good bones

You know the old joke about “boneless chicken,” right? How did it walk?

As a long-time vegetarian, I don’t worry much about bones in my cooking! But I think about them All. The. Time. in my writing.

Just as the overall story has a structure, so must each scene. This is especially true in the middle, or second act.

Why? The middle is most of your book. A long expanse without some sturdy support is not going to hold up. It’s a tent without a tentpole.

The middle’s job is to place obstacle after obstacle in the way of your hero’s progress toward her goal, or mission. Think of it as a series of tests. Some, your hero will pass; some she’ll fail; some she’ll barely scrape through.

Each test forces her to level up in some way (a story is a journey of change, as I’m sure you recall!). But a series of tests can too easily look like this: Test. Test. Test. Test. Test. Scene after scene after scene.

Monotonous, no? And that’s most of the book! So how does the middle not turn to repetitive, endless mush?

This is why many writers talk about getting “stuck” in the middle. They imagine they’ve run out of ideas, or have caught a case of ”writer’s block” (notice my ironic finger quotes! I don’t believe in it, personally).

Too often, this is where writers without good story structure craft give up, or find themselves deciding to “take a break from this one” and start a new project. Or, horrors, they get so discouraged they succumb to negative self-talk about how they lack “discipline” or “talent.”  

Phooey, I say! How many half-written books ya gonna rack up, people? What’s lacking is story structure. If you want to finish, you must learn to write a middle! 

Good bones make all the difference. The key is to give each of those second act scenes a clear structure, full of variety, with changes of pace and tone. Each test is like a mini-adventure, with all the trimmings: What is the particular mission for this scene? What delicious variety of strategies can your hero use within this scene to get what she wants? How will the forces of adversity throw a whole variety of curveballs back at her? What is the climactic moment, where we all discover what the outcome is? What dramatic question or consequence is left on the table to keep us turning the page to find out what happens next? 

All the structural questions that apply to the book as a whole also apply to each scene.  At the end of the day, we must tell story in every line. Do that, and your writing will have no trouble standing up—even in the middle!

TIP: Give each second act scene an internal structure of beginning, middle, and end, full of moves and countermoves that keep your hero changing up her strategies against equally inventive forces of opposition.

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