Smack Dab Trail Markers #1 – #7

Valentine’s Day is smack dab in the middle of the 90-Day Write on the 85K Writing Challenge. For 14 days in February (seven days before Valentine’s Day and seven days after), writers on “The Smack Dab” will run faster and write harder, striving to write at least one chapter per day, for 14 days.

“The Smack Dab” explained. Begins February 7 and ends February 21, 2017.

IMAGE: The Smack Dab logo.

See this?

IMAGE: The Smack Dab trail marker sign - a metal sign, red with a white heart symbol, by a trail in New Mexico.

That’s a trail marker. Trail markers are tips.

Smack Dab Trail Markers are tips, suggestions, and ideas meant to help writers on their journey through the middle of their novel. They are not meant to be implemented in any particular order, nor are they meant to be implemented at all if they don’t pertain to your particular story. Use what is helpful, disregard the rest.

IMAGE: The Smack Dab trail marker sign - a metal sign, red with a white heart symbol, by a trail in New Mexico.

Day 7 – Monday, February 13, 2017
Smack Dab Trail Marker #7: Power struggles.

Power, in and of itself, as an element in a story, is useful. Power, when it’s exerted, is more useful.

5 Types of Characters Engaged in Power Struggles. Today's discussion on the 85K Writing Challenge. Click To Tweet

Five types of characters tend to find themselves in a power struggle:

1. Those in power
2. Those clinging to or losing power
3. Those fighting for power
4. Those seeking power
5. Those struggling to be free of power (or oppression)

The interesting thing about power struggles is this: there tends to be winners and losers.

And when there are winners and losers, a whole host of character behaviors open up.

Try this:

Using the list of the five types of characters who engage in power struggles (see above), analyze each character’s behavior as it relates to winning versus losing.

Here are two examples:

Character #1 (from the above list)
For the character who has power: Is your character a gracious winner? What does your character do with their power? Do they use it for good, bad, or do they choose to not exert their power? And if they choose to not use their power, why? Are they not aware of their power? Are they ashamed of their power? Once power is gained, what are they willing to do to keep it? Who did they trust before gaining power and who do they trust after gaining power? How does their opinion of themselves and others change after power is achieved?

Character #2 (from the above list)
For the character who is clinging to or losing power: As they cling, how far are they willing to go to hold onto power? Is there a limit? Who are they willing to hurt or betray in order to keep their power? If they lose their power, is this character a gracious loser? Do they feel sad? Angry? Humiliated? Do they pledge revenge? Does this loss of power strengthen their resolve to fight another day or do they accept the loss of power? Does this loss represent a shallow loss of power (a superficial power that can easily be regained or replaced) or is the loss something that runs deep within their psyche, perhaps challenging generations of expectations, or stripping their sense of worth and identity?

Power struggles are all around us. Are they in your novel? #85K90 Check out Trail Marker #7 Click To Tweet

Power struggles are all around us.

Depending on the type of struggle, certain elements will be at play during the storytelling.

Here are a few examples:

Pacing
Control the speed and velocity of power struggles. Example: Power struggles in sports and physical altercations like fighting or war use rapidly paced action and quick exchanges of power.

Obvious versus Subtle
Example: A power struggle at work is obvious during negotiations, more subtle in office politics. In marriages, power can be exerted by one or both partners subtly throughout the day, and then quite obviously during a fight or discussion about an issue of great importance.

Ranges of Good to Bad
Example: Lovers exert power over one another; power that can be playful, sensuous, even harmful or hurtful. Flirting is essentially a power struggle. Not all power struggles are bad. A poker game can begin in good spirits but those good feelings can end abruptly when someone loses money or feels cheated.

Micro/Macro
Example: Power struggles exist within ourselves (micro), in our homes, our communities (semi-micro, semi-macro), and on the global stage (macro). Are the power struggles in your novel micro, macro, or somewhere in between? Are there opportunities to infuse a micro-struggle (internal) with a semi-micro, semi-macro struggle (interpersonal) with a macro struggle (societal) – all at once?

IMAGE: The Smack Dab trail marker sign - a metal sign, red with a white heart symbol, by a trail in New Mexico.

Day 6 – Sunday, February 12, 2017
Smack Dab Trail Marker #6: Characters in conflict.

Readers read because they love conflict. Keep them reading through the middle of your novel by infusing your characters with conflict.

How do you create and sustain conflicted characters?

1. Write characters that are inherently conflicted with themselves.
2. Write characters that are conflicted with each other.
3. Write characters that are in conflict with society or something larger than themselves.

Once you’ve created a conflicted character, sustain this conflict, increase this conflict, change this conflict.

IMAGE: The Smack Dab trail marker sign - a metal sign, red with a white heart symbol, by a trail in New Mexico.

Day 5 – Saturday, February 11, 2017
Smack Dab Trail Marker #5: Use uncertainty to cause doubt.

To prevent the middle of your novel from slouching, hold your reader’s attention by raising doubt through the use of the uncertainty principle.

The principle of uncertainty is this: situations often involve imperfect and/or unknown circumstances and information. The result of uncertainty is doubt.

Who Can Become Uncertain?
Your reader alone (not the characters) can grow uncertain, characters (but not the reader) can become uncertain, and both reader and characters can become uncertain about a particular event or outcome.

Two Strategies for Writing Uncertainty: Imperfect & Unknown

1. Present imperfect circumstances, situations, or information (that the reader alone is aware of, the character alone is aware of, or both the reader and character are aware of).

Example #1: Flying an airplane with faulty equipment presents an imperfect circumstance and causes doubt that the outcome will be favorable. If the reader saw Character X tamper with the plane’s equipment, but Character Y was not in the scene, then the reader alone (and not Character Y who has to fly the plane) knows the airplane has faulty equipment. The reader feels uncertain, is doubtful, and feels stress and tension. Stakes are raised.

Example #2: Character X reads a letter but the contents of the letter are unknown to the reader. At this point in the story, Character X knows (but the reader does not) that the letter contained imperfect information. Character X is now uncertain, has doubts, and worries about the outcome. Character X acts differently since reading the letter, but the reader does not yet know why the character is acting that way. Uncertainty and doubt is applied to the character, not the reader.

Example #3: Both the reader and the character see the oncoming waterfall. Not a good situation. The situation is imperfect and both the reader and the character feel uncertain and are doubtful of a good outcome.

2. Present unknown circumstances, situations, or information (that the reader alone is aware of, the character alone is aware of, or both the reader and character are aware of).

Same type of examples would apply here as they did in the first set of examples, except now, instead of imperfection, we’re dealing with the unknown. Who is aware of the unknown set of circumstances, situations, or information? The reader? The character? Or both the reader and the character?

How to apply the principle of uncertainty when #writing. Today's topic on the #85K90 blog. Click To Tweet When uncertainty occurs the result is doubt. When doubt occurs, tension and stakes increase. Read more: #85K90 Click To Tweet

IMAGE: The Smack Dab trail marker sign - a metal sign, red with a white heart symbol, by a trail in New Mexico.

Day 4 – Friday, February 10, 2017
Smack Dab Trail Marker #4: Hide a villain in plain sight.

Add intrigue and suspense to the middle of your novel by hiding a villain in plain sight and then slowly reveal his or her true identity.

How to hide a villain in plain sight. Today's topic on the 85K Writing Challenge. #85K90 Click To Tweet

How to hide a villain in plain sight:

First Impressions
Play against the stereotype that villains are scary, trenchcoat-wearing bad guys lurking around a dark alleyway. If you want to hide a villain in plain sight, write a villain that looks and acts like the common man or woman. Write a villain that delivers mail, works in the cubical next to you, or helps you with your groceries. These villains are (at first) “normal” happy people functioning in the same unremarkable daily life your character is functioning.

As you continue writing through the middle of your novel, slowly change your character’s (and reader’s) impression of the villain. Keep in mind that you can (and probably should) release information in such a way that the reader and the character learns about the villain in different ways and at different times. Let the reader know the character is in trouble before the character knows they’re in trouble. Remember: villains have character arcs and the middle of your novel is a great place to develop this arc while keeping the tension tight.

Don’t Announce the Villain’s Arrival
Often, writers who know they are introducing a villain to the storyline will write in a way that announces to the crowd (whether that crowd is the reader, the story’s characters, or both) that a bad guy just walked through the door. The description, the dialogue, the setting, are often so “on-the-nose” the effect is like pointing a finger and yelling, “Hey look, everybody! I just wrote a bad guy. See that bad guy? He’s a bad guy. He has scary eyes and just said something that should cause alarm. He just walked in through the door. Did you see him? He’s right in front of you. Isn’t he bad? Isn’t he scary?”

Now, let’s pretend you’ve already introduced your villain, but you’re writing through the middle of your novel. Same concept applies. Be aware of writing that points too much. It often “tells” when it should be “showing,” and often talks down to the reader and shows a writer’s insecurity. Don’t lose reader interest in the middle of your book.

When you introduce a villain, don't announce. Hide them in plain sight. #85K90 #writingchallenge Click To Tweet

What’s Not to Love?
Villains need love, too. So often, writers write villains that are so utterly deplorable, there’s literally nothing about them to love, like, or relate to. When this happens, the villain becomes a one-dimensional character. Consider giving your villain more “depth” by rounding him or her out so they become more human. If you want to hide a villain in plain sight, consider giving him likable characteristics. I mean, heck, humans are not all bad, are we? Even the most ruthless killer can help an old lady cross the street.

As you write the middle of your novel, remember to place moments that round out the villain’s character. More depth adds more complexity and holds reader attention through the muddy middle.

The Less-than-Perfect Villain
Write a villain that makes mistakes, is incompetent in some area, or a bit less skilled than the traditional villain we see in the movies. These attributes will render your villain as more human and allow him (or her) to move about more freely in your scenes, often, undetected by the reader or character. A killer who enters the story as an incompetent plumber will seem harmless at first as he drops his equipment and accidentally causes the faucet to spew water. But when he reaches for the ice pick at the bottom of his work bag . . . watch out!

Remember that during the middle of the novel, your protagonist is waging battle after battle and is winning some, and losing some. Your villain should have weaknesses, be flawed in some way, and lose on occasion, too, because no one’s perfect. No matter how sinister we want them to appear.

What a Great Guy
It’s very unnerving to find you’ve placed your trust in someone who later proves they are not at all what you thought they were. Villains who are the family friend, the co-worker, the next door neighbor, become very scary when their bad intentions are revealed. Part of the fright we feel comes from the shock in learning such a nice person can turn out to be so mean. We’re supposed to be savvy when reading people. Remember, too, that many bad guys rely on duping their victims. The friendly caller who steals your identity, the family friend who turns out to be a child molester. They all start out as really nice people.

You can anchor this concept during your novel’s middle through two plot points, one at the beginning of your middle (end of Act 1), the other at the end of your middle (beginning of Act 3). Do this by creating “mirrored” scenes that remind us of the “what a great guy” moment (Awh, look. He brought her a puppy.) when you surprise us by revealing he’s not a great guy after all. (Oh, no! He killed her puppy!)

Villains are con artists. They start out as really nice people. #amwriting #writing #85K90 Click To Tweet

She Wouldn’t Hurt a Fly
Humans make value judgments all the time. We can judge so quickly we’re sometimes not even aware we’re doing it. Our instinct to judge is often to ensure our own survival (that lion over there sure looks angry), but often, we’re making value judgments based on whether we believe a person is capable of committing a heinous act. The school teacher who hurts children. Aunt Mary. Your main character’s little brother. He’s so young and innocent, he would never set fire to the barn. Defense attorneys play to this weakness when they try to convince a jury the sweet little old grandmother sitting before them would never sell arms to a terrorist. Look at her. She’s harmless!

Villains Can Be Helpful
Hide your villain in plain sight by having him or her help the protagonist with a task or personal problem. Villains are often predators and predators are very helpful people. They’re oh so ready and willing to drop everything at a moment’s notice to lend a hand. Why? Because it gives them access. The co-worker who wants to wreck your marriage? She’s more than happy to stay late without pay to help you with your project. The person who will stab you in the back tomorrow? Today, they’re your best friend.

7 #writingtips for hiding a villain in plain sight. #amwriting on the #85K90 Click To Tweet

IMAGE: The Smack Dab trail marker sign - a metal sign, red with a white heart symbol, by a trail in New Mexico.

Day 3 – Thursday, February 9, 2017
Smack Dab Trail Marker #3: Character abandons original plan.

During the first act of many novels, the main character is pursuing some sort of a plan. A plan to save their marriage, a plan to kill the bad guy, a plan to save the world, a plan to make a sandwich. Whatever. The specifics are different for every story. To prevent the middle of your novel from feeling stale or uninspired, ask yourself if now is the time for your protagonist to abandon his or her original plan and instead, pursue a new plan of action.

How and Why a Character Would Abandon Original Plans

Here are some ways that can happen:

  1. Character Has No Choice
    Sometimes the choice to chart a new path isn’t a choice at all. Often, circumstances in the novel force the protagonist to abandon an original idea/plan/path.
  2. Character Makes the Choice
    Many times, the protagonist knows or “has a hunch” his or her old ways of doing things must change.
  3. Choice is Suggested to the Character
    Sometimes, a wise secondary character gives a piece of advice or makes an observation that propels the main character to make a change and chart a new course of action.
What causes a character to abandon original plans? Today's #85K90 Smack Dab Trail Maker. #writingtips Click To Tweet

How abandoning original plans impact the character

This is important to remember:

External is Internal
Regardless of what causes the character to abandon their original idea, no matter the reason for making the change, making the change should come with a change in the character. The change may be painful, freeing, frightening, sad. Whatever. When your character releases the old in favor of the new, it should be a momentous occasion or decision for that character, and often (depending on the story), the change is momentous for other characters, too.

When characters abandon original plans - external change should cause internal change. #85K90 #writingtip Click To Tweet

When writing smack dab in the middle of your novel, consider having your protagonist throw original plans and courses of action out the window. Look for new opportunities in the storyline to end a path in favor of heightening a challenge the character must face, now that “old” ways and methods have been abandoned.

Good luck!

IMAGE: The Smack Dab trail marker sign - a metal sign, red with a white heart symbol, by a trail in New Mexico.

Day 2 – Wednesday, February 8, 2017
Smack Dab Trail Marker Tip #2: Trim the fat.

When writing smack dab in the middle of your novel, trim the fat. Cut excess. Take out anything that’s boring or slows the pace of your story. Write tight. Write lean.

The middle is a tricky time for holding readers’ attention. Keep your readers engaged in a tightly-written novel void of excess words, “info dumps,” and unnecessary or overly lengthy descriptions. If it feels difficult to write and feels like the story is going nowhere, it’s probably difficult to read, too.

Write lean. Cut as you write. After you cut, cut some more.

IMAGE: The Smack Dab trail marker sign - a metal sign, red with a white heart symbol, by a trail in New Mexico.

Day 1 – Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Smack Dab Trail Marker #1: Escalate

As you approach the middle of your novel, be aware of the need to escalate the action to prevent your plot from moving laterally, or worse, “sagging” in the middle.

Don’t lay down a series of events, one after the other, if they don’t also rise in action. Lateral steps have a place in a novel, but it’s risky to place them in the middle. Avoid writing scenes that feel as if the plot is moving sideways or along a flat surface.

Write scenes that raise the action and the stakes.

Some tips:

Use tension to escalate.
Use a plot twist to escalate.
Use a reversal to escalate.
Use a surprise to escalate.

Use whatever technique or device necessary to amp UP the middle of your novel. Mid-point in your story should feel as if the plot is CLIMBING toward a goal, a point, a summit.

Sharing #writingtips for escalating the plot when writing the middle of your novel. On the #85K90. Click To Tweet

Enjoying these tips?

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IMAGE: The Smack Dab logo.

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Julie Valerie

Julie Valerie

85K Writing Challenge: Embracing the writing life by advancing the practice of productive writing from first word to first reader.

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