Writing Excuses 10.30: Q&A on Middles, with Marie Brennan
Q: How do you prevent tedium in the middle bits without something exploding every other chapter?
A: Discovery of new things. Make the characters care about things, and make it clear to the reader why these are important. Impressive failures!
Q: In short fiction, how do you prevent try-fail cycles from resolving too quickly without adding a ton more words? Do you use yes-but, no-and for this?
A: Yes. Don’t cram them in, and make your characters try harder. Try-fail should not simply reset. Keep progressing, use yes-but to make variations and complications, and watch out for Brandoning your story.
Q: If Act 2 adds a lot more to the story, new POV characters, new subplots, new locations, etc., how do you spread out the introduction of these elements so that it’s not too jarring to the reader?
A: Beware of adding new POVs too late in the story. Finish a subplot, then add a character. Make sure adding the new elements is natural, not forced. Foreshadow, and let us know that new things are coming (signposts!). Don’t just add POVs, subplots, and locations and never finish! Beware kudzu plots.
Q: How do I weave subplots in without them turning into outright side quests?
A: Subplots for secondary characters should not have higher stakes or more interest than the main story. Look at how the subplots intersect with the main story and the other characters. Watch for subplots, side quests, that do nothing except make the characters jump through a flaming hoop. At the end of the side quest, something should have changed! Side quests, like ties or shoes, should contrast or complement the main suit.
Q: Especially in a longer story, how important are breather chapters that ease the tension?
A: Check your genre and pacing. Fast-paced, few, slower, maybe. Don’t let the tension go, just vary the tension and texture.
Q: Do you have any interesting methods for organizing, developing, and interweaving plot and subplot threads? Even after the brainstorming, outlining, prewriting, how much do you weave in your head versus what you write in your outline notes?
A: Proprioception. When you get to the end, and a character is doing something wrong, there may be a hole in the middle. Try practicing by writing a single thread, then adding threads.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 30.
[Howard] This is Writing Excuses. Q&A on Middles.
[Mary] 15 minutes long, because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And we’re joined by Marie Brennan. Marie, welcome.
[Marie] Excited to be here.
[Howard] Marie, what’s your most recent book? You’re out on tour right now, aren’t you?
[Marie] Yes, for Voyage of the Basilisk, which is the third book in the Memoirs of Lady Trent.
[Howard] Well, Marie, we are taking questions from our listening audience on middles, which is what we’ve been talking about all month. Mary Robinette has the list of questions. Let’s have it.
[Mary] All right. So question number one comes from anonymous. I know. “How do you prevent tedium in the middle bits without something exploding every other chapter?”
[Dan] Well, that’s only a problem if explosions are the only interesting parts of your book.
[Howard] Those are my favorite rom-coms.
[Mary] I think the point being, how do you have something where…
[Howard] It needs to feel natural.
[Marie] Discovery of new things. Especially if it upends what the characters thought they knew.
[Mary] I’m a big fan of… Actually, I’ve said this before, that I learned more about tension from reading Jane Austen than anyone else, because what I learned from her is that the way it matters to the reader is by making it clear why it is important to the character. You can go through an entire Austen novel and it’s like nothing really happens except someone drops a handkerchief, but they drop it at the wrong time in front of the wrong person. But you know why this is such a big deal! So for me, the tedium comes when the characters don’t care about things or it isn’t made sufficiently clear to the reader why this is an important thing.
[Howard] I think that last week’s episode, why should my characters fail spectacularly… Because that will break the tedium of the middle. That doesn’t need to be an explosion, it just needs to be a really, really impressive failure.
[Marie] How do they lose what matters to them, and then have to get it back or learn to do without it.
[Dan] Exactly. And next month, we’ll be learning a lot about pacing, which can help give a sense of progress to your middle. Even though they haven’t arrived at the end, they’re still working their way there.
[Mary] All right. That segues very nicely into a question from Claus which is actually specifically a short fiction question. “In short fiction, how do you prevent try-fail cycles from resolving too quickly without adding a ton more words? Do you use yes-but, no-and for this?” I do. I use yes-but, no-and when I’m doing short fiction. For me, with short fiction, I basically… This is my cheek, my hack. I look at how long the thing needs to be, and I do try-fail cycles until I get about 1000 words or a page from the end… And then I just resolve it.
[Marie] I would say if you feel like they’re resolving too quickly, then maybe you’re trying to cram too many of them in there.
[Mary] Yeah. Or not enough. If you’re looking at without adding a ton more words, I would say just make your character try harder, but you still are being economical with your prose.
[Howard] You can also have a try-fail cycle in which the failure is not a setback failure that causes a reset of the pacing. It’s a that didn’t work, we’re still moving. I fired, but I missed.
[Dan] Or it can be the yes-but kind where yes, it worked, but the problem’s still not solved yet.
[Marie] Or it creates a new and exciting variation on the problem.
[Howard] But not too exciting, because this is short fiction, and we don’t want to Brandon it out to 50,000 words.
[Mary] I’m totally using that as a verb from now on. Is it Brandon it out to 50,000 words or Sanderson it out to 50,000?
[Howard] Sanderson’s too many syllables for a…
[Dan] Yes, Sanderson it out…
[Howard] It’s more appropriate for a verb, but that’s why it fits. You’re right. Well played, Mary Robinette.
[Mary] “If Act 2 adds a lot more to the story, new POV characters, new subplots, new locations, etc., how do you spread out the introduction of these elements so that it’s not too jarring to the reader?” This comes to us from Evan.
[Howard] That… For me, anyway, that feels like a flawed premise. I feel like introducing POV’s, specifically in Act Two, is itself kind of jarring. Depending on where we are in Act Two. I like, by the end of Act One, to have introduced all the POV’s unless there is a reveal that is jarring… That is supposed to be jarring later in Act Two.
[Dan] You can also look at the structure of The Fellowship of the Ring, which introduces new characters at a pretty steady clip, but what he does is he will finish a subplot first. We have successfully arrived at Bree and dodged some Black Riders. Okay, here’s Strider. We have now successfully arrived at Rivendell. Okay, here’s the rest of the party.
[Marie] I was going to say, I don’t necessarily mind new POV is being introduced in Act Two, but in terms of it being jarring, I feel like they should come in when it is natural for them to be appearing in the story. It’s when we are jumping away to someone we’ve never seen and have no reason to care about and it’s not even really clear why we’re talking about them. That’s where I think that things have gone astray.
[Mary] I would also say that with everything that you’re introducing, that you need to be foreshadowing to a certain extent so that the audience can expect these things. For instance, if you go through the entire first part of the book and you have a very regular pattern of character A POV, character B POV, character C POV. If you get to Act Two and you suddenly have a character D and we’ve never introduced anybody else, that’s going to feel jarring. Whereas if you go through and you’ve got character A, character B, character C, and occasionally you slip in a very small thing from another character, that preps us for the fact that you are going to be introducing new characters all the way through the book. Likewise, subplots… It’s… I would be very wary about introducing a new subplot in the second act. New locations, those happen. But again, if you haven’t warned the reader by the structure of the story leading up to that, it can potentially throw them out. Sometimes, that’s a design element.
[Howard] Absolutely. My concern with the way the question was asked is that I know a lot of new writers, especially who are discovery writing, are adding POV is in locations and subplots in Act Two because they’re really never going to get to Act Three. It’s continuing to bloat and bloat and bloat and they’re losing their way.
[Marie] I think that adding POV’s, in particular, is very dangerous for that, because you need to then flesh them out to a way that they deserve their point of view, and suddenly your plot is growing like kudzu.
[Howard] Hey, Marie, you have our book of the week, I believe.
[Marie] I do, indeed. It is The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson. It is narrated by Rebecca Mozo and Lincoln Hoppe.
[Howard] Seriously? Lincoln Hoppe? I ran sound for him as a comedy guy 20 years ago. Is he funny?
[Dan] I was in a show with him in college. I was Charles Guiteau, and he was… No, he was Guiteau and I was Czolgosz in Assassins.
[Howard] Oh, man, you guys totally, totally need to buy the… Sorry, I derailed you.
[Marie] No, that’s all right.
[Howard] The Summer Prince, what’s this about?
[Marie] It is a YA… I would call it a dystopia, except that I think that leads people to expect a very simplistic kind of construction of society, and what makes this fabulous is that it’s really complex and how it talks about art and politics and literally life and death in… I mean, that makes it sound pretentious, but it’s a really good read.
[Howard] Outstanding. You can pick up a free copy of The Summer Prince by going to audiblepodcast.com/excuse and starting a 30-day trial membership. Mary, let’s have another question.
[Mary] All right. This is related, which is, “How do I weave subplots in without them turning into outright side quests?” That comes from Mav. There’s a couple of different ways subplots turned up. One is that they are something… You’ve got a secondary character and you want to make sure that secondary character has an arc, so you create a subplot for that secondary character. Those are usually fine, unless the stakes in them are higher than the stakes in your main story.
[Marie] Then you think, “Why are we reading about these other people?”
[Mary] Right. Exactly. The thing that you want to look at is looking at ways in which the subplots intersect with the main plot and cause complications to it, or assist it along.
[Marie] Why is this relevant to the other characters in the story, rather than it being just of concern to that one person?
[Mary] Also, I mean, in real life, we’re dealing with more than one thing at a time. For instance, right now, Marie and I have a plot of we are on book tour. I also have a plot of I need to record Writing Excuses episodes, and a plot of I have to build a polar bear.
[Marie] Really, though, if I saw that one on the outline, I’d go, “Polar bear? Really?”
[Howard] How do these fit in with my plot to finish the Kickstarter?
[Dan] This is a sprawling epic.
[Howard] We introduced too many things.
[Mary] The point being that they all intersect in the wanting… That we have to record this episode. What that means is that Dan’s day got complicated because he had to stop and pick up Marie and bring her here. Howard had to stop working on the Kickstarter. I am not building a polar bear right now.
[Dan] I am.
[Mary] But it’s… Oh, really? Can I borrow it? But it’s something that we can do because it’s a point where the main sub… That Marie and I’s main subplot or main plot of book tour has intersected with the plots of the other characters. That’s what you’re looking for when you’re looking for subplots with your character characters.
[Dan] There’s a particular kind of subplot that I think of as the Final Fantasy subplot that I see in a lot of aspiring writer fiction, where in order to complete quest A, they have to go on side quest B, but it doesn’t really pertain to A in any way. B will not get us closer, it’s just that the old man with the information is kind of being a jerk and he won’t tell me until I bring him some flowers or whatever.
[Marie] It’s a hoop to jump through.
[Dan] Exactly, it’s a hoop, whereas if it were something specific such as, well, the old man’s missing, we have to find him, okay, then that’s a side quest that will directly help us with the main one.
[Marie] They did this well in the first Dragon Age game. The guy you need help from is dying and can’t help you unless you go get the thing that will cure him. At least that’s relevant.
[Mary] What I look at with that is what is the situation of the character when they complete the side quest? This is where yes-but, no-and is a useful diagnostic tool. So if the character has completed the side quest and they are in exactly the same condition that they were before the side quest, that side quest… That’s subplot is a side quest, it didn’t need to exist. You can pull that out without affecting anything.
[Howard] I think of… I don’t know if any of you have tried to match a necktie to a suit coat, but I think of side quests as neckties, because depending on the tie you pick, the colors of the suit will come out differently. I don’t know if you guys see this, but when you do…
[Mary] I’m sorry, Howard, I am laughing at you because this is why women have so many shoes.
[Howard] Well, the point being, if your side quest…
[Oh, poor man, a tie…]
[Howard] Only exists because you want to be wearing a tie or because you want to be wearing shoes, that’s one thing. If it exists because you picked it in order to call out portions of the main quest that are not being called out otherwise…
[Marie] To provide a contrast.
[Howard] To provide a contrast, to provide complementary colors, whatever, then you’ve selected it better.
[Dan] That is… That’s very well said. I’m going to steal that.
[Dan] I’m going to use that in classes.
[Howard] It’s awesome because if you’re teaching and you’re wearing a tie, it’s right there.
[Dan] Oh, my gosh, I never expected to do that.
[Mary] I need to start wearing ties.
[Howard] Or shoes.
[Marie] No hobbiting.
[Mary] No, no hobbiting.
[Mary] All right. So the next one… Some of these I’m looking at and like, “Oh, we’re going to talk about that. You just haven’t heard us do it yet.” “Especially in a longer story, how important are breather chapters that ease the tension?”
[Dan] Depending on the genre you’re writing in, they can be very important or they can be distracting. This you will hear a lot about when we talk about pacing.
[Howard] Our second pacing episode, August 9th-ish, something like that.
[Dan] To put it as briefly as possible, if you’re writing a thriller or something that needs to be very fast-paced, use very few if any breather chapters. If you’re writing something very long…
[Howard] Or breather scenes in the middle of…
[Dan] If you’re writing something that’s very long, it can be very nice to have those thrown in every now and then.
[Marie] I also think that maybe not… I wouldn’t think of them as breathers, because if I think of it in those terms, I would be letting the tension go and that’s not really what you want to accomplish.
[Mary] I probably wouldn’t do it as an entire breather chapter. I’d probably do a breather scene. Even there, I would probably end that breather scene with a raise in tension. Unless I’m doing something like Brandon’s where he actually does, because he is writing the Chihuahua killers, and he actually does want people to be able to put the book down. Coming to a resolution allows them to actually feed themselves. That question comes from Leo, by the way. I forgot.
[Dan] I think it’s worth pointing out here that you can vary the tension and you can vary the texture of your story without necessarily resulting to something as relaxing as a breather. Sometimes you need to put in a scene or a chapter in which your characters react to something huge, even if it doesn’t necessarily let up any tension. It… Sometimes you act, and sometimes you react.
[Marie] If I can make a brief analogy to dance, actually. There are the moments where the dancer is still, but they’re not relaxed, they’re not stopped. It’s that moment where everything is in poise, before they then move forward again.
[Mary] I will say, one of the things that I discovered when I was writing Of Noble Family, is that I did need longer reaction, recovery periods for the characters because the stakes… They’re on a slave plantation and things are… I wrote Regency Grimdark. So things are significantly more brutal than they are in Shades of Milk and Honey. In Shades of Milk and Honey, I didn’t need as much in the way of giving the readers time to process as I did in Of Noble Family.
[Howard] I think we’ve got time for one more.
[Mary] I think so. “Do you have any interesting methods for organizing, developing, and interweaving plot and subplot threads?” There’s a follow-up to this, which is “Even after the brainstorming, outlining, prewriting, how much do you weave in your head versus what you write in your outline notes?”
[Howard] Geez, that’s an entire episode.
[Mary] Well, the thing… The reason I think this one is good is a lot of the stuff we talk about really is geared for people who are outliners. I think that talking about how to do this, how to think about it for people who are not outliners, who are pantsers… You’re more of a pantser than I am, Marie.
[Marie] It’s actually interesting that they use the verb weave because all of my metaphors for writing our textile-based. The problem is I don’t have a very clear answer for how I manage that. It’s just that… Actually, Marissa Lingen in a recent blog post used a very good term for it, which is proprioception, which is your sense of… You know where your limbs are, even if you’re not looking at them, right? You just have that internal sense of it. She used this as an analogy for kind of having that sense of the shape of your story, and where is there room to add something, where does something need to be cut because it’s interfering? I think I do it more on that instinctual proprioception level rather than any sort of organized chart to show me how things fit together.
[Dan] I do a lot of discovery writing. What I find is that I can usually tell… One of these forms of proprioception. I can usually tell that there is a hole in the middle when I get to the end and what the character is saying or doing feels wrong. It feels false or it feels unearned. Then I think, “Well, why does it feel that way? Well, probably because back here, he didn’t respond appropriately to this or he didn’t learn this…”
[Marie] Or I never made it clear that there was this other thing going on in his head.
[Dan] Exactly. That is still not a hard and crunchy writing tip, but it is a little more firm than you just kind of tell.
[Howard] Honestly, Marie, you’ve been writing for a while. Dan’s been writing for a while. We’ve all been doing this for a while. This sense of proprioception, this innate ability to tell when something is going wrong, has grown out of writing a lot of things where we didn’t write them well.
[Mary] One thing that I would say is that when you are learning to… And this works for pantsers. When you’re learning to interweave things, that sometimes it’s useful to sit down and do something that is only a single thread just so that you know exactly how that kind of thread works. Then try adding another thread and making sure you’re adding both things at the same time, that you’re handling them. It’s… It is something that develops with practice. It is much like playing an instrument or anything else where you’re building a sort of muscle memory. But you’re building it for your brain. I forgot to say that that question came from Michael Rittenhouse.
[Howard] Okay. Well, Michael, thank you for the great question. We are out of time. I’ve got an exercise for you that should take… Not just you, Michael. All of our listeners. From our month on middles to next month on pacing. I call this murdering the middle darling. You’ve worked your way through the middle. Go back into it, and remove an element from the entire middle, and see how that changes the read of things. See if that was really necessary to get you to the ending. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. The easiest way to find out is to kill it. So, you’re out of excuses. Now go write.