Friday, July 25, 2014

Critical Plot Elements - MIDDLES #4 - The "Almost Lull"

There comes a time in your story where your end is in sight.  I don't mean the scene before your climactic events kick off - I mean drawing Act II to a close.  Zipping up your middle.

If you've followed this series so far, you know we've taken several steps towards this point.  But there's still another element to go before dragging the reader into the breathless events of the end: The Almost Lull.

The Almost Lull is not meant to be boring.  It is not meant to let the readers eyelids droop.  But it is a time of sanctuary or preparation.   A break in the tension that allows the protagonist (and the reader) to breathe.

It's a time of 'sequel' - when the protagonist gets to consider where they've been, where they have to go, and what they expect from it.

In order to do this right, I believe you need three things, two for the protagonist and one for the author:

Key Elements in the Almost Lull

PROTAG: Physical Safety

Physical safety is pretty self explanatory, but indulge me in a couple nuances.

Safety in this case doesn't mean 'completely untouchable'.  We're looking to reduce tension, not dissolve it altogether.  So, keep the overarching pressure on, but give the protagonist a scene or scenes in which their physical (or emotional) danger is at bay.  But make sure the reader knows this moment won't last.

The most likely tools here will be a time limit (either implied by the protagonist's plan to move ahead, or already in place), or the future plan (i.e. the protagonist's plan to achieve victory means things must move ahead soon).  But whatever mechanism you use, make sure the protagonist knows - or learns very quickly - that things will soon change.

EXAMPLE: If you're a fan of The Hunger Games, consider the moment when Katniss is hidden with Peta. She knows she's relatively 'safe' from the other players at that moment, but there are other problems - and she's got to reengage eventually.  Safety is tenuous and won't last forever, so the anticipation of danger is on a slow boil, rather than lukewarm.

PROTAG: Focus on Decision Making

During this time of safety or rest, the protagonist's focus should be on making a decision - one that forces them to weigh up what has come before - and what they anticipate will come in the third act.

This is the perfect time to remind the reader of anything important, to lead them through the logical reasoning that brings them to the end (and to throw in a dash of 'This Terrible Thing Might Happen').  But at all costs you (the author) must avoid the final element...

AUTHOR: Avoid Repetition

What?! You say? How do we remind the reader of what's happened without repeating?

It's a simple rule of thumb - and one you should use throughout your text, but most especially here:

Use a feather, not a mallet. 

Don't have your protagonist say (or think) "Remember when this happened, then this happened... well I guess I'll do this then..."

Instead, let your narrative assume the reader remembers all the events leading to that point.  Talk to them like someone who has all the same information.  Talk to them as if you'd talk to yourself... but with word pictures of course.  Let them see the protagonist's reasoning, rather than stepping them through events.

For example, DON'T:

Tori remembered that night when Dan admitted he'd cheated on her.  The feelings of betrayal and grief were overwhelming.  She felt like a favorite dress, thrown into the goodwill bag to make room for a new, glittering gown. 

How could she possibly raise a son whose father treated her like trash? But how could she give up a life that was half her?

For example, DO:

Tori's hands drifted to her swollen belly.  The baby kicked.  The tiny jab offered reassurance - and a bruising reminder of how he'd arrived in her life.

Would her son be better off in a home untainted by betrayal? Or would her love make up for his father's abandonment?

I'm being overly simple for clarity.  Hopefully you see the point. 

In the DON'T example, the narration simply repeats events - things the reader has already seen and heard.  It lowers tension in a bad way because the reader wants to skim, to get to something new.  (It's also a melodramatic metaphor).

In the second example, the reader gets a taste of Tori's simultaneous joy of motherhood right alongside the painful reminder of betrayal.  They see her dilemma and are drawn into her consideration of adoption.  They stay firmly in the story - reminded of the past, but not forced to rehash it.

Use this technique everywhere in your writing, but use it intentionally here because this is the point in your story where we transition from What Happened to What We've Been Waiting For.

Next Post: The Black Moment - Staring at the Bottom of the Barrel

Your Turn: Can you think of an 'Almost Lull' moment from your favorite book?

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