Original Posting March 22, 2017
I've lost track, I may have written about this before. James Scott Bell, who has been teaching writing for over 20 years, has a pile of books, articles, and so forth out there, and... he says, "I believe this may be the single most powerful writing strategy I have ever developed."
The title of the book is "Write Your Novel from the Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between." It's by James Scott Bell. I got mine from Amazon, on the Kindle store.
Basically, Bell was taking a close look at the midpoint. He was trying to figure out just what belongs in there, and why everyone had so much trouble with it. So he started by looking at movies and novels, and seeing what was in the middle. What he found was a moment within a scene that "tells us what the novel or movie is really all about."
One moment that defines the whole story? Wow!
Now, his whole book is talking about how this works and why this works. But, let me pick out some of the highlights. Then you can decide if you want to read the book yourself. I do recommend it, in case you can't tell.
So, Chapter 1 kind of throws down the gauntlet. Here he sketches a plotter, carefully outlining, a pantser, scribbling away with artistic freedom, and even someone in the middle, and promises to help all of them! Then, in chapter 2, he explains where he found this new insight. Right in the middle!
Chapter 3 talks about stakes. "A great novel is the record of how a character fights with death." Simple, right? Life or death. But… Bell admits, there are three kinds of death. Physical, especially for thrillers and such like, is pretty obvious. However, professional death is also a possibility. Where failure means your career is down the toilet, there is no future. Mysteries often use this. Or, perhaps the death is psychological. Dying on the inside. Romance, oddly enough, is probably about facing psychological death – if you don't get together with your soulmate, you're going to die on the inside.
Now, chapter 4 adds in the two pillars. You've probably heard of the three act structure. Between Act I and Act II, between the introductory bang and the middle turning pages, you need a doorway of no return. You tell us who the characters are and the situation, and then something happens that forces that character to deal with the major problem of the plot. Something that makes sure that "there is no way back to the old, comfortable world." Something that forces the main character to confront those life-and-death stakes!
You want to check your first doorway of no return? Bell gives us a checklist!
1. Does your introduction give us a character worth following?
2. Do your opening pages have a disturbance?
3. Do you know the death stakes of your story?
4. Is there a scene that forces the character into the confrontation with those death stakes?
5. Is this strong enough? Can the lead character resist going into battle?
6. For novels, does this scene occur before about 1/5 of your total page count?
The second pillar, as you might've guessed, is another doorway of no return. Bell labels it the "Doorway of No Return #2." Guess what? This time, the doorway makes inevitable the final battle and resolution. That's right, in the second act, we have "a series of actions where the character confronts and resists death and is opposed by counter forces." Then the second doorway looms! This might be an event that feels like a major crisis or setback. It could be a clue, discovery, revelation. Whatever it is, it pushes the lead character into Act III – the climax, the final battle, the resolution.
1. Have you created a major crisis or setback that the lead must overcome?
2. Is there a clue or discovery that makes the final resolution possible?
There you go. Two doorways. And, in between them, you'll discover…
Chapter 5. The magical midpoint moment. Bell calls this the "look in the mirror" moment. What happens here? Well, basically, the lead character looks at himself (in the mirror). There are two basic thoughts that occur here. In a character-driven story, the lead looks at himself and wonders what kind of a person am I? What kind of person am I becoming? What will happen if I overcome my faults? What do I need to change? In a plot-driven story, the lead looks at himself and considers the odds he faces. Typically, death seems certain! So, transformation or facing the toughest odds. Either way, the character looks in the mirror and thinks about what to do.
That moment, and it's not even a whole scene, is the magical midpoint moment. Bell lays out a golden triangle based -- well, peaked -- with that mirror moment. That's right, take a triangle, and put the mirror moment at the top. That's the middle, and everything else in your story fits around it. On one side, the ending, you know the ultimate transformation that the character is headed for, and on the other side, the beginning, you know their pre-story psychology, where they came from.
So that's the middle. One little moment that makes a story! With a look in the mirror (or whatever your character uses to reflect on their situation), and either a thought about who I am and how I am going to change OR a thought about just what kind of odds I have to overcome. And then...
Chapter 6. Backup and think about the pre-story psychology, how did your character get here.
Chapter 7. Look ahead, and describe the ultimate transformation that your character is headed for. Show it to us. Make it visual. Bell suggests a two-step process.
1. Write a paragraph about the inner realization. Free write this, how does the character feel, what kind of thoughts go through their head?
2. Brainstorm actions that prove the transformation has taken place. Not just an internal change, what do they do that shows they are a new person?
Chapter 8. Whoosh! Mirror moment, back story, and ultimate transformation. Simple, right? And yet, it provides a framework to help guide your writing. In fact, in this chapter, Bell walks through how each kind of writer might use this. First, for the outliner, the plotter, Bell suggests starting with a set of "signpost scenes." Here's his list of 14 signpost scenes.
1. Opening disturbance. The ordinary world, and a change, challenge, trouble, or difference.
2. Care package. Someone that the lead character cares about at the beginning of the story. Show the lead doing something.
3. Argument opposed to the transformation. The lead character states a belief that will be overturned by the end.
4. Trouble brewing. Things may settle down after the initial disturbance, but now a greater trouble is coming.
5. Doorway of No Return #1. Something pushes the lead character into Act II, where they face death!
6. A kick in the shins. While trying to solve the problem, achieve the objective, do something, there is a significant setback for the lead character.
7. The mirror moment. This is where the lead character faces what's going on.
8. Pet the dog. During all the turmoil of Act II, the lead character still takes time to help a person or animal weaker than themselves.
9. Doorway of No Return #2. A major setback, crisis, clue or discovery that sets up the final battle.
10. Mounting forces. The opposition brings in even larger opposition!
11. Lights out. Alone, in the dark, all is lost. The dark night of the despondency!
12. Q Factor. Something gives the lead an emotional push, the courage to fight on, to make the right choice. Often a memory or reminder of emotional impact from Act I, or a trusted character recalling the lead to the need to fight for the right.
13. Final battle. Will the lead overcome the forces of evil (outer) or will the lead make the right choice (inner)?
14. Transformation. Show us the change to a stronger or different self, and build the emotional resonance for the audience.
There you go. With the golden triangle, you can focus on the mirror moment, transformation, and back story, and lay them out against this list of signpost scenes.
Pantser? All right. Go ahead and start writing. Meet the characters, try out a few scenes, see what happens. After about 10,000 words or so, stop and take a look at this checklist:
1. Who is the main character? What is their problem?
2. Do they have a moral flaw that is hurting others? If not, could you give them one?
3. How did they develop it? What's the back story on it?
4. Do you want to write an upbeat ending? If so, how will they overcome the flaw and be transformed? What will that scene look like?
5. Do you want to write a downbeat ending? If so, show how the character has a chance to be transformed, but rejects it.
Think about the mirror moment for the character. What do they see in the mirror? Write their inner thoughts.
There you go. You've got the big pieces, the back story, the transformation, and the mirror moment. Write around that! Keep going!
In Between? Use what you like. Probably, start with the outline of the mirror moment and the transformation. Then go back and fill in some pre-story.
Bell also takes a look at how genre, character, theme, and even parallel plots (or multiple subplots?) fit into this approach. If you like to start with a genre, go ahead. He suggests you might start by filling in the sentence, "My XYZ is about (character/vocation) who is (death stakes situation)." XYZ is the genre, and of course, the character, vocation, and death stakes situation describe your story. Next, brainstorm your mirror moments. Do you want it to be internal or external? What is the moral flaw of your character? What are the odds that they face? Third, brainstorm transformation and back story. Your genre work is going to sizzle with that golden triangle in the middle.
How about character? Well, you might want to start by thinking about transformation. What does this character want to achieve, how do they need to grow and change? What will they do to show how far they have come? Then go back to pre-story, and finish up by thinking about the mirror moment to tie that together.
Theme? One of those grand statements about life, the universe, and how it all fits together? Go ahead, pick your statement. Now, who would be a good character to reflect that. You probably want to go directly to the mirror moment, and focus on the kind of death they are facing. What's a scenario that puts them face-to-face with death and that thematic statement? Come up with several versions, and then pick the one you really like. Then lay out the transformation, and go back to the backstory. Bam!
Parallel plots, subplots – guess what. Put a golden triangle in each one, and work out the pieces.
That's it! You've got the writing from the middle insight firmly in your grasp. Now, go practice it.
An exercise? Sure. Take a story, or a novel, that you know well and like. Now, what is the mirror moment in that story? What's the transformation, and what is the backstory? Study how your favorites have done this, or even how you have done it yourself.
By the way, Bell finishes his book with chapter 9, Some Writing Tips. He's got a pile of good information there, so don't think it's all done yet. But the writing from the middle insight really seems to be pretty much wrapped up at the end of chapter 8, so I'll stop here for now.