How to keep a literary novel afloat in the middle.

That’s right. Let’s dive into Act II of THE SKY IS EVERYWHERE. And learn to stay afloat in Act II!

Break into two: (protagonist must make a proactive decision)

Again. This was easy for me to find. Remember the debate? It’s answered. Lennie strides into Act I by saying yes. She finally is willing to play her clarinet with Joe and all her grief comes pouring out. Joe is stunned. But it wasn’t just a random decision. In order to avoid Toby and grief, she decides to play.

B story: (the love story – not always romantic)

In Act I, Joe pursued and Lennie pushed him away. But now the world is upside down and they set off on the rocky road of love. They play together. They have fun together. And surprise, surprise because at times, Lennie feels joy.

Fun and Games: (the heart of the book – why we read it)

Why did I pick this book up? What were my expectations? I wanted to read about a girl dealing with her grief and moving on and figuring out how to do that. So, with her newfound decision of playing the clarinet comes other brave decisions. It’s really hard to call this section Fun and Games, but don’t take it too literally. It’s a breather before the tension spikes.

You’ll have to read the book to find out what those brave decisions are. #sorry

Midpoint: (stakes are raised significantly; another big game changer)

Again, in a plot-driven novel, the midpoint should be obvious. In a literary, character-driven novel what turns out to be a game changer is just on a smaller scale but still huge in Lennie’s world.

In Chapter 20, exactly half way, Lennie finally talks to her best friend, who she’s been ignoring. She tells her everything. This is huge! Lennie is letting someone into her life in a healthy situation.

Bad guys close in: (Things get even worse.)

In a character-driven novel there is no regrouping of the antagonist and his minions. It just isn’t like that. But, stakes are raised. Definitely.

I’ll just say that Lennie learns that Bailey, her sister, had secrets. Big secrets! And in her grief, she makes mistakes that affect her budding relationship with Joe.

All is Lost: (no hope left)

In chapter 30, Lennie is in her room. So many things come to a head. She realizes how Bailey’s secrets affect her too, and Joe is not coming back. And even worse, as the days pass, she no longer hears Bailey’s heels clicking in the hall. She’s getting used to her sister’s absence. Her sister’s clothes now smell like her, since she’s worn them so much. In all areas, Lennie has no hope left.

Dark Night of the Soul: (How does the protagonist feel about everything?)

Through out Chapter 30 we know exactly how Lennie feels. Miserable. Then her friend, Sarah, forces her to go to the movies. They see Joe and Rachel together. Rachel plays first chair clarinet, and Lennie plays second. But we all know that Lennie is better. At the end of this chapter, Lennie decides to challenge Rachel for first chair. (Who is this girl, who at the beginning wouldn’t even play her clarinet?)

And that ends a wonderfully structured Act II. Onward!

Can you find some of these elements in the middle of your current wip? Do you agree or disagree with me?

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22 Responses to How to keep a literary novel afloat in the middle.

  1. terri tiffany November 7, 2011 at 1:19 pm #

    I’ve had to work on it but I love when I reach the middle cause I know it has to be good and then I get to slide on down to the ending:)

  2. Sheri Larsen November 7, 2011 at 1:33 pm #

    I do agree with you, especially about the Fun & Games section of any story. The reader needs this. To be honest, as a reader, sometimes this part of a story annoys me. I can’t help but feel like yelling ‘Move on, please!’, but that section is necessary. Lots of character development and growth can occur, plus the writer can deepen the story a ton. And of course, this section makes the reader thirsty for what he/she knows must be coming.

  3. Susan Sipal November 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    I love the details you point out, Laura, that show the change and conflict, especially the bit about her sister’s clothes starting to smell like her. This is the beauty of strong writing — so little can say so much. And I love how you can pick out these details and help us all learn to improve our own writing!

  4. Stina Lindenblatt November 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm #

    Well, considering I rewrote my wip with STC in mind, the answer is yes.

    And now I understand what ST compared my novel to TSIE (in topic not writing). Hmmm. I wonder if I can use that in my query. I should probably reread the novel, first. 🙂

    • Laura November 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm #

      Sheri, you have a great point. I think if the first part of Act II is done right though, the story shouldn’t feel stalled. There should be increasing clues and conflict that keep the pages turning.

  5. Lisa Green November 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    This is great! What an awesome interpretation of the beat sheet. Very helpful way to look at things.

    • Laura November 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

      Thanks everyone! It was an experience to study a novel like this from a high concept movie beat sheet.

  6. Jennifer Hoffine November 7, 2011 at 4:24 pm #

    Great breakdown and comparison to more genre-style novels!

    The “no hope left” section of this book hit me harder than I’d expected…esp. since it’s the protag’s own actions that cause it. So well done!

  7. Lydia K November 7, 2011 at 5:52 pm #

    It’s need to see how the Save the Cat stuff works in a more literary novel. Thanks Laura!

  8. Christina Lee November 7, 2011 at 7:14 pm #

    OOh this is good–the “bad guys” are the sister’s hurtful secrets–SPOT ON!!

  9. Julie Musil November 7, 2011 at 8:57 pm #

    Woman, you are brilliant. I remember each of these scenes, but wouldn’t have called them out as “midpoint, etc.” It wasn’t as obvious for me, but then again, I’m not Laura Pualing!

  10. becca puglisi November 7, 2011 at 9:41 pm #

    In many ways, the fun and games part is the hardest for me. The big moments are so charged and extreme; they’re pretty easy to nail down. But it’s hard for me to come up with a solid fun and games section that fits into the overall story. It can so easily become extraneous, unrelated goofy stuff. This is a good way of showing how that section can work. And based on this breakdown, I think I’ve realized that I do need to add that scene I’ve been waffling over in Act 2. Thanks!

    Becca @ The Bookshelf Muse

  11. Susan Kaye Quinn November 7, 2011 at 10:48 pm #

    I love how you break these down! Even in a literary novel the structure is there. #awesome

    I was teaching a class to teens last week about story structure (and yes Snyder’s beat sheet!), and I was trying to explain why this works. I think it has to do with a sort of internal rhythm that people have with stories; a kind of push-pull that evokes emotion and binds us to the story. /end psych eval


  12. Marisa November 7, 2011 at 10:50 pm #

    Excellent Laura!! what a great breakdown. I know I’ll be coming back to this (and all your breakdowns – so darned helpful!

  13. Karen Lange November 8, 2011 at 12:47 am #

    Good stuff, as usual! Thanks, Laura. You inspire me. 🙂

  14. Patti November 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    I’m struggling with the middle right now. I feel like I’m just throwing words up in order to get to the climax.

    So this breakdown really helped.

  15. Gail Shepherd November 8, 2011 at 10:40 pm #

    I’m struggling with just this at the moment, so your post is so timely. I’m about to reach the midpoint, when something truly horrible happens and changes the game entirely. What I’m still unsure about, though, is how to keep the tension ratcheted up in the second half of the novel before the climax. I’m thinking that the subplot may serve that function.

    • Laura November 8, 2011 at 11:23 pm #

      I’ve recently been struggling with my middle too! So writing these posts helps me process my own work a lot! Thanks everyone!

  16. Leigh Moore November 9, 2011 at 2:45 am #

    Yep. That’s exactly what happens in the middle of my current MS going out. Right slap there in the middle. Protag thinks she’s going to do one thing, she’s softening and whamo! Game changer.

    Good stuff, Laura! this is always so important to keep in mind. :o) <3

  17. Elle Strauss November 9, 2011 at 4:18 am #

    I love the beat sheet! I’ve just been referring to it again for the short story I’m writing for #nanowake

  18. Lydia Sharp November 13, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

    Act Two is much harder to write than it is to analyze after it’s been written. *sigh*

    Nice job with this. You nailed it.

  19. Madeleine November 27, 2011 at 6:19 pm #

    I’ve written 34,000 words and I lost my way when I had to stop for a while through illness. I know vaguely what I want to write, so these pointers should help me get back on track. Thank you.

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