How to Beef Up a Soggy Middle-- Your Character Must FAIL

Nov 13, 2012

While doing some key revisions on TUGL several months back, I realized something interesting about the middle of my book. Except for a key moment near the climax, my character succeeded at almost everything she attempted. This was not a good thing.

She'd be like, "Gee, I wonder if THIS would work."

And the plot would be like, "Of course. Naturally that works. Let me hand it to you on this silver platter."

#facepalm

I'd thought I was putting some great conflict in the book because there was tension in these scenes. But of course, with my character skipping her way through every challenge, there really wasn't as much conflict as there could have been.

A key part to conflict-- and a proper story structure-- is what is known as a try/fail cycle. Throughout the book, especially throughout that sticky middle section, your character should be trying various things to achieve their goals. And of course, the antagonist should be opposing those goals. Here's the thing with that. If the main character WINS every time they try something, it kills the story. At the climax, there's no tension because we've already seen them beat the antagonist constantly. In a try/fail cycle, the character must FAIL.

Ever seen a Die Hard movie? You know how Bruce Willis always looks like chopped meat by the end? Yeah. That would be the result of a lot of try/fail cycles.

You CAN have the character win occasionally. However, that comes with a caveat. If they win, something else needs to happen to complicate things. So basically, when the question is, "Will my character succeed at this attempt," the answer should be one of two things: "No," or "Yes, BUT..."

Your character should, of course, win at the end. But they need to work for that win. They need to be dirty and wounded and heartbroken and have had to really suffer and DESERVE that win. It should be the result of all those fails-- they've learned enough through all the failure that they can win this time around. By beefing up your middle, you'll make your ending that much more powerful.

So, my friends, is your middle soggy? Do you use try/fail cycles? And do you have a favorite Die Hard movie?

25 comments:

Steven said...

This has been a problem for me in the past. I've actually found the best cure is to write an obstacle, problem, etc that I literally have to think through a solution for days on end. And you're right about new complications arising with each victory. Without any real difficulties for the protagonist, a story truly is boring.

mooderino said...

Alan Rickman sort of makes the first Die Hard unbeatable.

mood
Moody Writing

Jenny S. Morris said...

I need this reminder right now!!! My people have tried a few things and it's worked so far so now it comes to the failing portion.

Thanks!!

Tamara said...

Great post. I had a problem with this when I first started writing but I've since overcome it. I was very careful with my characters in the beginning, and I didn't want to hurt them.

But, I figured out pretty quickly that doesn't make for an interesting story. Now I love conflict and pain. The more the better. haha.

And I'd have to say Die Hard One. That was an amazing movie, but I think they could've left it there and nobody would've suffered. I can't believe they are making another one!! Ugh. The world does not need Die Hard Five

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

My latest manuscript has the odds continue to pile on against my main characters, but I'm working to make sure it's enough and they don't succeed every time.
Excellent reminder about middles!

Madeline Jane said...

Great post! I'm definitely going to have to keep that in mind during NaNo. If things get boring, failure is the answer! ;)

Linda Jackson said...

Thanks, Shallee. I really needed this. :)

Peaches Ledwidge said...

Great post. Makes a writer think about plotting.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post, Shallee. Just like your character, my MC too was winning everything in the Middle part of my book. Later, I tried to complicate things by making her lose a lot and fight for her victory.

Meredith said...

Awesome advice! I love the Die Hard example--so, so true. :)

Jess said...

Very true! You're right, it feels incomplete when a book has the MC winning all the time. And I love Die Hard! I heard they're making another one in that series…

Have a nice day :)

Louise Bates said...

Oh, I'm wincing reading this because I am so, so guilty of this. For me, it comes because I hate the how unrealistic it seems to me in READING stories when the main characters always fails, and it seems more natural that he/she would win once in a while. But you're right, that does make for some horrifically boring storytelling! So I guess I need to implement some of those "Yes, but ..." wins you mentioned. Best of both worlds!

Rose Munevar said...

Excellent post! You make some great points. Nice to meet you :)

Tara Tyler said...

i need more fails, i think...
i might be confusing obstacles with fails.
thanks for reminding me i need my mc to get hurt!

Jeff Hargett said...

Sound advice. Hope you find much success.

Carrie-Anne said...

I didn't have enough of failure in my earliest drafts, undoubtedly influenced by all the older books I'd read, with a more episodic structure and nothing really going that terribly wrong. I love packing on the drama and black moments now, especially since that makes a happy ending all the more sweeter. Real life isn't about happy endings on silver platters with hospital corners, and books shouldn't be that way either.

Tammy Theriault said...

love the comparison with a bruce willis movie. thanks for the info!

Medeia Sharif said...

Great advice. I look for the try/fail cycles when I outline. My characters don't quite look like Bruce Willis at the end, though. ;)

kmckendry said...

Great post! If a character doesn't fail I don't think they (or the reader) can appreciate the final win as much.
I love Die Hard movies.

David P. King said...

This is always something I keep in mind when drafting a battle/action scene. Brilliant post! :)

nutschell said...

Great post. I agree. You need to put the character through hell before he can celebrate the win!
Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

LisaAnn said...

Great post! I'm embarking on my new WIP, and I have no idea what's going to happen in my second act. Your post will remind me I have lots and lots and lots of options. :)

Leigh Covington said...

I've been thinking about this same stuff!!! Seriously! I love this Shallee! Perfect advice, and it's not always easy to do! Thanks for the input :D

Lynda R Young said...

lol at facepalm. I have many facepalm moments when writing my stories. I just wish I could see them sooner ;)

akossiwaketoglo.com said...

But... I don't want my character to fail...
Ha! Just kidding!
You are right of course. Sometimes I just trow more challenges in my MC's way to keep the soggy middle at bay.

~Akoss

 
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