Unsticking the Sticky Middle of Your Book

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Actual photo of Cait Reynolds emerging from the Sticky Middle. Photo by Nathalie SPEHNER on Unsplash

We’re two weeks into NaNoWriMo, and I’d wager that a bunch of us are stuck in the morass that I like to call the ‘Sticky Middle.’ We have made it through the first heady 5,000 words. Maybe even 15,000 or 20,000 words. But, now?

The words are coming slower.

The ideas are coming even slower than that.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds
Photo by Niklas Hamann on Unsplash

We are in the vast wasteland between the OOH of the beginning and the AHH of the end, where it’s mostly…

MEH

EH

BLAH

ARGH

In other words…the Sticky Middle.

Why do we get stuck?

The Sticky Middle is mushy, amorphous mass of words that unfortunately form the bulk of a book. For a body of words that is so unwieldy and difficult to structure, the Sticky Middle unfortunately carries the weight of providing order to the plot while keeping the reader deeply engaged.

In a three-act plot structure, the Sticky Middle is Act II. Therein lies the problem.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Most of us can take a wisp of an idea and fake it ’til we make it with Act I. Beginnings are relatively easy to set up and rough draft (yes, yes, I know that according to Dune, beginnings are a delicate time, but Irrulan never tried writing genre fiction, so she can suck it).

Even Act III isn’t a complete mystery to us when we start, no matter whether we are plotting or pantsing. The final product might change, but most of us have at least a sense of how we want to dole out the happy endings, prison sentences, and golden apples of immortality.

But, Act II?

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

It’s easy.

Well, that is to say, I’ve figured out a fairly simple technique that helps me, and I’m going to share it with you.

Training ourselves to walk through quicksand

I promise we are going to get to Act II and the Sticky Middle technique, but I need to take a moment and set things up.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

First, I’d suggest checking out my blog post about how to structure a chapter and figure out your sweet spot word count pace. In a nutshell, though, I basically recommend a couple things:

  • Practice timed writing so you get a sense of the average word count you can achieve in 30 minutes, an hour, etc. You’ll also get a feel for what your most comfortable span of concentration is and your peak quality output. For example:
    • I know that I can write about 500 words in 30 minutes;
    • I am most focused and productive in 30-40 minute segments;
    • I can produce 2,500 words of solid writing per day, but anything more than that and the quality of my rough draft writing goes down drastically.
  • Learn the discipline of chapter structure now in order to improvise later;
    • A scene/chapter has four parts to it: the Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat (read the post for descriptions of each of these);
    • Each of these four sections should be about 250 words each, or doubled to 500 words;
    • That means that a 1,000-word chapter is made up of 1 scene with four sections, and a 2,000-word chapter is made up of 2 scenes of 1k words each.

For the sake of this exercise, I’m going to use my personal sweet spot of a 2,000-word chapter.

Greasing the skids with Act I

The logic behind the structure and mechanics of Act I is another book-like blog post for another time, but for our purposes, let’s compare Act I to the stages of grief.

Why?

Because we are about to massacre the characters’ everyday existence…all in the name of setting them on the road to adventure. And, like with any death, our characters need to react to and grieve for what they are losing/have lost.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

I use the following stages (yes, I know there are five stages, but I only use four—whatever! Grief is a personal thing! LOL):

  • Denial: The curtain rises on our characters, and we get a glimpse of their day-to-day life. It’s not perfect. In fact, they’re probably in denial about all the things that are wrong and should change/be different.
  • Anger: This is the first thing that happens that simply cannot ignore that will set them on a collision course with the quest. It’s startling. Different. Disturbing. They don’t like it and try to go back to denial.
  • Bargaining: The characters are having second thoughts about ignoring the signal that change is coming. Or, maybe they can’t stop thinking about it. Whichever it is, they are now teetering on the edge of trying to cling to denial while acknowledging anger and bargaining to see if there’s a compromise.
  • Acceptance: Yeah, no help for it now. The quest is real. It’s in-your-face, beating-you-over-the-head-with-a-2×4, and the characters have no choice but to go down this new, uncertain, and possibly dangerous road.

While it is fun to play around with cute categorizations, we are still faced with the same question for Act I that I posed earlier with regards to Act II:

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

Nowwwww, we’re getting somewhere.

We really are. Trust me. I’m like a human GPS. I know where we’re going.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

At least to start with, I plan for:

  • Denial: 1-2 chapters
  • Anger: 1-2 chapters
  • Bargaining: 1-2 chapters
  • Acceptance: 1-2 chapters
  • Each chapter will be 2 scenes of 1,000 words each or 1 scene of 2,000 words;
  • All scenes will follow the pattern of Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat.

Therefore, I know that:

Act I will have 4-8 chapters and be 8k-16k in length.

BOOM.

Now, all we have to do is take this and apply it to the Sticky Middle.

Piece of cake. Right?

RIGHT?

Unsticking the Middle

Remember those two questions? Yes, you’re going to come to hate those questions…almost as much as you hate the fact you can hear my voice in the back of your mind whispering, “Is it really relevant?”

And, if you didn’t have my voice in the back of your head, you do now.

You’re welcome.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Anyway. The questions.

How the hell do we figure out everything that has to happen? Even worse, how do we know when we have done enough and it’s okay to move onto the next part of the book?

Let’s tackle the first part. How do we figure out everything that has to happen?

Well, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that it’s completely up to us so long as we follow one rule. The bad news…is that it’s completely up to us so long as we follow one rule.

That rule is super easy to remember: ALWAYS MAKE IT WORSE.

Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs: physiological (food/water/sleep), safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Now, create plot points, clues, and twists that strip all of these away from your characters.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

No matter what, never give your characters a break, coincidence, relief, or opportunity. Happiness is boring. Cheerful coincidence could create the dreaded bookmark moment, or worse, condemn our book to the DNF (did not finish) pile.

The whole point of Act II is to take the protagonist to the moment when all is lost, everything has gone wrong, and leave them pretty much completely unprepared to face the climax…because that’s fun (at least for the reader).

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Act II

As you might have guessed by now, I’m going to break this down even further into structured segments.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

So, in Act II, we need the following:

  • Weird Shit & Things Get Worse
    • This is the chunk of the book where we start stripping the protagonist of her Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs under the guise of plot points, clues, betrayals, etc.;
    • This is where the bulk of the clues are going to come into play;
    • Decide how many facts the protagonist is going to need in order solve the problem and then set up an increasingly difficult obstacle course for each clue – this will help you figure out how many scenes and chapters you need…
    • …also, it helps keep a lid on irrelevant side-trips like the Mary Sue Shopping Spree;
    • Try to create a crescendo of severity of the risks and consequences of learning each piece of crucial information;
    • This naturally build to…the TWIST!
  • Twist and Shout!
    • The protagonist thinks she might have everything figured out, but surprise!
    • She doesn’t!
    • She could be totally wrong, blindsided by her own biases, have dismissed a key fact as unimportant, or trusted the wrong person for the right reasons;
    • WARNING: the twist MUST follow logically from all the clues we have been doling out. The twist cannot come out of left-field. It should be the fruit of our own hard work at thinking about the story and sacrificing our chance to enjoy guessing whodunit in real-time as we write. We have to know who the murderer is from the beginning so we can work backwards on how to hide the clues. It takes practice, but it’s far better than deciding that the twist will be…uh…she’s a werewolf! when what we’re really writing is a contemporary YA romance but haven’t thought far enough ahead about what is going to be the twist…
  • Sharknado! And, Sharknado II!
    • Or, rather…DISASTER!
    • As a result of the protagonist being ignorant of and unprepared for the twist, the consequences of the twist are the worst possible scenario come-to-life;
    • This is our chance to strip away that last shred of the Maslow Hierarchy that the protagonist has desperately been hanging onto;
    • It’s okay to do this. We apologize to our characters, let them know that we’re going to get them out of the hole, and then proceed to smash their world to pieces;
    • Remember, the disaster part of Act II is like Sharknado and Jaws had a love child who then dated Snakes on a Plane.
  • All is Lost
    • This is an optional section. That’s right. I’m giving you a choice. Booyah!
    • Basically, this is that quiet lull the comes right before the protagonist figures out the one thing that can change the course of everything and allow him/her to take up the mantle of the hero;
    • You know this moment…every Disney move has it…when Belle weeps over the dead body of the Beast and the last rose petal falls; Elsa and Kristoff are too late to keep Anna from turning completely to ice; in Disney’s Hercules, it’s the moment when Meg dies, and a mortal Hercules is not only helpless to save her, but has also failed to protect Thebes and the rest of humanity;
    • The purpose of an all-is-lost moment is to show the protagonist at her truest and most raw. There is no more pretense, excuses, illusions/delusions, false idols. She stripped to her foundations, forced to face her faults and fallacies, and in that moment, decide whether she will give into them or make one more attempt to put things right and become better than she was;
    • Again, this is optional because it doesn’t work for every story. It can depend on pacing, character arc, whether it’s a part of a series, genre, etc.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

Now, ready for the magic formula? Remember, I’m working based on every chapter being 2,000 words and 1-or-2 scenes, and all scenes will follow the pattern of Problem, Progress, But Then, and the Death Threat.

  • Weird Shit & Things Get Worse: 6-8 chapters
  • Twist and Shout!: 1-2 chapters
  • Sharknado! And, Sharknado II!: 1-2 chapters
  • All is Lost: 1-2 chapters

Therefore, I know that:

Act II will have 9-14 chapters and be 18k-28k in length.

BOOM.

Consider the Sticky Middle UNSTUCK.

A slick finale

All of this is not meant to regiment our writing in the equivalent of literary whalebone corsets.

Sticky Middle - Cait Reynolds

(Yes, I will cover Act III, but that’s another book blog post!)

But, if you—like me—struggle with the Sticky Middle, then this can be a map for making your way through the morass. The ‘Sticky Middle’ is that moment that determines whether we are going to make through November, NaNoWriMo, or throughout the year with every book we try to write…or that we finish.

Oh, and by the way, I’ve got an AWESOME new class this Friday!

BAD BOYS: DANGEROUS LOVE FROM REJECTION TO REDEMPTION

Instructor: Cait Reynolds

Price: $45.00 USD

Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom

When: Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

Some Bad Boys have tattoos and motorcycles. Others wear three-piece suits and eat mergers & acquisitions for breakfast.

Whatever Bad Boy flavor you like, there are key characteristics they all share…and there are some common mistakes writers make that will turn his sexy, wolfish grin into the simper of an anxious bichon frise faster than you can say, “How you doin’?”

This class will cover:

  • How to leverage all the classic Bad Boy traits while making your character unique.
  • Keeping the Bad Boy on the tightrope between attractively arrogant and annoying a$$hole.
  • From macho to marshmallow: how to avoid the traps that turn your man soft mid-plot.
  • Write like a man (because no Bad Boy should ever come across like a soccer mom with an attitude problem).
  • Redemption vs. realistic redemption: creating the arc for a Bad Boy we can live with.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in the Boston area with her husband and four-legged fur child. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. When she isn’t cooking, running, rock climbing, or enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

 

Don’t Let Your Inner Pushy Stage Director Bully Your Characters!

Writers get advice all the time not to listen to their Inner Editor–that snarky, perfectly manicured voice that has always has good hair and has probably never done a sniff test on a t-shirt in her life. But, there’s another voice we need to worry about: the Inner Pushy Stage Director.

Who or what is the Inner Pushy Stage Director?

It’s the fussy, sententious voice that carries a clipboard, wants you to emote more, and believes blocking is the only thing that can save the show (because God knows it won’t be the talent).

When it comes to writing, the Inner Pushy Stage Director has something to say about where every single character is, where they are going, and what they are doing (and exactly how they are doing it).

It’s not that it’s not good to know all of this. We should know where are characters are and what they are doing. The trouble comes when we decide to share all of that with the reader. The result of listening to our Inner Pushy Stage Director is writing that is clunky, over-crowded, and possibly the worst sin of all: BORING.

HOW DO YOU KNOW YOU HAVE AN INNER PUSHY STAGE DIRECTOR?

We’re writing. It’s not a complex scene. Our Hero Taylor is waiting for Sweet Seraphina to show up so he can debrief her on the morning’s miraculous escape from the Evil Band of Drug Lords/Mobsters/Human Traffickers.

There’s a knock at the door.

The way the Inner Pushy Stage Director wants to write this:

Taylor raised his head from his hands and looked up. He was too tired to startle physically from the sound. Wearily, he put his palms on his thighs and pushed up to standing, taking measured steps across the living room to the small foyer. He walked up to the door and came to a stop, squaring his shoulders against the ache in his ribs, and reaching for the doorknob. He grasped it with his hand and turned, slowly pulling the door open, watching as it revealed Seraphina standing on his threshold.

At this point, I can’t even write any more, I’m so bored. It’s all blah, blah, blah, and I’m starting to wonder when I’m going to get to the point,

If there isn’t a bit of dialogue or something interesting soon, I’m going to start picking at my nail polish…and that’s how we end up losing readers to “bookmark moments.”

If this had been written by the Steven Spielberg of Inner Stage Directors

Taylor heard the knock at the door but was too tired to startle at the sound. He went to the door, squaring his shoulders against the ache in his ribs and the exhaustion that dogged his steps. Seraphina stood on the threshold, looking completely unconvinced by his show of nonchalance.

Okay, now, we’re getting somewhere. It’s clear that this passage is tighter because it lacks the painful–and literal–step-by-step description of every action. But as a writer, how do we learn which actions need description and what is better left unsaid?

Fortunately, there are some simple tricks to keeping your Inner Pushy Stage Director in the wings where he belongs.

THE END POINT OF ACTIONS

Every action is made up of a series of movements. For example, to pick something up off the ground involves bending (or stooping) over, reaching out, grasping the object, and straightening up.

However, if Our Hero Taylor had dropped his phone on the ground, all I have to tell you is that, “Taylor picked up the phone.” In your mind, you have instantly pictured the entire series of physical movements that comprise the act of picking something up.

The end point of an action is the last movement (or two) that instinctively invoke an understanding of what the character has just done. We have all picked something up before. The movements are part of a common physical vocabulary we share as human beings. We just know what it means.

Therefore, we need to do is get in the habit of describing only the “end point” of an action.

In other words, we don’t need more verbs to describe a verb that already implies those verbs. Redundancy is redundant. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself).

THE MEANING OF ACTION

The Inner Pushy Stage Director is all about choreography. Everybody is moving around, doing things, providing a visual feast for the reader because ART.  He’s the kind of inner editor that believes that interpretive dance makes everything better.

In reality, there are two reasons why we describe any given action for any given character in any given scene.

One of the greatest memes of all times. Also, plotting in a nutshell.

Rule One: Action puts characters into situations where interactions, decisions, and reactions to events move the plot forward.

Rule Two: Action puts characters into situations where movement can either reveal or conceal something about a character’s personality, motives, emotions, and inclinations.

Rule One is pretty self-explanatory. Every time our characters decide to pick up the phone, answer the door, drive (or ride a unicorn/hover craft) over to their friend’s house, shoot/not shoot the Very Obvious Antagonist, they are taking an action that leads to more choices and chances for Very Bad Decisions.

Rule Two is a bit more subtle, but just as powerful. For example:

Taylor heard the knock at the door but was too tired to startle at the sound. He went to the door, squaring his shoulders against the ache in his ribs and the exhaustion that dogged his steps. Seraphina stood on the threshold, looking completely unconvinced by his show of nonchalance.

Our Hero Taylor’s actions “show” the reader something about his character (pig-headed stubbornness in refusing to admit he has mere human physical limitations) without having to “tell” them…which would have looked something clunky like this:

Taylor heard the knock at the door but was too tired to startle at the sound. He went to the door, determined not to let Seraphina know how tired he was. If there was anything he hated, it was showing weakness of any kind. Seraphina stood on the threshold, looking completely unconvinced by his show of nonchalance.

I have basically beat the reader over the head with “The 2×4 of Useful Information” (another blog post coming soon). As readers, we instinctively get from the first example that Our Hero Taylor is one of those guys who likes to push through utter exhaustion, doesn’t like showing weakness, is pig-headed stubborn, and is–frankly–a crap actor.

In the first example, the action is both revealing to the reader and concealing (or would be to a being of lesser perception than Sweet Seraphina) to the other character.

MOTION GRANTED

Whether a character is running, sleeping, standing still, or trying for the love of God to find a comfortable way to do Downward Facing Dog, movement and action are the physical manifestations of the plot.

Just as we work hard at refining dialogue and figuring out where to drop clues in the story, we need to look at how we write about how our characters move (or don’t move). Nothing drags the pace of crisp dialogue or take the shock out of a good plot twist like fussy, overly-specific descriptions of action.

Now, it’s time to plant your feet on the ground, push with your legs, stand up out of your chair, reach your arms above your head, breathing in to expand your ribs (optional nostril-flaring) as you get a good stretch before lowering your arms, rolling your shoulders, sitting down in your chair, putting your arms on the desk, and getting back to work.

Have a Snickers, Inner Pushy Stage Director…