#13WeekNovel Writing Challenge: Week Nine — Commitment

This week, you’re reaching the midpoint of your story, when your hero realizes that there really is no going back. This is often where the story turns. As you continue to interrogate your hero’s motivation, you may discover a moment of temptation for him. This moment will keep you in touch with the tension at the heart of the hero’s plight.

The Mid-Novel Crisis

By now, your character is suffering a mid-life crisis. Her life exists in your story, and midway through your page count, she is supposed to undergo a significant change. She sees the error of her ways, or she is made wise by experience, or she has a religious conversion, or she simply grows up. By the end of your story, she will behave much differently than she did at the beginning. She will be a different person, and yet remain the same person the reader has come to know.

How in the hell do you pull that off?

The honest answer? Very, very carefully.

The danger is that your character’s change of heart may seem arbitrary and unmotivated. To make character changes seem convincing, four things have to happen:

  • The reader must understand your character’s initial personality, and particularly her motivation. What does she want? Why is she behaving in a certain way?
  • The reader must see evidence that your character is capable of change (not everyone is).
  • The reader must see a pattern of experiences dramatized that might reasonably be expected to affect someone.
  • The reader must see a plausible new motivation replace the old one.

The first should occur in Act One. The second two should occur mostly in the middle of your story (the fourth may also occur there). If you take care to set up character changes in the middle, such changes won’t seem arbitrary or contrived at the end.

In addition, if you maintain control over your character’s motivation, you will automatically enhance other story elements: plot, tension, and theme. This is because stories grow out of what characters do, and what characters do grows out of what they want.

What’s a Through-Line?

The throughline is movie-talk mumbo-jumbo. It refers to the main plotline of your story, the one that answers the question, “What happens to the protagonist?” A lot of things might happen to the protagonist of course, not to mention the other characters in the book, but the primary events of the most significant line of action is the throughline. It’s what keeps your readers reading.

Getting a clear handle on your throughline can make the middle of your book a lot easier to write. It helps you determine which scenes to emphasize. You might write one, or even two, scenes connected to a subplot, but if you have your throughline firmly in mind, you won’t write more than two without returning to it. Some writers jot down the throughline of their novel on an index card, compressing it down to one or two sentences, to keep it clear in their minds. I tack mine on the wall directly behind my computer monitor. That way, the throughline is never more than a few inches above my work.

Whatever your throughline is, knowing it in advance can help you to keep your story on track. You might not yet know which scenes you’ll write, but at least you know the end toward which you’re writing.

But what if you don’t? Is it possible to write a novel without determining your throughline, just by setting off by the seat of your pants? Yes, of course it’s possible. Many writers start a story because a character or a setting or a situation or an idea occurs to them and then just write along, seeing where their concept leads them. Some writers work this way occasionally (like me). Some prefer this way. Some can’t work any other way.

If this sounds like you, great! Carry on! Write your heart out! But everything I’ve said about the throughline still applies— but you’ll have to wait until your second draft to determine what the throughline is, and then decide which material you have is still usable. As a rule, the later scenes of the first draft are the ones you’ll be most likely to keep, because by then, you’ll have an ending in mind. But the whole first half of the story, or more, could end up thrown out and replaced with scenes that actually fit with your later decisions about character, plot, and ending. It doesn’t really matter to the final work, so long as you decide what your throughline is at some point, and then make sure that your story follows that throughline from beginning to end.

Keep in Mind

The midpoint is an event that causes your hero to respond by committing fully toward getting what she wants.

Be curious about the want that is driving your hero, and the hero’s plight (the tension between her want and what she actually needs). These two elements are linked. As you explore the want and the plight at this point, you may be led to a specific image for your story.

Welcome to Commitment. Population: You.

Commitment is different than simply making a decision at the end of Act One. The stakes are raised. Your hero understands the consequences of her choice (“there is no going back”), and this leads to a moment of temptation (“but I really want to go back”).

At the midpoint, be curious about how your hero is responding to the antagonists.

If you haven’t reached the first plot point of Act Two (the Post-Turn), set a goal for yourself to complete it in the next day or two. Feel free to sketch it in and move on.

Don’t worry if the story doesn’t completely make sense.

Don’t feel like you have to save some exciting plot point or revelation. Don’t feel like you have to vamp until the next great moment. Cut to the chase. Be curious about what happens if you play that ace now. Will the story collapse? Probably not. But it might go in a direction you hadn’t anticipated. Is that a bad thing? Be curious and find out.

Keep going. Don’t look back. Don’t dig up the seed to see how the story is going. Don’t strangle your story now that it’s growing.

This Week

Write a bullet-point outline from the turn to the midpoint.

You are writing to the midpoint, the moment where your hero commits fully to getting what she wants.

Ready? Steady? Go!

—33—

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About

Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

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Posted in Commitment, Fiction, Process, Story Structure, Writing craft

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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