by Dan Walsh, @DanWalshAuthor
What in the world am I talking about here? Throw Grampa down the stairs? Let me assure you right off, although both my grandfathers passed away years ago (my wife’s grandfathers as well), I would have never done anything to hurt them.
That is, in real life. But in my books? I actually did this very thing (with my wife’s full approval).
My post today, believe it or not, is actually about plotting, albeit a very specific aspect of plotting. Most fiction experts agree (I’m not one, but I’ve read their books), conflict and tension are at the core of great fiction writing. The best stories include lots of both.
One of my favorite writing quotes is (though I don’t know who to credit): “The secret to great fiction writing is to create characters readers care about, then do terrible things to them.” Speaking of terrible things, this sounds like a terrible thing to do as a writer. But it’s not. It’s essential to create a great story and, if you think about it, most of the great movies you’ve watched and books you’ve read have followed this advice.
It came to my rescue as I wrote my 2nd novel back in 2009, and it came to my rescue again this week, as I’m writing Novel #19.
One of the common problems fiction writers face is the “danger of the sagging middle.” That’s where you have a great beginning all worked out and maybe even a great climactic ending. But as you get well into the story, it dawns on you that the middle hundred pages are kinda flat. You didn’t plan on it, didn’t see it coming but, now that you’re here, you realize the story is starting to sag.
I’ve stopped reading several novels that began with great promise because of this sagging middle, so I’m very sensitive to this issue as a writer. I don’t want my readers to do the same thing with my books.
As I said, I faced this dilemma while writing my second novel, The Homecoming. I was at the 1/3 point, could see the finish line off in the distance. But the chapters in that middle-third were starting to sound and feel like “blah-blah-blah.” Even to me (definitely to my wife). The story involved a young boy who’d lost his mother, an aging grandfather who just met his grandson a few months ago, and the boy’s father, a war hero. The father and grandfather had just reconciled after years apart at the end of Book 1.
When I realized the middle chapters were getting stale, I talked to my wife and asked for her help. The two of us began to brainstorm some plot possibilities. Aided by the above advice (and since I’d already created characters readers cared about), I knew it was time to do some “terrible things to them.” The idea popped into my head, and I said it out loud. “I know, we could throw Grampa down the stairs.”
My wife’s answer? “That’s perfect. That’ll do it.”
So, that’s what I did. I arranged for Grampa to fall down the stairs. It wasn’t a fatal fall (though he did need to be hospitalized). And this event became the first domino to a host of other significant (and tense) plot developments that safely took me all the way through the previously sagging middle-third.
As I said, I’m writing my 19th novel now, called Saving Parker (Parker is a dog). And I’m just about at the same point. The beginning’s been going great. And I’ve already worked out a great ending. But I’m looking at the chapters up ahead, and all I see are the makings of a seriously sagging middle.
So, we had another what we now affectionately call a “Throw Grampa Down the Stairs” conversation and came up with a similar perfect solution to the problem. I won’t tell you what it is, because the book isn’t out yet (release date is Nov 1st). But I’m all energized again about writing the book again, and I believe it will have the same punch as the first 2 books in the series (Rescuing Finley and Finding Riley).
So…have you ever faced this dilemma? How have you overcome your sagging middle (I’m talking about your novel, not your abdomen)? Tell us your story.
Jack and Rachel leave Culpepper for their long-awaited honeymoon trip, a driving tour through New England. On day three, they stop at a little bayside town in Cape Cod to visit Jack’s grandmother. After he gets called away to handle an emergency, Rachel stays and listens as Jack’s grandmother shares a remarkable story about how she and Jack’s grandfather met in the early days of World War 2. It’s a story filled with danger, decades-old family secrets, daring rescues and romance. Jack is named after his grandfather, and this story set the course and direction for Jack’s life to the present day. After hearing it, Rachel is amazed that anyone survived.