Shelley Widhalm

Posts Tagged ‘Conflict’

Confronting a Novel’s Middle

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on July 29, 2012 at 11:00 am

Middles can be like a big slump – the middle of the work day, the middle seat in the back of a car or the middle of a novel.

I am at the midpoint of my novel about a 35-year-old artist named Kate who loses everything in an apartment fire and tries to replace her belongings, only to damage herself in the process.

My writer friend gave me a beat sheet that outlines 15 beats of a novel from the opening image to the final image.

A novel’s arc consists of three large beats, those of the rising action, climax, and falling action and resolution. This description does not identify the middle, because the arc is shaped to rise along one long line and drop down in a slightly curved shorter line.

According to the beat sheet, the middle is the point where the main character reaches “a false peak or false collapse” (see “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet”). The stakes are raised for this character, who already is reeling from what appears to be bad news from earlier in the story. The bad news, such as Kate losing her home, sets her on the path toward the change she needs.

Fun and games follows, which for Kate is hanging out with her friends, though she continually thinks of the things she’s lost, such as her paintings, the ceramic kittens from her Nana and her teddy bear from her childhood.

But at the midpoint, this fun is over.

The next quarter of the story unfolds as “the bad guys (things) close in,” which, for Kate, are her friends who give her a hard time for being “so sentimental,” along with a few other losses that I haven’t fully worked out.

At the moment of “All Is Lost,” the main character has to give up her old ways, clearing the way for her to change. In the rest of the story, she applies the lessons she’s learned and her old world ends to make way for her new world.

I haven’t quite figured out those lessons for Kate, though they will have to do with the realization that stuff just doesn’t matter, including those friends that burn without sparking your fire.

In cases where the middle is sagging, I like to evaluate the individual scenes and chapters to see if they are needed and fit into the arc. Do they propel the story forward? Or do they seem like extras, a tangent that takes the reader in an odd direction without being tied to the story? Scenes and passages that cannot be cut will not require too much additional work to modify the story.

For example, I wondered if I needed Kate’s puppy, Flame, who appeared without my conscious planning. After thinking about my story, I realized that if I cut Flame, I would end up removing part of what is necessary to teach Kate what she needs to learn – that there is love in Flame, or love that comes out of a fire.

See Zoey’s blog, Zoey’s Paw, on middles at

More Tension (in Novels)

In 52 Writing Topics, Shelley Widhalm, Writing on July 8, 2012 at 11:00 am

As a yet-to-be published novelist, tension seems to be the banal of my existence.

I understand what the concept means when I think of a taut rubber band, compared with that element of writing that keeps readers turning the pages. But when it comes to applying the concept to writing, I struggle with the required maintenance.

Though I already addressed tension last month in my blog challenge to write about 52 writing topics in 52 weeks, “52: A Year of Writing Basics, Beliefs and Beauty,” I now realize that I have to tweak my understanding.

A writer friend of mine who has read the first few chapters of my novel, “Dropping Colors,” wrote in her comments, “Think about tension all the time: maintain micro-tension throughout the story, in conversations, within Kate’s head. You always need conflict to drive the story forward.”

Kate Letts is my protagonist, or point-of-view character, who loses everything she owns in an apartment fire and tries to replace her lost things only to find something better.

My writer friend loaned me her copy of “The Fire in Fiction: passion, purpose and techniques to make your novel great,” by Donald Maass, published in 2009.

In chapter 8, “Tension All the Time,” Maass states that conflict is story, but that one large, overriding conflict is not all that drives the story. Conflict also needs to be present in smaller ways through micro-tension, or the tension within each moment of the story’s unfolding that keeps readers curious about what happens next.

Tension is not a function of plot, Maass said. In dialogue, it comes through the emotional friction between the characters speaking; in action, from inside the point-of-view character experiencing it; and in exposition, that character’s conflicting emotions.

As I understand what Maass is saying, tension boils down to feelings and emotions in each moment of the story. And as stated in my earlier blog on the same subject, tension is the result of character conflict: internal conflicts are about characters, while external conflicts are about plot.

Tension is what turns cardboard or cliché characters into sentient beings that experience the world through the filter of their own emotions, experiences and worldviews.

As soon as you put the point-of-view characters in a setting, what makes the environment become real? It’s not just the details, but how the character experiences them. This character feels his or her world, just as we all do.

See Zoey the cute dachshund’s blog at