The moment of suffering is a vital aspect of your hero’s journey. Without it, there would be no context for a surrender. This week, your hero questions the possibility of achieving his goal and he begins to suffer.
Getting Out of the Bog
Some writers thrive on middles. They feel the hard part is out of the way. All the characters are launched, the plot is charted, and they’re skimming along under full sail, eager for the fun of mid-voyage.
I don’t know any of those people.
The writers I do know, myself included, have a genuine problem with middles: We get bogged down. We may or may not dignify this state with the label “writer’s block” (I don’t), but whatever we call it, the effect is the same: We’re bogged down. We just can’t seem to go forward with our novel. Sometimes, we can’t even be in the same room with it, and we certainly won’t be seen in public with it.
There are some common reasons for getting bogged down: Fear of Failure, Fear of Success, the Dark Wood, and Wrong Way O’Shea. Some writers also get bogged down by the sheer magnitude of the challenge: the page count, the time invested, and the stamina required.
Fear of Failure
I talked about this a little in a recent post. Many writers get through the first half, read it over, and become discouraged by the Voice of Doom that says their work isn’t as good as the professional stories they’ve read. I have a Master’s Degree in English Literature, so I completely understand this fear, because I’ve studied some of the best literature ever written. I’m not Shakespeare, I’m not George Bernard Shaw, I’m not Dickens, Tolstoy, Somerset Maugham, or Jane Austen. I’m not even C.S. Lewis or Edgar Rice Burroughs. My standards as a reader are high. So, like Jules Renard, “Whenever I apply myself to writing, literature comes between us.”
But what we need to realize is that this sort of thinking is just hamstringing us as writers. We don’t practice our craft because we’re already better at it. We get better at our craft because we practice it. So stop your whinging and get back to work.
Fear of Success
I’ll talk more about this in an upcoming post, but to touch on it briefly here, sometimes we’re afraid that if we’re actually any good at this, we’ll have to keep doing it. And what if we can’t? “If I finish this novel, I’ll have to start another one. I’ll need another idea. What if I don’t have another idea? What if that other novel doesn’t go as well as this one? What if I disappoint my fans, or myself?” And so we don’t finish the novel we’re working on. We spend our time polishing here and there, planning alternate endings, and rewriting the opening.
If this fear has you bogged down, the best thing to do is take out the calendar: “I will finish this story by the last day of the 13th week.” And don’t just mark it on the calendar. Tell people. Tell them to ask you whether the story’s done. Make it such a big deal that you must finish or you’ll feel like the biggest fool in the world. And then, when it’s done—and this is most important—start the next story immediately. Forget about the one you just finished. The one that counts is the one you’re writing right now.
The Dark Wood
Sometimes we get bogged down for the most legitimate reason of all: We’re lost in a Dark Wood and we don’t know what’s supposed to happen next. Either we started the novel hoping that inspiration would just come to us, or we’ve written ourselves into a corner. This is actually a positive thing, and this is where some of the planning we did in the first few weeks of the #13WeekNovel will come in handy. Take out your bullet-point outlines of the major structural beats, go over the plan, and find your throughline again. Invest some time thinking about your characters and your plot. Get away from the keyboard and scribble some notes, interrogating your story. Do you know what your characters want? Could they be wanting something that you’ve overlooked? What’s at stake in their story? Can you raise the stakes? Has the plot come to a standstill? What are some other directions you could take? When you hit on something interesting, write about it, even if it takes you places you weren’t expecting. Your original vision is lost in the Dark Wood anyway, maybe this way will be better. If it doesn’t fit with the first part of your story, that’s OK. You can go back in the rewrite and smooth out the differences.
Wrong Way O’Shea
On the opposite side of the Dark Wood is this problem: You know exactly where you’re going. You’ve worked out the whole novel in your mind, or you’ve outlined it on paper, and when you started to write it, you were very interested. You’ve stuck to your outline, but something’s begun to happen. The characters are behaving oddly. They’re overreacting emotionally, they’re saying or doing things that seem out of character, things they just have to say for your plot to work. They’re making long soliloquies about their motivations, because without them, their actions don’t seem motivated. And worst of all, you hate the idea of sitting down to write now.
These are all symptoms of having fallen afoul of Wrong Way O’Shea, the mischievous sprite who strangles unborn stories in their sleep. Your characters are overreacting because the plot is flat and you’re trying to rev up the tension artificially. Out-of-character behavior means that you have the wrong characters in your plot, or the wrong plot for these characters. Long speeches by characters defending their actions are a sign that there’s a gap in the characterization: we should see their motivations before their actions, rather than having their motivations explained to us after the fact.
There’s just one solution: Scrap your outline. It doesn’t work.
And now you have two choices. If your characters are taking off in directions you didn’t anticipate, be grateful and follow them. This means your characters are still alive, even if the plot is dead. If you follow them far enough, they might lead you to a new and better plot.
The other choice is to go back to the last place where the story really lit a fire in your belly. Wherever that point occurred, scrap everything after it. Then sit down and build a new plot on what’s left.
This takes courage. You’ll have to kill some darlings, and resign yourself to throwing away days, maybe weeks of work. But there’s no point in keeping scenes that are bogging you more deeply into apathy. If you aren’t interested in it anymore, why should anyone else be? Cut your losses, keep what you can, and treat the story as a whole new project.
Write a quick point-form outline up to the moment your hero suffers.
Write to the moment when your hero suffers.
Keep in Mind
Your story isn’t linear. The trajectory shifts as a result of your hero’s attempts to achieve his goal.
The hero’s goal doesn’t change. However, his approach to this goal is always changing.
Your hero suffers as he begins to recognize the difficulty of ever getting what he wants. He is awakening to the nature of the plight.
Suffering is different from surrendering. When we suffer, we dig in our heels, put blinders on, and limit ourselves to new possibilities. The thing about holding your ground is that you also can’t move forward.
Surrender: the next major beat in your hero’s journey is the result of letting go of the “want.” Your hero still desires the same goal; it’s just that he recognizes that his desire is preventing him from attaining it.
If this moment feels unclear, be curious again about your antagonists. Are they doing everything they can to get in the way of the hero’s goal? Every time your hero attempts to get what he wants, antagonists stand in his way.
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