And no, I’m not talking about my waistline. I’m talking about plotlines.
I read an amazing book this weekend called The Space Between by Brenna Yovanoff. Oh, my God, go get this book. I think it’s listed as YA, but this is again not a YA book. Or young adults have gotten seriously sick and twisted.
It’s a story about a daughter of Satan and Lilith, who falls in love with the son of an angel. So bam, I’m hooked. Then there’s the writing — the images she evokes are incredible. You can see what she’s describing so easily. The language is beautiful. She has one image where Lilith, who speaks to her daughter from any shiny surface, is yelling at her daughter to run through a casino, her imaging screaming over and over from the shiny tokens pouring out of a jackpot machine. Lord, what an image!
In the acknowledgements, she thanked Ben Schrank (I think at Razorbill), “who made sure we did, in fact, have a middle.” And I realized that’s the big complaint I have with so much of what I edit, and most of what I write.
In any high-school English class, they teach the classic graph line of a plot: It builds slowly, it sharply increases to the climax, and then it drops off rather sharply to the denouement.
But a lot of books follow a reverse Bell curve: They start out with a bang, a chapter or two of intense excitement, then drop slowly, then build up again to a sharp climax with no denouement. No rest at the end where the loose ends are tied up. Especially if the book is in a series — it just ends sharply, almost with a note that says, “Go buy my next book.” I read a book once that ended on an ellipsis.
Makes sense — we usually are asked to send the first chapter or three to agents, so we have started to write for the presentation. Like teaching to the test in school. We try to have a big bang right in the beginning to get their attention, but you can’t sustain that, so the tension drops off.
In my case, the middle is flaccid because of the way I write. I write the beginning — big bang! — then the end — big bang! — and then try to figure out a way to get from bang to bang.
I think the main problem is, you have a great idea for a book — demon-spawn meets angel-spawn. But that’s not a plot. The plot is “what happens next?” So many books meander around in the middle, filling it in with subplots to hide the fact that not much happens in the middle of the book.
That’s where the outline can help. I edited a book for a guy recently who had the most intricate outline for his book, and guess what? No sag in the middle. So here’s what I’m going to do for my next book: I’m going to do the ugliest quick-and-dirty outline only of the main plot. No subplots. No characters. No themes. Just this, then this, then this. If chapters would go by without any entries in the outline, I’ve got a saggy middle. Time for some plot twists!
(Thanks to jeynagrace.wordpress.com for reminding me that outlines are a writer’s friend!)