Let Them Fail

I think it was H. L. Menken who said every novel has three parts: a beginning, a muddle, and an end. Fair enough. The beginning of a novel has the advantage that everything is new – if your exposition skills are honed the reader should be drawn along by the desire to learn what’s going on. The end of the book, meanwhile, should have that gravitational pull of the impending climax. The middle, meanwhile, has neither of these advantages: we’ve met all the characters, the setting is established, but the end is still a long way off. How do you keep it interesting in this placid limbo?

There is a popular writing trope that goes: put your hero up a tree and then throw rocks at him. This would seem to be the answer to the middle. Make things worse. And indeed, in a traditional narrative, one in which the protagonist goes through some sort of change to solve his or her problem, things should begin to look rather dark about the middle. The problem with the throwing rocks metaphor is that it assumes things are just happening to your protagonist. I understand it’s a bit picky, but I think the difference is actually significant. Instead of throwing rocks, I say, Let your hero fail.

Every story is a question. Am I strong enough to conquer evil? Am I lovable? What is justice? What is compassion? Usually, the hero begins believing something that is not working for him or her. She might believe she should marry for money, or he might believe marriage is a burden. The middle, in my opinion, is where we get to watch this false belief taken to its darkest outcome. The middle is where the ending, the ending many a reader has already perhaps predicted, appears in doubt.

So let them fail. They must fail. In fact, because the belief is always based on fear, the heroes actually want to fail to prove to themselves that fear cannot endure. So instead of throwing rocks, simply let those characters follow this lousy idea right into the gutter. In this way, you will be adhering to what Falkner believed was the only thing worth writing about – the human heart in conflict with itself.

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