Three Things You Need in Your Climax

The climax.

That point which should be the tensest, most enthralling portion of the book.  Done well, a climax can be simply stupendous.  However, there are also few things in writing that are as bad as a climax done poorly. 3thingsclimaxpost

As one example, there was a series that I was reading a couple years ago that had a ton of promising potential.  It had great characters, gave an amazingly-executed theme, had a thrilling setting, and was explicitly Christian without falling into any of the traps that Christian fiction can have a tendency to fall into.  The first book was stellar and was my favorite novel that I read that year.

But then I came to the second book, which, while it maintained much of the momentum from the first book, failed to have a climax.  It merely set up the last book and thus lacked any real type of conclusion.

I still think the first book is excellent, and still want to finish the series sometime.  But I finished the second book two years ago.  And I haven’t brought myself to read the last book of the series since then.  Despite everything that the series had going for it, it had a distinct lack of a climax.  And that lack killed everything else going on in the series.

Obviously, this isn’t the type of reaction that you want to get from the readers of your book.  While on the outset, the climax may seem rather simple—it’s where everything gets resolved after all—it can often be trickier to execute than it seems on first glance.

“And given how devastating a poor climax can be to an otherwise good book, a lot rides on the success of a climax, so it’s a part of your story that needs to be planned very carefully.”  

There’s a lot that could be said about a novel’s climax—after all, it’s a big topic.  However, as I’ve been thinking of the climax, there are three basic things that every climax ought to have.  Or, rather, three balances.  Let’s look at each of them in turn. [Read more…]

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.

Keystone of The Matter: How to Execute Your Climax

Every element in the construction of a story is important.

The beginning catches the reader, the middle makes them care, and the conclusion satisfies. But the climax…the climax is the keystone of the whole arc. It’s the point which the whole story has been leading to, the turning where success is finally grasped, and the event from which the rest of the character’s life will lead away.keystonepost

And it needs to be done well or the rest of the story, even if it’s well written and intriguing, turns out at bit of a disappointment.

Viewed another way, if the beginning of the story is the foundation of a building, and the middle is the walls, then the climax is the roof…without which you have no house. It is the culminating event in a long chain, during which the main character must finally put to use all he’s learned during the book against overwhelming odds.

The best climaxes will tie together both internal and external struggles.

Regardless of your theme, the internal struggle, be it gathering courage, granting forgiveness, learning sacrifice, etc., is usually solved before the external struggle; [Read more…]

Profile photo of Hope Ann
Hope Ann is a Christian wordsmith, avid reader, and dedicated authoress. Her time is taken up with writing, reading, archery, knife throwing, playing with inspirational photos, helping care for the house and eight younger siblings, and generally enjoying the adventures of life on a small farm at the crossroads of America. She has self-published fairy tale retellings on Amazon and is currently working on several projects including a fantasy novel and futuristic trilogy. You can find out more about Hope and her work on her website as well as links to download her first Legends of Light novella for free!

Dark Christian Fiction: A Contradiction in Terms?

When you pick up a work of fiction at your local Christian bookstore, you can probably expect a couple different things in it.  You can expect it to center around Christian characters that run into some kind of a problem.   You can expect there to be either a really nice atheist or a really mean atheist who ends up converting by the book’s end.  You can expect the main conflict in the book to be challenging—but not overly so, because by the book’s end, everything will need to wrap up in a happy ending.

And it’s because of this that some of you may be doing a double-take upon reading the term: “dark Christian fiction.”  Is Christian fiction really allowed to be dark?  Doesn’t writing for the Kingdom and shining Light in our fiction mean that we want to avoid writing fiction that’s going to be really dark?darkchrisitianfictionpinterest

There can be some fair cautions that should be taking when portraying darkness in fiction that I’m going to address later on in this article.  But what I want to argue in this article is simply this: Darkness must not be excluded from Christian fiction.  We can have a lively discussion how darkness should best be portrayed and how much of it should be shown.  But a refusal to accept dark tones in fiction is problematic.  And because of this, dark Christian fiction is therefore not a contradiction in terms but one that we ought to accept not only as a valid category, but also a necessary category in the world of Christian fiction.

Darkness in Christian Literature

Let’s go back to the hypothetical bookstore that you’re perusing.  You pick up a random book off the shelf, read a couple pages, and soon discover that the book is about a man who was unjustly imprisoned for twenty years and who, upon being freed, proceeds throughout the rest of the book to take revenge on everyone who had wronged him.

Perhaps a bit shocked, you put the book down and pick up another, hoping for something better.  But in this book, the main character is a college-dropout without a real job who within the first several chapters ends up murdering his landlady with an axe for a variety of reasons and as the book progresses, goes on to fall in love with a prostitute.

Both of these books would perhaps be tough sells to make in today’s Christian market.  [Read more…]

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf started reading when he was four, started writing fiction when he was six and hasn’t stopped doing either ever since. After growing up with seven younger siblings, he eventually found himself graduated and attending Patrick Henry College, where he plans on majoring in literature with a minor in pedagogy (it’s a fancy Greek word for education).
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels that have worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as fun as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. Plans for obtaining those impossible goals include listening to a lot of Hans Zimmer, ignoring college work so that he can find time to write, and avoiding coffee at all costs.

How Skeletons Can Help Your Story

I view outlines as the dry bones of a book or article.

The inner structure of a story, invisible and yet affecting the shape of the final work. Of course, sometimes these skeletons are larger and more detailed than others. And sometimes major bones are missing. When I sat down to outline this article, the finished product was messy and splintered. Talk of irony…how do you outline an article about outlining? But I digress.

At the very outset, let me say that every writer has their own views on the usefulness and manner of outlining. Some people don’t outline at all. Personally, I like to outline almost everything I write. And I think that at least a basic outline is of great help to any writer skeletonsto help keep the shape of your story as you flesh it out (pun partly intended). The bones help you keep in mind what you are aiming for, and may cut down on major rewriting later on. Having said that, I’m sure there are many different styles of outlining and an almost unimaginable depth you can go, so I’m going to simply focus on what has worked for me.

Outlining is…well, outlining.

For me, it also involves a number of brief synopses laying out a rough draft of what happens and in what order from the beginning of the story to the end. At the same time, these bones need to be flexible to change at any stage. They aren’t rules, they are more like…guidelines. My own outlines change multiple times, and the longer the work, the more often I tend to rearrange parts of the skeleton.

My first outlines, no matter what I’m working on, ends up very sketchy. It involves a lot of thinking, mumbling to myself, writing contradictory points, and backspacing. Basically, I get a rough idea of the whole story or article. There are normally minor, or even major, details that need to be figured out, but the basic pieces are in place. Here’s an example of what I could have written for a book of my own: [Read more…]

Profile photo of Hope Ann
Hope Ann is a Christian wordsmith, avid reader, and dedicated authoress. Her time is taken up with writing, reading, archery, knife throwing, playing with inspirational photos, helping care for the house and eight younger siblings, and generally enjoying the adventures of life on a small farm at the crossroads of America. She has self-published fairy tale retellings on Amazon and is currently working on several projects including a fantasy novel and futuristic trilogy. You can find out more about Hope and her work on her website as well as links to download her first Legends of Light novella for free!

Realities of War

Swords flash. Shields clash. Spears glint. Horses thunder across the plains. Grim lines of soldiers advance and retreat. Flags flutter and trumpets blast amid the glittering glory of battle.Realities_of_War

This is what may come to mind when the word ‘war’ appears in a fictional or fantasy setting, but it’s a far shout from the bitter, slogging endurance of a real campaign.

A war builds up long before the first battle lines clash.

How many details actually appear in the story depend on the writer’s choice and what time the book starts, but there are many things which should be known about the ‘pre-war’ weeks, months, or even years.

Are there tensions between the two nations (assuming, of course, this isn’t a civil war)? War is a grave matter, not to mention expensive, so what has led two or more nations to such a confrontation?

And are both sides at various levels of fault, or is there definite division of evil and good?

The most common story-line is for one nation to invade another. The invaders, of course, are bad while the outnumbered and battered resisters are on the side good. (But what if the stereotype was reversed? Hmm…it’s worth a thought. But back on topic).

Is the attack a complete surprise? The invading nation has had to gather troops and supplies, so have such signs been noticed? And if not, is it because of laziness, carelessness, or expert security on the invading side…any one of which could be yet another obstacle in the way of the ‘good’ army?

In either case, whether with months to prepare or mere hours, organizational networks need to be set in place.

How many men sign up or are drafted into the army? Depending on the size of your country, this could be a considerable percentage of men. At this point, many of the younger men may think of war in terms of glory and heroics, while their elders remain silent and serious. And, as the army’s numbers swell, the villages and towns change. A quarter of the men may be gone. Or half the men. The mothers, daughters, elderly, and young children must now tend to the fields to keep life going as before…and more.

Logistics

For there is bustle on the home front as well. Weapons must be supplied for all soldiers. Food, tents, clothes, medicines, boots, bandages…the list of supplies could go on and on. Someone has to make and transport these things. And that someone isn’t going to be the steel clad soldier now lining up to give his life, if need be, in defense of those he loves.

And, of course, the armies of both sides must meet before the first battle takes place. An army moves an average of 10-30 miles a day depending on many things, such as seasons, roads, weather, number and formation of troops, and their condition. The Roman army regularly traveled 15-18 miles a day, and then stopped in mid-afternoon and set up camp, complete with trenches, a solid wall surrounding orderly tents, and roads laid out regularly throughout the whole. The next morning they tore up the logs, burned what they didn’t carry with them, marched another day, and rebuilt the fortress that evening.

However quickly the army moves, they need to protect their baggage train. Supplies of all kinds must be carried along for the army’s well-being, but this baggage train can be quite troublesome for an invading army. And the further they move into an enemy land, the longer supply lines will stretch and the more vulnerable it will be…unless they can get all the supplies they need from their defeated enemy. Relying solely on the enemy’s land can be a risky proposition however…especially if the invaded decides to retreat, burning fields and stopping up springs as they go. This is known as a “scorched earth policy,” famously employed by the Russians on multiple occasions, much to the chagrin of Napoleon and Hitler.

Non-combat casualties

Just as preparations for war starts long before the first battle, so many lives may be lost without a blow being struck. Disease does not spare victors from vanquished, but strikes everywhere with a heavy hand. In many wars, the number of soldiers who succumb to sickness are several times greater than those who fall in battle. In the American Civil war, dysentery, typhoid, and pneumonia were among the top three killers, with two out of three deaths due to disease of some kind. The number was even greater among English troops in the Napoleonic era.

If your story takes place in the future or present, sickness might not be as great a problem. Even a fantasy-style medieval army could cut their losses by basic protocols which, obvious though they may seem, can be overlooked…such as camping on dry ground away from swamps and making sure latrines are downstream of wherever the army’s drinking water is drawn from. While all these details may not even be referenced in a book, it is something to keep in mind. And, if you need another challenge to throw at your characters, a deadly epidemic is in no way unrealistic.

Battles

Finally, one day, both armies ‘see each other in the face’. They may or may not attack the first day. Roman armies would sometimes march out and face each other for several days before the battle took place. Sometimes one general would draw up his soldiers, taunting the other in an effort to draw them into an attack. Positions may be shifted and secured. But, eventually, one or both sides will move and the battle will be joined.

Battles are not necessarily won by one glorious (or not so glorious) charge. Sometimes one army will charge the position of the other, while other times they meet at the center of the field. A running charge is for the practical purpose of closing the distance between armies and so escaping javelins and arrows as quickly possible. All too soon the flying projectiles are exchanged for the dubious security of hand to hand fighting as both sides meet and the battle proper begins. And the soldiers, now fighting for their lives amid the heat, screams, and blood of battle are quickly disillusioned to whatever thoughts of glorious combat they may have had.

A battle’s length varies. Some battles last two or three hours. Others are fought from dawn and into the night. In the Bible, some battles were fought all day with the victors pursuing the enemy all night. Others battles are fought for several days in a row before one side conquers the field.

As the battle progresses, there are many minor details that should be kept in mind to add to the feeling of reality. For example, what direction is your army facing? Is the sun behind them or in a position to blind them (or to the side where it could do either)? Keep in mind that if the sun rises behind your troops, it will eventually set before them and get in their eyes if the battle progresses into the afternoon. What is the weather like…sunny, overcast, windy, stormy? Weather is very important and can be used as a help or hindrance. And the geography…are there hills to retreat to, forests to ambush from, or a solid anchor for the flanks?

Most of all, what of the soldiers? Many of these men are probably killing for the first time. They are horrified and terrified. Men, comrades, friends are dying about them. Some are struck down. Others are wounded and, unless they can move, run the risk of being trampled underfoot. Yet the soldiers fighting must ignore the cries of their comrades and struggle on.

And, no matter what weapons your army is using, death is never pretty. Swords don’t just stab cleanly through the heart and neither do bullets. Blood. Severed limbs and bodies. Raging thirst. The stench of battle. Screams of the wounded. Vultures, perhaps, circling overhead. You get a portion of the picture. Choosing how graphically to portray the battle is another topic, but what the men are seeing is something that will affect them mentally and emotionally for months and years to come.

The end of a battle rarely ends in the complete destruction or capture of the vanquished army. And sometimes, if the battle ends in a rout, more men are killed as they flee than were cut down in the fight itself. The pursuit, either on horse or foot, can last the whole night and into the next day.

Aftermath

Many books and stories close with the victory of the hero and his army, but that is hardly the end. Hundreds, thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of dead from both sides cover the ground. And, mixed with those who gave their life for their cause, are the wounded. Depending on the situation, a truce might be arranged so the opposing side can carry away their casualties. Or it might be the task of the weary victors to clear the field, tending to the wounded and dying as best they are able and quickly disposing of the fallen. This gruesome task can drag on for several days. There’s also spoil to be gathered and perhaps riotous soldiery to control. On top of this, there are still normal mundane things to attend to, such as watches on the camp, care for prisoners, and the steady supply of food. Weather and animals, such as the aforementioned vultures or wild dogs, can also complicate matters.

And that’s just the first battle. Some wars are completed in the spring or summer of the campaign season. Others drag on for years. Armies march and counter march, taking passes, holding cities, and trying to starve each other by cutting off supplies. More men are drawn into the ranks from back home and eventually another battle is fought, and yet another, and another until one side surrenders, is defeated, or a treaty of some kind is worked out.

The length and ferocity of any war has long reaching effects. Quite often, famines are coupled to war due to the shortage of men to raise crops, as well as the destruction of fields by the armies on both sides. With many men being cut down, there will be numerous families living without the head protector of their home, and many children growing up without a father. A shortage of young men of marriageable age may also be a real possibility in some parts of the country.

Quite often, in books, a single crushing defeat repels or destroys the enemy. This is theoretically possible, but after a nation has braced itself for war, they normally won’t back down after a single battle. Even if the ‘good’ army, who is normally outnumbered, manages to completely defeat and conquer the invading army, the belligerent nation can probably raise another army to send against the now battered conquerors. So make sure the ensuing peace is realistically brought about, perhaps by a wiser leader who’s risen after the fall of the main villain, or by the combined outrage of the people of the opposing nation who never wanted the war in the first place.

But no matter who wins the war, the land has changed. Things will never be exactly as they were before. Hundreds and thousands of men are dead, their families shattered and mourning. Others come home, wounded or with sights they will never forget emblazoned in their mind. Young men are now old in the horrors they’ve seen. Treasuries are drained, villages are burned, fields lie fallow.

Though war is sometimes necessary, and in books is commonly part of the plot, it isn’t pretty, it isn’t glorious, and it isn’t to be desired. Heroics consist of normal men doing what needs to be done in the face of fear and death. In the place of the glorious feats the young soldiers once dreamed of, there is a comradeship and strong love among the troops. A love for those they defend, and a brotherly love among themselves. For no greater love has any man, than that he lay down his life for his friend.

Profile photo of Hope Ann
Hope Ann is a Christian wordsmith, avid reader, and dedicated authoress. Her time is taken up with writing, reading, archery, knife throwing, playing with inspirational photos, helping care for the house and eight younger siblings, and generally enjoying the adventures of life on a small farm at the crossroads of America. She has self-published fairy tale retellings on Amazon and is currently working on several projects including a fantasy novel and futuristic trilogy. You can find out more about Hope and her work on her website as well as links to download her first Legends of Light novella for free!

What Baby-Sitting Can Teach You About Writing

Quick. What’s your first reaction when you hear that the “littlest” members of the family are coming to spend some time at your house? For some of us, it may not be excitement. It means no computer time and an indefinite number of little kids to watch for the duration of their stay. Synonymous with the end of the world? Maybe not, but it’s not going to be a walk in the park either.

Babysitting Pinterest

I mean, really. Authors, the predictable species that we are, are already self-conscious enough about our writing. Hide the screen at all times—even if it’s just the innocent passerby. And one plus prying pairs of eyeballs? Yeah… there goes your last hope for finishing NaNoWriMo. Introverted? Too bad—the family is expecting you, being the responsible young adult that you are, to keep your cousins occupied.

 

Now what, aside from what sounds like Sarah feeling the need to tell you about her most grievous position over the holidays, does this have to do with writing? They’re little kids, after all. They can’t even read yet. Ah, but it’s not them that will be learning something. It’s you.

 

When my two little cousins, Charlie and Nora, arrived yesterday, the first thing we did was jump right into the action– we went to our big swing at the end of the field. Well, right after introductions.

 

Think about it. What kind of beginning do you want to have in a novel? Certainly not one that starts off with a bunch of boring information dumps about how life has been for the author, or all the not-so-important conversations about daily life and normal things, God forbid that we have remotely normal lives. No, you want to jump right into the action.

[Read more…]

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If you’ve ever emailed us at KP, you’ve probably “met” Sarah—a passionate storyteller with a huge heart that loves Jesus and everyone she meets. Sarah grew up in Georgia with her mom, dad, and little sister, Merry, where she attends the University of Georgia, majoring in International Affairs and Agriculture Communication. When she graduates, Sarah wants to help people all over the world succeed in the agriculture industry and tell the all-important story of the farmer. She joined the Kingdom Pen Team as Secretary in September 2013 and now serves as the Director of Community Happiness. Sarah has been homeschooled, private-schooled, and graduated from Madison County High School in May 2015. She attended Summit in July 2015. She’ll read pretty much anything (if she had to pick, though, her favorite author would be Frank Peretti) and has tried her hand at pretty much every kind of writing out there, though she likes writing fiction and poetry best. But because writing bios is a struggle, if you really want to get to know Sarah, shove some words in her general direction via the Forum, on one of the many social medias down below, or through the KP e-mail: kingdompenmag@gmail.com.

Are You Too Young To Be Writing Romance?

Almost every adventure novel has the same few characters: a hero, a villain, a mentor, an ally, and a love.

 

There is usually some sort of romance going on in just about every popular adventure novel today; however, should teens be including a “love” character in their stories? Are you too young to be writing romance? I think there are a couple things we should consider before we blindly follow the formula.

Too Young For Romance Pinterest

Do you know what you’re talking about?

 

As Josiah explains:

 

Perhaps the simplest answer to, “should you include a love side-plot in your story,” is just to “write what you know.”  Now, I’ve written a post before about this line and why it doesn’t necessarily mean what you might first think it means (Portraying Reality In Your Story), but I think there’s an obvious kernel of truth in this saying with regards to the given issue.  Namely, if you haven’t been in a relationship before, it’s going to be really hard to do it accurately in a way that is going to be realistic enough for your readers.

 

I’m not going to say that it can’t be done—after all, one of the finest romance authors in the history of English literature, Jane Austen, was never married herself.  But it does mean that you’re going to have to do a lot of work if you’re going to attempt it without personal experience: lots of people-watching, lots of research, lots of thought and revision.  I’m not convinced that you necessarily have to be a certain age before writing a romance, but the younger you are, the less experience you’ll likely have in the area, and thus the less likely it is to be as realistic.  And so for me personally, I’ve tended to shy away from writing romances for that reason: one can only really write about that which one has experienced or understands.

 

Without experience, a good, realistic understanding is hard to achieve. 

[Read more…]

Women In Combat: We Need More Strong Female Characters – Part 2

This post is a collaboration of thoughts from the KP Team, building off of part 1.

How should the Christian writer handle the prospect of female characters in combat? 

Strong Female Characters Part 2

Strength comes down to how well someone or something fulfills the purpose it was created for. Men and women were created to fulfill different roles, each reflecting one-half of God’s character. A woman doesn’t need to pick up the sword, or express military prowess to be strong.

Does this mean we can’t depict women in combat? Not at all!

As writers, we need to draw a careful distinction between aspects of the story that are there just because it reflects reality, and aspects that we’re trying to glorify.  In the context of whether not we should write stories with women in combat, this distinction can become pretty crucial.  There is nothing wrong with writing about “gung-ho, beat-’em-up female characters taking part in combat” necessarily. To the extent that our culture is moving in that direction, those sorts of people do exist in real life to some extent.  The real question then, is whether or not we present it in a positive light in our stories. Gender roles and gender callings are a tricky subject to wade through, especially in light of a culture that’s very hostile to drawing any distinction between men and women.  It therefore becomes imperative to focus on biblical commands to guide us through these discussions, and not on cultural standards.

The real question then becomes, “should we be glorifying women in combat?”

[Read more…]

Re-imagining The “Damsel In Distress”

WARNING! This post is politically incorrect and may be offensive to some audience members.
Reader discretion is advised.

 

The damsel in distress; oh what a symbol of misogyny and oppression.  This ancient trope of a male hero saving a woman from imminent harm is arguably the most bemoaned in our culture today. I’m sure you have all heard the frequent criticism of Disney animated films featuring princesses, “Why do they all need a man to save them?” Mainstream media clamors for female characters who can save themselves, are independent of men, or better yet, save a man in distress! Although, it is a bit strange that you never hear people say how demeaning it is to men that the male lead must save a woman in order to have value. Hmm…

Reimagining the Damsel in Distress Post Graphic

Is the modern day scorn for the damsel in distress well deserved? To a degree. Like any story element, the damsel in distress plot-line can be written poorly.

As many point out, the Damsel in Distress trope can sometimes paint the woman in distress as being one-dimensional. Some fear that this trope sends the message that, “women are inherently weak and their only strength is their beauty.” If a particular story creates a damsel that is weak, pretty…and that’s it, then I would agree that this is a valid point.

Making the damsel in distress weak and one-dimensional is bad not so much because it’s insulting to women (even physically weak women still have worth), but it is bad in that it is just poor story writing. No one is one-dimensional. No person is simply just weak and that’s all there is to them. People are complex, so to write a one-dimensional damsel, a one-dimensional character, is not realistic, and harms a story.

When one makes the damsel one-dimensional, the Damsel in Distress plot then becomes a mere cop-out. Instead of doing the work to create conflict and tension, the writer simply makes the Hero’s love interest fall into enemy hands and boom! Instant conflict and tension! But the story will ultimately fall flat, and seem unbelievable.

That said, I don’t think the Damsel in Distress plotline is inherently evil. What is more, despite the criticism, the reality remains that we love the Damsel in Distress plot!

“The reality remains that we love the Damsel in Distress plot!”

[Read more…]

Ninjas in Hindsight

We writers are like tightrope walkers. We can do beginnings and endings just fine, but when we get to the middle, things get a little wobbly.

Most of us, anyway. If you’re one of those rare individuals who can churn out brilliant middle sections with grace and ease, multiple appendages tied behind your back, a disdainful smile cNinjaurling your mouth, then congratulations and more power to you. Now please exit the room–you’re making the rest of us nauseous.

The rest of you, stick around. Thou art my brothers and sisters in affliction, those of us who slog through our middles with much groaning and gnashing of teeth, each keystroke a torturous plea to our snoring muse to please, please wake up and help us through this. Because we have absolutely, positively no idea where we’re going with this thing. It stinketh.

And I’m not just talking about story middles, either. There is also the smaller middle, the part that comes between two set plot points. Here’s what I mean.

 

ScreenHunter_01 May. 24 20.31

 

 

 

 

 

 

No, you’re not back in Algebra 1. These are two separate events in a story, Point A leading into Point B. In Point A your hero has been slammed with a completely unpredictable situation in which two bone-chilling consequences lie on either side of an unavoidable decision. Point B is the pride and joy of your right brain, a plot twist of ginormous proportions.

But something happened between those two points that brought the unbearable stench of lameness into your story, and no matter how hard you fan, it lingers in the air like the reminder of the trash can you should have emptied two weeks ago. And it’s depressing. Frankly, it’s making you wonder why you ever bothered with this novelling thing in the first place.

The problem has nothing to do with your plot points. They’re good. They’re original. The problem is that tiny innocent-looking horizontal line connecting the two. Therein lies the stinkage.

Let me backtrack a little bit. You know that in Point A your hero, a bold young ninja, has been slapped with the icky news that a massive army of mutant killer koala bears is five minutes away from demolishing his unsuspecting home village. He is given the news by his aged Sensei uncle, who has developed a severe ingrown toe hair that renders him helpless to do anything but hoarsely bid his young protégé to go and warn their beloved village. Our eager hero is just about to run and do just that, when he remembers something that turns his tender young blood to blueberry slushee. His fiance had informed him that morning that she was going to spend the day frolicking among the northern rice fields–incidentally, the direction that the mutant koala bears will be rampaging from. He hesitates for several excruciating moments, then runs off toward the rice fields, confident that he can warn the love of his life and still get to the village in time.

Fast forward to Plot B. Having failed to save his true love or the village, our hero wakes from unconsciousness on the cold stone floor of a subterranean dungeon. In sweeps the Evil Ninja Overlord of Shocking and Unmitigated Evilness, who removes his hood and reveals himself to be… (your reader waits with bated breath) …our hero’s Sensei uncle, who apparently has quite a gift for faking ingrown toe hairs.

(Okay, so perhaps the proportions of ol’ Point B aren’t particularly ginormous after all, but we can work with it.)

Now that we have our two plot points, all we need to do is connect them. We stare at our computer screen, scratch our noggin, and finally, itching to move on, slap down a quickie scene that we don’t have to think too hard about.

Our hero is running across the northern rice fields, his frolicking fiancee in sight, when he trips and falls, knocking himself out. Minutes later, the Koalas sweep by, kill his true love, raze the village, and take his unconscious body back to their leader. Right?

(Hint: Nope.)

That little horizontal line connecting Point A and Point B is just that–a short, straight line. It doesn’t swerve, it doesn’t deviate from its businesslike path. And this is what causes one of the most common writerly problems known to mankind. We use up all our brain-juice thinking up genius plot twists, and then don’t have the creative energy to connect them with anything but that boring, predictable horizontal line.

How do we fix this? With a simple tool called reverse outlining.

Reverse outlining has become one of the favorite weapons in my creative arsenal. Don’t let the name put you off if you are of that spontaneous camp known affectionately as “pantsers”–this technique works for outliners and pantsers alike.

To demonstrate, let’s go back to our ninja story. Our first impulse might be to start at Point A, where he’s deciding to go warn his fiancee, and try to shove ahead from there, figuring out the story in sequential order. This very well could work, but there’s also a good chance that we’ll just end up writing something as lame and groan-inducing as him tripping and knocking himself out on a rice plant.

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Enter reverse outlining. Instead of trying to cram in some kind of filler scene to get us to the exciting stuff in Point B, we go to Point B and tell the story backwards.

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So let’s go to Point B, where the hero is lying chained in his uncle’s dungeon, and look back. How did we get here? Well, the Koalas carried us in. What happened before that? He must have been captured, probably with some kind of big dramatic fight scene. But how did that happen? Wasn’t he confident that he could move fast enough to get to his fiancee and the town in time? Maybe he just overestimated his speedy legs, but that’s too boring to be the main impediment of the scene. Something must have happened to delay him in the rice fields. Maybe his dimwitted fiancee was too wrapped up in her frolicking to listen to a word he was saying. Or maybe she had a good reason to stay in the rice fields, one that he disagreed with. Maybe she was secretly on his uncle’s side, and, while tossing an appropriately devious and scornful laugh in his face, told him so. This would be more than enough of a shock to delay our poor hero long enough to be swept up by the hordes of ravening Koalas.

Or… what if the fiancee was really an illusion the diabolical uncle had planted in the hero’s mind many years ago with his twisted psychological powers, and never really existed at all?

This completely changes the genre of our novel, but you get the idea. Corny though it be, it sure beats that wimpy little horizontal line we started with.

This is a very simple technique, and it may not seem earthshaking or revolutionary enough to make that much of a difference, but there’s a very good reason why it works so darn well.

It all comes back to the rule of Hindsight 20/20. Looking ahead and trying to estimate what the future may hold will always be foggy and uncertain, at best. But looking back at the past, at events that have already taken place, the memories come into place with a satisfying click, and things that might have confused the bejeezers out of you at one time all make sense now. It works the same way in your stories, as weird as that sounds. It’s almost a psychological gimmick.

This technique becomes invaluable when you hit your Big Middle–for most novels, that’s the seventy-five percent or so of story that lies between Act One and Act Three. This is where the fun stuff happens. This is where we get to write the epic battles, the breathtaking chase scenes, and all those fight sequences we’ve choreographed in the shower. Unfortunately, this is also the part that makes most of us want to strangle our fledgling story with its own entrails. Because Act Two is where the problem of Boring Horizontal Line becomes epidemic. We have our plot twists, our little black dotty points on our storyline, but now they’re spread out over seventy-five percent of the novel. And we’re racking our brains trying to figure out how to get from insanely clever plot twist No. 1 to epic battle to ravaging defeat to astonishing discovery and insanely clever plot twist No. 2.

TOO MUCH, our tortured brain sobs, and we either write an anti-climactic midget of an Act Two, or we give up and pack our poor unfinished works of fiction off to the Home for Abandoned Stories like the worst parents in the world.

That’s what happened to me in my first novel, The Nephilim Project. At the end of Act One, my hero, Greg, was running for his life, dogged by creepy shaven-head dudes who wanted him for a nefarious and top-secret genetic experiment. Because of a last-ditch plan that cost him the life of his mentor, Greg was able to make contact with an underground resistance group who smuggled him back to their headquarters, where he was safe… but not really, because unbeknownst to any of the good guys, the creepy shaven-head dudes had managed to get a spy inside the rebel headquarters.

And then I hit the Big Middle. I knew that Act Three would open with Greg finally captured by the bad guys, lying on his back in a bare concrete cell with a cracked rib and a majorly pouty attitude. I also knew how that would escalate into my climax, then glide down into a satisfying last scene. I just had no clue what would happen before that. I didn’t know how to fill Act Three.

So I had Greg chilling with the rebels for a couple of chapters, recovering from a couple of injuries and really just killing time. Then he decided to volunteer for an undercover operation (of a degree of lameness that prevents me from disclosing the full details here) and the rebels are all gung-ho about letting the untrained newbie go take care of this super important thing, and they send him on his merry way in a car. Which is driven, incidentally, by the evil spy. One chase scene later, Greg is captured.

Can anyone say convenient? Not to mention short. My Big Middle had become a Dinkie and Most Unimpressive Middle.

When I went back to rewrite the novel, it became clear that Act Two was going to need some serious beefing up. After a L.M. Montgomery-esque period of languishing in the Depths of Despair, I decided to try reverse outlining.

First I went to the beginning of Act Three. Greg captured, broken rib, concrete cell. How did he get there? Well, duh. He was dumped there by the bad guys. How did they manage to capture him? They chased him down and cornered him somewhere, right? Which meant he had to be out in the open, not hiding in the rebel headquarters where he was safe. Why the heck was he running around outside, where he knew he ran the risk of being nabbed? Forget the lame secret mission thing for now–let’s give him another reason for putting himself in danger. Is he looking for something, or somebody? Maybe he’s on a mission so deeply personal that he snuck back out of the rebel headquarters to accomplish it.

Or maybe he was running from something other than the creepy shaven-head dudes. Maybe it was something he had stumbled onto inside the rebel headquarters, something so [fill in the blank] that he would sooner risk capture by his enemies than stick around there. Now that opens a whole new world of possibilities… and there’s a chance that once I figure out what this nameless thing is, I could have a whole lot more material to construct my Act Two with.

So that’s reverse outlining for ya. Try it, just once. Who knows, it may give you that elusive twist you’ve been scouring your brain for.

Oh, and if you ever figure out what happens to our ninja friend, let me know. I’m stuck there.

 

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