AJ Reads ‘Plot & Structure’: Chapter 5

The middle of a novel is always a problem. My general impression is that this is a fact of life for almost all writers, professional or not, old-timers or not.

So it was with much trepidation and highlighting on my Kindle that I read through this chapter. I want, like you do, all the secrets.

Obviously there’s going to be a lot in the middle that needs to be explained in later chapters (he alluded to a future section on dialogue alone, which interests me). For now, Bell covers some basics, but it’s not anywhere near enough to answer all the questions I have, some of which I have no idea yet are even questions.

The best things I take away from this section are:

  • Death (life, psychological, professional) is the major key to the middle. It’s the highest stakes that are possible in any game, commercial or literary. It’s the consequences of failure, and if you have a clear idea of what the death would be for your lead, it will give you insight as to what needs to happen in the plot.

    Almost everything that Bell talks about (in detail) in this chapter relates back to this concept:

    • raising the various kinds of stakes (the stakes start off high and, believe it or not, you make them go higher—he gives plenty of examples from various works)

    • stretching physical or psychological tension (what’s the worst thing that could happen right now? Alright, milk that sucker and cut back in your revision if necessary)

    • character adhesive (Why do they stick around? Could they just shrug this off? No, because they will in some sense DIE so it’s not an option, which means they have to go through the middle)

  • The “stakes outline”; this is another kind of plot organizational structure (apart from mindmapping and whatever plot-gridding is working for you), wherein you

    (a) Come up with increasing stakes (Bell supplies questions for brainstorming)
    (b) Order the list from least to worst
    (c) Use the list to come up with scenes and turning points.

  • You must love something about your opposition character(s). Really.

    I think about this and wonder, “but who could love Voldemort? I mean, for serious,” but then I remember all the parts about his background that they cut out of the movie adaptation, and then I realize: Oh. That’s why all that was so important.

    And then I think: well, what about the opposition teachers every year? The perennial Snape (oh, yeah. Those flashbacks), the fake Moody (oh, yeah. Those other flashbacks), the awful Umbridge (we loved to hate her, and Rowling must have, too, or else she would never have written the horror in pink so well)….

    This all leads down the road to “Is the opposition justified (from their point of view) in what they’re doing? Is the opposition stronger than the lead?” (Answers should be yes.)

My current set of tasks:

  • I’m going to take a closer look at my antagonists (which would involve, for a couple of them, a first closer look at all) and make notes.

  • When I’m closer to starting the next draft of the book, I’ll make a stakes outline and cross-correlate that with… well, anything else.

So far I’ve come up with a justification for my antagonists, but SPOILERS.

Plot & Structure for Kindle (buy or borrow)
Plot & Structure paperback

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