Guest Post; What Goes in the Middle?

CATHERINE RYAN HOWARD is a highly caffeinated twenty-something from Cork, Ireland. She self-published her first book, a travel memoir called Mousetrapped: A Year and A Bit in Orlando, Florida, in March 2010, and is currently putting the finishing touches to her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @cathryanhoward, read her blog, Catherine, Caffeinated, or follow the links below.

So I had an idea for a novel.

Well, I had an ending for a novel. An ending and a vague idea of the characters who’d be involved in that ending. I could also see, although it was very, very blurry, how the reader would meet those characters, AKA my opening chapters.

I made a fresh cup of coffee, opened a new Word document and typed ‘Chapter One.’ It was time to start writing my novel. I had the beginning, the end and a cast of characters. What else did I need?

The middle, as it turned out. The other 80,000 words. The part where stuff happens. The whole point of the book. The story itself.

I turned to my reference library of How To Write Books books, but none of them were very helpful in the plot side of things. They told me how to keep my plot organized – Post-It notes, cork-boards, flow charts – but not how to get one in the first place.  I need to know how to get from A to B, or rather A to B to C to D to E, and so on.

So instead, I turned to Hollywood.

Writing a movie is all about the plot and to make sure they have one (and that it’s hole free), screenwriters sometimes rely on a beat sheet.

This is your entire story boiled down to 10-15 sentences and divided into three acts, a beginning, a middle (argh – the dreaded middle!) and the end, and it looks something like this:

1.  Opening Scene

2.  Setting/Introduce Characters/Set-Up

3.  Catalyst/Inciting Incident

4.  Debate (Characters ask, ‘What to do?’)

5.  Act II begins/B Story introduced

6.  Midpoint (a false ‘up’ or ‘down’/opposite of the finale)

7.  Fun and Games (think the bits of your book that would appear in the trailer, were it a movie)

8.  Threat elevated, danger gets closer

9.  All is Lost (main character’s lowest point)

  1. Act III begins
  2.  Finale/Climax
  3.  Finale scene or epilogue. 

(This is just my personal beat sheet, and a bare bones version of it. See any of the books below for proper movie-like plotting help.)

I filled in the bits I did know and then took a step back. What was missing? In order to have a coherent and workable plot, I needed to at least touch on all of those beats. So wherever I found a gap, I made a bridge to carry me across it. 

Eventually, I got all the way there; I had a plot for my novel.

Now all I needed to do was write it.

Screenwriting books that may interest novelists: Story by Robert McKee, How to Write a Movie in 21 Days by Vicki King, Save the Cat by Blake Synder, Screenplay by Syd Field.


8 thoughts on “Guest Post; What Goes in the Middle?

  1. Thank you for this post, Catherine and Olive. It really stresses the importance of some sort of outline before undertaking the novel writing process. It’s so important for that plot to hold together, and an outline does expose the holes that will need work.

  2. What a great breakdown!!! I might have to print this out because it is so simple yet so true. I really want to read SAVE THE CAT — I’ve heard tons about it.

    Thanks for the awesome post 🙂

  3. @Ollymae; Save the Cat seems to be on a lot of must read lists if you want to write a screenplay, for sure. Must pick it up, given that I’ve started a screenwriting course.

  4. @Joanne; Absolutely! And I wouldn’t have thought of using screenwriting techniques to help me with an outline of a novel. But it makes perfect sense!

  5. A big thanks to Catherine for her very useful post and best of luck with the novel!

  6. Thank YOU for having me!

    I just happened upon Save the Cat a few years ago in the U.S. and I absolutely loved it. Not only is it helpful but it’s really interesting – you suddenly realize why the movies you love work, and how they do. Sadly Synder, the author of Save the Cat, passed away suddenly last year, but he’d already written two follow-ups. (I think Save the Cat Goes to the Movies and something like Save the Cat Strikes Back.) I’d highly recommend them for novelists and screenwriters alike – they’re a LOT easier to digest than McKee’s Story! 🙂

  7. Great post Catherine/Olive. Really useful tips. Must try and apply some to my own writing

  8. Great post! So true – it’s not just an idea, but what to do with it. I’ve heard good things about Save the Cat. Hooked by Les Edgerton uses Thelma and Louise to explain how plot works. Everyone has seen that, right?

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