The Try/Fail Cycle
often complain about writing the middle of a book, but to me, it’s
quite simple. The middle of the book is almost always an expanded
try/fail cycle in which the main character(s) throw themselves at the
goal at hand and fail over and over again in many different ways.
It’s your job as the writer to think up all the different ways
in which they can fail because obviously they can’t keep
failing the same way over and over again (that would be boring).
character’s goal from the beginning of the book is to become an
expert swordsman so he can lead his father’s troops into
battle. Great. Your job as a writer is to make this as difficult as
possible. Why? Not because you’re mean, but because readers
want to read about difficult things. They want to experience triumph
through your characters, and the greater the difficulty of the
process, the keener the feeling of success will be at the end. Also,
just to be realistic, if your character were to succeed at first try,
you would not have a novel on your hands. It would take ten pages.
an expert swordsman is a big goal. There are many problems to deal
with. A character is going to have to build up muscles (think Mr.
Miyagi). That will take time. It will be painful. There will be
moments when the character wants to give up. Or moments when the goal
seems impossible. People may laugh at the main character. This is all
the stuff of the middle of your book. It’s not boring and it’s
not hard to write. It’s just not about success.
muscles have been built up, the character is going to have to spend
time practicing with a real sword, against real opponents. This won’t
be fun, at least not very often. Get the biggest, baddest opponents
for your main character that you can. They’re not going to take
it easy on them, either. There will be defeats in spades. And more
wanting to give up. More sore muscles, as well as cuts, bruises, and
the physical problems of learning to use a sword will come other
problems. Or these can come before, too. What if someone doesn’t
want the main character to succeed and tries to forbid lessons? Or
tries to sabotage a lesson so that it ends fatally? What if there is
something else that stands in the way—a food shortage, a
premature attack by the bad guys, a call home to deal with a problem
there? Someone dies unexpectedly, or one of the main characters
really does give up and go home, leaving the others to scramble to
fill in the gap. Betrayal. Loss. Grief. This is all the stuff of
novels. Novels are full of problems, not so much solutions.
not to think of your novel as a straight shot from beginning to end.
It’s a very complicated journey with a lot of unexpected
problems that your main characters have to deal with. Showing them
become strong enough to deal with problems that get progressively
worse is what writing a book is. Sometimes you can even introduce the
biggest problem at the beginning and let it look smaller, but as the
main characters get smarter, they begin to realize the truth of the
task ahead of them in a way they hadn’t before.
want to journey with these characters. They want to see them struggle
because it gives readers hope that they can deal with the problems in
their own lives. They also want to feel like reading your book is
worthwhile. They want to experience the fear of failure and then the
glory of success through your characters. It makes us all feel like
our lives are more valuable when we see that difficulties can be
overcome in time, with a great deal of effort, and with friends at
our sides. A book is meant to *feel* real, even if it isn’t
real in any way. It should be emotionally real, no matter how
fantastical the setting.
of the biggest problems I see among beginning writers is the
misunderstanding of what the middle part of a book is. What ends up
happening a lot is that I feel like there are five or six first
chapters setting up small problems, and then a long set up of the
climax, which ends quickly, and there’s a lot of denouement. In
fact, this is paced completely wrong. The beginning sequence of a
book should be fairly short, and so should the climax and denouement.
It’s the middle part of the book that takes so long. If, as you
write it, it feels like it’s taking far too long, ignore this
you will have readers who can tell you if what you’re doing is
working or not, but the middle part shouldn’t feel boring or
like it’s taking too long. It should feel like all this is
absolutely necessary, or if there are parts that are taking away from
the main goal, like the reader is desperate to get back to the rest.
This is all an illusion, of course. You as the author are the
illusionist here, planning out each next step so that the reader will
follow you to the end, believing that all of this is as it must be
because your characters could do nothing else in the world you’ve
presented as theirs.
no one expects you to get this try/fail cycle one hundred percent
right the first time. In revision, your job is to figure out what
parts go by too quickly, without enough complication, and what parts
need to be taken out or made more exciting. You’re also going
to be in a constant hermeneutic circle with your end and beginning.
You will need to tweak or change them as your middle changes. And you
will need to change the middle as you realize what the best ending
is, and where you must begin to get there. Sometimes you have to look
at all the different stories you can tell and choose just one of
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison