idea of keeping exclamation marks in check, but is there more latitude in their use in the thoughts and dialogue of characters, the same way there is some flexibility in characters using clichés in their speech?
There is room to use clichés in dialogue because it is not uncommon for people to speak using such trite language. It has the potential to add authenticity and, for certain characters, reveal more about their personality. The same, however, isn't true for exclamation marks. In fact, exclamation marks tend to be most often abused in dialogue.
While we might raise our voice or create emphasis when speaking, an exclamation mark tells the reader how to interpret a line. The writer's job is to show that. Let the words do the work of revealing the urgency or upset. This might happen in the dialogue itself or in the narrative that follows. Often, a gesture or action done by the speaker-storming out of the room, fisting a hand-can complement the dialogue in a more informative and meaningful way than punctuation.
Of course, this is not to say exclamation marks should always be avoided. Use them only when you need to and they stand a better chance of carrying the impact you intend.
|Brandi Reissenweber teaches fiction writing and reading fiction at Gotham Writers' Workshop and authored the chapter on characterization in Gotham's Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide. Her work has been published in numerous journals, including Phoebe, North Dakota Quarterly and Rattapallax. She was a James C. McCreight Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and has taught fiction at New York University, University of Wisconsin and University of Chicago. Currently, she is a visiting professor at Illinois Wesleyan University and edits Letterpress, a free e-newsletter for fiction writers.|
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