The Muddy Middle: Where good plots go to die


Well, I don’t know how I got here tonight

I got the feeling that something ain’t right
I’m so scared in case I fall off my chair
And I’m wondering how I’ll get down those stairs.
Plot holes to left of me
Bad action to the right
Here I am, stuck in the middle with goo
First off, apologies to the rock group Stealers Wheel whose song “Stuck in the Middle With You” has been rolling around in my brain this week because I am now about 80K words into my book and I am stuck in the middle with goo.
Ah, yes…the middle of the book. The quicksand bog of fiction. The sinkhole of despair. The sand pit that swallowed up that poor lad in Lawrence of Arabia.
I call it the Muddy Middle. It is the place where good plots go to die. It’s not that hard, I think, to craft a attention-getting beginning, and it isn’t that difficult to come up with a slam-bang climax. But what about that looooong stretch in between? How do you keep suspense taut, how do you keep the pages turning? Maybe this is why we have so many serial killer books, because when all else flags, toss out another body, right? This is also why most serial killer books are god awful stale. Because usually the suspense is not organic and hard-earned. It is a failure of imagination.

The classic dramatic plot

Recently, I re-read Gone with the Wind. It clocks in at 63 chapters. The first five are what I’d call the opening and the story essentially wraps up in one chapter. So what did Margaret Mitchell fill the 57 chapters in between with? Challenges, obstacles, reversals of fortune for her characters, especially for Scarlett O’Hara. This is the essence of plotting, what keeps the story from bogging down. And it has a definite trajectory. A good plot is like Woody Allen’s shark — if it’s not constantly moving forward — and upward — it dies. (Warning: more shark analogies ahead!)

There are lots of different kinds of plots. Picaresque plots like Shogun or Tom Jones, where the main point is to trail behind the protag’s adventure. Disaster movies like The Towering Inferno have multiple plots that intersect and sometimes mesh at the end. There are even novels without plots, though I’d venture that most are unsatisfying because readers have an innate craving for order and purpose that they don’t find in real life. But for those of us who write thrillers or mysteries, well, you can’t go wrong with the tried and true classic dramatic plot.

Let me give you a visual. Which of these plot lines is the best?

The one at top left is a flat line. If you’ve got one of these you’re in big trouble. (Or maybe writing bad literary fiction…sorry, cheap shot). That one below it is almost as bad, a plot that is a yawner until the writer gives you a paddle-jolt climax that comes out of nowhere. The one at top right looks like it would be a nifty thriller — nonstop action! — but it also doesn’t work because the pacing is too frenetic. Think about a roller coaster. Why do people love them? Because the heart-stopping plunges are balanced with quiet moments when we can catch our breath and anticipate the next thrill. And that leaves us with the jagged plot line at the bottom.

You give me fever!
I call it The Fever Chart Plot because it is graph that charts the protagonist’s fortunes. The trajectory of the story moves forward AND always upward toward the climax but between A and Z it and dips and rises. The beginning A represents an attention-grabbing opening scene. Then there’s a slight dip as we establish characters and setting and define the problem (in crime fiction, usually a murder to be solved). The line dips because as the problem is more clearly defined, it seems increasingly unlikely the hero will ever solve it.

But then the line goes up as the hero begins to cope, fighting his way through a thicket of complications. Sometimes, the plot hits an early high because it looks like the hero has things in hand but then there is a dip — something goes wrong, there is a reversal of fortune. The hero climbs out again only to be confronted with new obstacles along the way. We get another hard climb and more dips. Eventually, the hero achieves a summit of sorts (toward the end) when it looks like he will be triumph BUT…

He is plunged into a final abyss of despair (the last major setback before the climax). This is where your classic tragic plot usually ends. (Hamlet dies). But we’re talking heroic plots here, so just when it looks like all is lost, the hero, through bravery, smarts and fortitude, recovers and soars back, solving the problem once and for all. That little line at the end? That’s just the denouement where little threads are tied up.

This might seem obvious almost to the point of simple-mindedness, but it is the sturdy scaffolding on which most mysteries and thrillers are built. Your book might have fewer or more dips and rises, depending on the complexity of your story. I once charted out all the plot points of our book A Killing Rain and this is what it looks like:


Tools to dig out of the Muddy Middle

So what can you use if you find yourself bogged down in the middle of your story? There are some nifty tried and true devices and to illustrate them, I’m going to use a movie we all know instead of a book — Jaws. A couple years ago, I got to know Jaws really well when I contributed an essay on the Benchley book to Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell. I hadn’t read Jaws since it first came out and when I dissected it for the essay I was surprised at how flabby the book is. (lots of bad subplots about class warfare, mafia kingpins, and a really icky affair between Chief Brody’s wife and  Hooper). But the screenplay — well, it’s one of the best thrillers written, and I’ve used it when I teach workshops on thriller plotting. Jaws uses six devices that keep the middle of the story moving forward:
  • Setbacks
  • Pendulum swings of emotion
  • Raising the stakes
  • Obstacles
  • Rift in the team
  • Isolation of the hero
So let’s go cut open that shark and see how each works…
First, there was that great attention-getting opening scene.
Then we meet the hero, who is a classic dramatic archetype: the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Chief Brody is an outsider on the insular little vacation island — and he can’t even swim. In the setup, he is confronted with the problem, and the girl’s death forces him into action.
The SETBACKS keep coming as the victims pile up. And since Jaws is basically a serial killer plot, each new body plunges Brody deeper into despair. But then — TA-DA! — we hit a peak when local fishermen snag a great white and every one is happy.
But then we get A PENDULUM SWING OF EMOTION when Brody’s own son is almost attacked. And another when a dead boy’s mother confronts Brody and castigates him for her son’s death.
Another SETBACK occurs when Hooper tells him the bite radius of the captured shark is off and when they cut open the shark, they don’t find any body parts. Brody gets proactive and moves to close the beaches until they can catch the killer shark. But then he faces a new OBSTACLE.

The Amity mayor who’s hellbent on saving the island’s lucrative July Fourth weekend. Brody’s overruled, the beaches stay open and all Brody can do is sit on the beach and sweat. We get a slight rise in the plot graph when Hooper and Brody go out  on a night hunt (Hooper is a perfect foil character for Brody, there to give him hope and pull him out of the dips). But then they find that dead guy in the submerged boat and things look increasingly grim. Until we get a major up-thrust for Brody. He gets the money to hire a professional shark hunter — Quint.

Our hero has things under control now, right? Not so fast. Quint is a great character, and he represents one of the most effective devices you can use to beef up your middle — THE RIFT IN THE TEAM. As the three men hunt the shark, the escalating tension between them threatens the quest. You see this device used a lot in cop novels — the errant hard-drinking guy bumping heads with his partner. Think of every partner Dirty Harry ever had. Or watch the sparring between Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective. Rifts in the team. Brody is pulled down in another dip as he tries to cope with crazy Quint, who at one point even smashes the boat’s radio.

The plot goes into fever pitch after this, with dips and rises as they chase the shark. The STAKES ARE RAISED as their weapons prove futile, and the boat starts to fall apart and the shark even starts to gnaw on it.

We’re entered the final big trough when Hooper decides the only option left is for him to go down in the shark cage. (STAKES ARE RAISED AGAIN). Hooper disappears, presumed dead. And then we begin the final plunge into the abyss for poor Brody. Quint goes out in a blaze of gory…

And there is our hero, alone on a sinking ship, staring into the maw of death. Which brings us to one of the most effective ways to beef up your plot — ISOLATION OF THE HERO.   Think of Clarise Starling alone in that creepy basement. We’ve use this device often, putting our hero Louis in abandoned asylum tunnels, on frozen ice bridges on Lake Huron, gator-infested Everglades, and yes, on a sinking boat in the Gulf. It gives your hero that final chance to prove himself  — through guts and brains — and triumph over evil. Remember how Brody did it?

Blasted the bad guy to bits. With his final bullet. And he couldn’t even swim. What a guy. What a climax. What a roller coaster ride.

One last note: In the book, Peter Benchley lets the shark just swim away never to be seen again. Which is a really really bad ending. But that is a blog for another day.

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When Titles Go Bad

By P.J. Parrish

Okay, we’re starting out today with a quiz. No Google-cheating for the answers either. Here are the original titles for some books. I guarantee you’ve read at least one. (I’ve read them all which is why I picked them) Can you guess what they wound up being called?

The Last Man in Europe
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen
Fiesta
At This Point in Time
Wacking Off

Now let’s talk about what you’re going to call your book. Because this is the most important marketing decision you will make and frankly, given the quality of some titles out there, we all need some help on this front.

The naming of books is a difficult matter. 
It isn’t just one of your holiday games. 
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter 
when I tell you, a book must have three different names.

Apologies to T.S. Eliot but I’ve found that his rhyme about naming cats works for books. In my life I’ve had sixteen cats and published sixteen books. Weird stat, huh? Got me thinking  about how important a name is when it comes to your book.

How important? I found a marketing survey that asked readers what was the element that most influenced why they bought a book. Excluding Gigantoid Author Name (ie James Patterson can put his name on an Altoid can and it would sell) here is the order:

1. Title
2. Cover
3. Back copy
4. Opening paragraphs
5. Price

This is why when Carson McCullers submitted her first novel The Mute to Houghton-Mifflin they bought it and renamed the book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. This is why after William Golding’s first novel Strangers from Within was plucked from Faber and Faber’s slush pile, it was retitled Lord of the Flies.


First impressions count. And your title is like a business card, a quick but well-calculated introduction you offer your reader in the hopes it will entice her to want to know more. It doesn’t matter if you’re traditionally published or doing it yourself, the wrong title can make or break your book – and you.

Going traditional? In your average publishing house, there will be many people with their hands on your book: editors, sales reps, marketing managers, publicists, even book buyers at the major booksellers will weigh in on the consumer appeal of your title. (Walmart threatened to not stock our book South of Hell because of the title; they backed off) Chances are your title will be challenged or even changed.

Going self-published? What you call your book will be entirely up to you so it’s really important to understand what a title needs to do. More on that in a moment.

Let’s go back to T.S. Eliot for a sec. He says that cats have three names: the first is the one the family uses in every day life. For us this was UNTITLED LOUIS KINCAID THRILLER NO. 1. That’s how it appeared on our contract. Lots of writers call their book WIP or The Book. Or in some sad cases, That Thing That Has Eaten Up My Life For Ten Years.

Eliot’s second name for cats is “fancier names that sound sweeter.” For us, it was The Last Rose of Summer, the title we submitted. We loved this title. We thought it spoke volumes about our thriller which was about the vestiges of Old South racism, forbidden love and death. But it wasn’t dark enough. It sounded like a romance.

Eliot’s third cat name is one that’s “particular, peculiar and more dignified.” This is the title your book really needs. For us, it was Dark of the Moon. We came upon that title after weeks of gnashing our teeth. I pulled my volume of Langston Hughes poems from the shelf and there was his poem “Silhouette” and our final title.

Southern gentle lady,
Do not swoon.
They’ve just hung a black man
In the dark of the moon.

They’ve hung a black man
To the roadside tree
In the dark of the moon
For the world to see
How Dixie protects
Its white womanhood.

Southern gentle lady,
          Be good!
          Be good!

I think some authors have “the title gene” and come up with the perfect names. Others lock onto signposts like Sue Grafton’s alphabet, John Sandford’s “Prey” or Evanovich’s numbers. Although I have to say I’m not crazy about this approach especially since it has spawned some lazy imitation gimmicks. (Hey, I’m going to write an erotic-suspense series! I just Googled condom names! Want to buy my book Vibrating Johnny?)

We’ve been lucky and have had to change only two of our titles. Maybe it’s because I used to write newspaper headlines so my brain is trained to take a story and smash it down into ten words or less that you can read from a passing car. I do know that authors struggle mightily with their titles. There’s even a award for the worst title -– and of course it’s awarded by the British.

Bookseller Magazine gave their prize this year to Reginald Bakeley for his book Goblinproofing One’s Chicken Coop – and Other Practical advice In Our Campaign Against the Fairy Kingdom. The runners-up were:

How Tea Cosies Changed the World.
God’s Doodle: The Life and Times of the Penis.
How to Sharpen Pencils.
Was Hitler Ill?

In twelve years of teaching workshops and doing critiques I’ve have seen maybe one title that I thought really captured the book’s tone. (It was our own Kathryn Lilly’s Dying To Be Thin.) So I know how hard this is. Here is my advice on titles, for what it’s worth:

  1. Capture your tone and genre. Go on Amazon and look up books similar to yours (cruise the genre bestseller lists). Words have inflection, mood and color. Choose them carefully.
  2. Grab the reader emotionally. Two titles that do it for me: The Unbearable Lightness of Being and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold 
  3. Don’t settle for clichés. Yes, it’s hard to come up with fresh permutations on old standby words (especially in genre fiction where we rely on “dark” “blood” “death” etc.) But you have to find words that are unique about your story and draw upon them. Here’s a great title that twists a cliché word: Something Wicked This Way Comes.
  4. Don’t use empty arcane words that you think sound cool. Examples of bad titles: The Cambistry Conspiracy. (about world trade) The Hedonic Dilemma (about psychology ethics).  Penultimate to Die. (the second-to-the-last victim).  Don’t worry…I made these up. 
  5. Create an expectation about the story. You know why I love this title: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius? It makes me say, “Oh yeah, buddy? Show me!” and he does.
  6. Be brief and punchy. Okay, I know I just gave you a bunch of long titles I love but there is something wonderful about short titles and studies show most bestsellers have short titles: Gone Girl works. So does Tell No One, Lolita and Jaws (original title A Stillness in the Water).
  7. Make the title work on other levels. This is hard but worth the brain-sweat if you can do it. Consider what these titles come to mean once you get deep into the stories: Catch 22, Silence of the Lambs. But don’t get too clever. I love Louise Ure’s book Forcing Amaryllis and the title is brilliant because it is about a rape and murder. But do most understand that the title is from a gardening term about forcing a plant to bloom early? Not so sure.
  8. Make a list of key words that appear in your book. Is there something you can build on? For our book A Killing Rain, the title came when I heard a Florida farmer describe that drenching downpour that can kill off the tomato crop and we used it in the book. The title was there all the time and we didn’t see it at first.
  9. Search existing works — the Bible, poetry, Shakespeare. I found our title An Unquiet Grave in an 17th century English poem.
  10. Write 20 titles and let them sit for a week or so. Go back and read them and something will jump out. Find some beta-readers you can test with. Titles usually evoke visceral immediate responses. You will know immediately if they connect.

And last: Never get emotionally attached to a title. It’s the worst thing you can do because it probably will be changed. Or needs to be. Because your first title is usually, as T.S. Eliot said, a prosaic every-day thing. You can do better. It’s there. You just have to dig deep. Sweat out that great title that Eliot called the “ineffable, effable, effanineffable deep and inscrutable singular name.”

Answers to the quiz:
The Last Man in Europe (1984)
They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen (Valley of the Dolls)
Fiesta (The Sun Also Rises)
At This Point in Time (All the President’s Men)
Wacking Off (Portnoy’s Complaint)

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You’re gonna need a bigger boat

By Joe Moore

jaws Arguably, that may be one of the best lines ever written. Six words that encapsulate and summarize a situation so dire and frightening, there was no doubt in the mind of the moviegoer that the problems the characters faced had been grossly underestimated.

The movie JAWS came out in 1975 and is celebrating its 35th anniversary this summer. Few contemporary films had the same level of impact on life and the basic fears we all harbor inside. It came close to shutting down the beaches and everything people normally do at them during the summer. “Don’t go in the water” became a household phrase. Seaside resorts and businesses along the beaches were slammed while the theaters were packed and long lines lead up to the showing of JAWS. It was a phenomenon that undeniably equaled the mass hysteria of the 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles’ WAR OF THE WORLDS.

benchley1 The movie was based on Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel by the same name. It was and still is the only book I ever read in one sitting. I remember picking it up off a table at my mother’s house and reading: “The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.” I read the second sentence, walked over to a nearby couch and read the rest of the book without a break. It was beyond captivating. It was petrifying and easily the scariest story I’ve ever read. (Number 2 on my list is RED DRAGON by Thomas Harris followed closely by THE EXORCIST by William Peter Blatty).

It’s rare that a book and a movie can have such a drastic effect on the public. Benchley and Spielberg took the basic “haunted house” scenario and gave it a fresh spin, one that hadn’t been thought of before. They presented us a new type of antagonist, one that can’t be reasoned with, one that has no motive other than hunger—an eating machine. JAWS gave birth to a whole string of similar antagonist in movies like ALIEN, HALLOWEEN, FRIDAY THE 13th, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, and others. But JAWS was the first to bring it to the page and the big screen and scare the you-know-what out of us. For those who are too young or just simply want to relive the moment, here’s the original movie trailer for JAWS. Enjoy.

Have you ever found a book so engrossing that you read it in one sitting? Has a book and/or movie had as great an effect on you as JAWS had on the public at the time?

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Perfect Lines

By Johngilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com/

My bachelor’s degree comes from the College of William and Mary in Virginia. As most graduates from prestigious schools, I am capable of being an academic snob when the occasion arises. It happens far less frequently now that I’ve become a gentleman of a certain age, but back in the day, my loyalty to the alma mater was pretty fierce.

In the late ’70s, when I was in college, Virginia Tech (then known as VPI-Virginia Polytechnic Institute) had nothing of the reputation that it enjoys today. It was every good student’s “safety school,” the one you knew you could get into if W&M and UVA let you down. In the good spirit of interschool rivalry, I held it in low esteem. Thus, as a young safety engineer investigating an explosion at the explosives processing plant where I worked, I made multiple references to “Techie engineering” as the primary cause of the accident. It was my throw-away phrase to describe anything that was well-meaning yet substandard.

Remember that I was all of 28 years old at the time. Many minutes into my presentation to the seniormost members of management, after I had committed to this good-humored course of bashing my academic rival, Paul Lumbye, the vice president of all things that paid my salary, raised his hand and said, “John, I think it’s appropriate for me to tell you that I am a graduate of VPI.” Something seized inside my gut. Then he went on to point to a good thirty percent of my senior-executive audience, all of whom were likewise graduates of Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and at least twice my age.

When Paul-the-VP was done, the room was silent, and I found myself facing a dozen smug smiles, all of them rejoicing that I had been so thoroughly put in my place. It was my moment to cower and apologize.

Alternatively, it was my moment to show the true depth of my loyalty. With all those eyes staring, I made a point to look Paul in the eye when I asked, “Does this mean I need to start over again and use smaller words?”

To this day, I look at that comment as a pivotal moment in my professional career. I learned that all reasonable people appreciate a great line well-delivered. I wish I could say that I continue to be that glib and fleet of tongue, but forever and ever, I will know that at least once, I delivered a killer rebuttal. It’s a great feeling.

Which brings me to the actual point of this week’s blog entry: great lines. More specifically, great movie lines—the ones that perfectly capture the emotion of the scene and stick with you long into the future.

A few that come to my mind:

“Fill your hands you son-of-a-bitch!” – Rooster Cogburn, True Grit.

“I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do those things to other people and I require the same of them.” — J.B. Books, The Shootist

“Are you going to do something, or just stand there and bleed?” — Wyatt Earp, Tombstone

“Dyin’ ain’t much of a livin’, boy.” – Josie Wales, The Outlaw Josie Wales

“I’m thirty years older than you are. I had my back broke once, and my hip twice. And on my worst day I could beat the hell out of you.” – Wil Andersen, The Cowboys

“The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” – Rick, Casablanca

“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Chief Brody, Jaws

Each of these lines, at the moment they were delivered, slyed their respective audiences. Certainly, they slayed me. What about you? What are your favorite lines from the real world or the world of fiction? C’mon. You know you have one. Or five. Share.

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Betting On A New Strategy For Moviemaking

While we haven’t signed the papers yet, I recently closed a deal to option the screen rights to Scott Free–my second movie deal in three months after a ten-year dry spell in which I couldn’t give the rights away for anything I wrote.

This is very exciting. But equally exciting is the new strategy I’ve adopted for movie sales: think small and aggressive.

Back in the day, when I sold the movie rights to Nathan’s Run and At All Costs, my agent negotiated big bucks from big studios which bought the screen rights outright, “forever and throughout the universe” (that’s actually the contract language). They made big promises but never made the movies. And I’ll never see the rights again.

With Six Minutes to Freedom and, more recently, Scott Free, I sold options for the screen rights for a limited period of time to independent producers for whom filmmaking is still considered as much an artform as a business. I don’t get paid nearly as much on the front end, but if the film gets made, it’ll be champaign time. If they don’t get made, the rights will revert to me, where in the worst case they will moulder away in my closet instead of someone else’s.

Given the above, what follows may just be rationalization on my part, but it feels legitimate to me:

The future of filmmaking lies in the hands of aggressive new producers who are tired of what studio pictures have become. I believe that the exclusion of studio films in the last Oscar race portends the future of filmmaking. There will always be a huge market for the special effects-laden summer crowd pleasers, but it’s becoming clear that compelling stories lie in the hands of the indies.

We’ve been to this place before. Remember the 1970s? That was the decade when upstarts named Spielberg, Coppola and Lucas turn Tinseltown upside down. The revolution that started in the ’60s with films like Bonnie and Clyde and In the Heat of the Night paved the way for ’70s classics like Jaws, Star Wars and The Godfather. These films set the old Hollywood model on its ear. While studio monoey was involved in all of these films, the creative momentum came from unknowns who shared a hunger for a new breed of storytelling.

But new breeds age. Spielberg and Coppola are brilliant filmmakers, just as John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock were brilliant in their day. Their enormous success brought billions of dollars to the box office and made mega stars out of countless nobodies, including themselves. But that kind of success ultimately leads to excess–not just in terms of expenses, but also in terms of leanness in storytelling. (The difference in directing technique between American Graffiti and the latest Star Wars installment is explained by more than just a limitless budget.) The studio films of today are in their own way every bit as bloated as the pageantry of Cecil B. DeMille and Joseph L. Mankiewicz from the ’50s and ’60s.

Then along comes Slumdog Millionaire. And Doubt, and The Reader. The year before, the Academy nominated Juno and Atonement for Best Picture. Story for story’s sake is mattering again, and in every case, this new revolution is being led by relative newcomers–certainly by lesser knowns.

When I speak to the young, hungry producers who bought the film rights to my books I hear something I haven’t heard from Hollywood types in a long time: Enthusiasm. If, like the others, these movies never happen, I’ll know that the effort will not have failed for lack of that one key ingredient to success.

So, what do y’all think? Discounting for the summer blockbuster spectaculars, is it possible that we’re entering a new era of big screen storytelling where character and plot matter at least as much as the intensity of the explosions?

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Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

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