Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hump Day

John McFetridge

The Urban Dictionary defines “hump day,” as “The middle of a work week (Wednesday); used in the context of climbing a proverbial hill to get through a tough week.”

Of course, it also has the definition, “A term used exclusively by douchebags in reference to Wednesday,” and even douchebags no longer use the word douchebag, so I’m going to stick with definition #1.

It’s kind of like the middle of a novel. Or at least it is for me. Climbing that proverbial hill to get through the really tough part.

Every novel I’ve written turns into a mess in the middle and getting over that hump is always tough. They all start off with a lot of excitement, an idea I think is good, characters I think are interesting. I’ve started novels with a guy getting shot in the head while waiting in his car for a light to change, a body falling from twenty stories onto the hood of a car a hooker just got into, a guy crossing the border from Detroit to Windsor with a trunk full of guns he’s going to trade for dope and now with a couple guys in a rock band robbing a shylock in a casino parking lot.

So far so good.

And the ending, too, is usually a bit of a race as all kinds of loose ends get pulled together (well, most of them anyway) and everything comes crashing together.

But the middle, that’s the tough part.

When I was working in TV the single most common network note that would show up in the writer’s room was, “bigger act out.” The teaser before the opening credits usually runs for three or four minutes and then they find the body and the detective says something pithy. Then fifteen minutes later at the end of Act One we find out something new, something unexpected – it wasn’t a random robbery, the victim was embezzling money from his business partner and he had a plane ticket to Brazil. Fourteen minutes later at the end of Act Two we think we know who did it (the business partner) but then suddenly something is revealed that makes us think what we suspected is wrong – the wife knew about the embezzling and the Brazilian girlfriend. So, Act Three and we’re off on a new direction (usually there’s a scene in the police station where the captain suggests the detectives go back and talk to someone they already talked to) and by the end of the act all looks hopeless, this murderer is going to get away with it.

Luckily there’s a final act and it turns out the Brazilian girlfriend is also having an affair with the business partner and she's the murderer.

Then the detective gets to say something pithy about no honour among thieves or true love or something (that’ll come in a later draft).

So, big act outs, new information, new directions. But no new characters. All the suspects should have been identified in the first half hour.

But an hour long TV show is really a two act structure (as are most movies, not three acts at all but don’t get me started on that) without a middle. It’s all set up and pay off.

But a novel doesn’t have to be like, that does it? It doesn’t have to be so rigidly structured, does it? A novel doesn’t have to be over in time for the late local news. Why can’t new characters be introduced anytime? Or killed off at anytime? Why can’t a novel go off on a tangent or develop some sub-plot?

What’s the middle of a novel really for?


pattinase (abbott) said...

TV shows have too much structure. A lot less would make them better. One thing I love about THE GOOD WIFE, a network show, is that each week they do it differently. I can never anticipate what the next scene will be or where it will go. I don't know how they do it.

Dana King said...

Novels have middle parts solely to bust the author's stones. I'm at the same part of my WIP as you seem to be, and I feel exactly the same way. The ending is getting ramped up, so I can feel the momentum starting to shift, but all I can think of is, "It took too long to get here," or, "There are too many characters." (I think these things because this is what agents and editors tell me. They appear to be unique in this evaluation, but I digress.)

I don;t watch TV--except for the occasional FX show like JUSTIFIED or TERRIERS--for the seasons you mention. I also see few contemporary movies. Same deal. I now spend my time looking for writers and directors who create the kinds of things I like to read, and writing same.

So it goes.

Good luck getting over the hump. I feel you.

Steve Weddle said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Weddle said...

I'm 30k into this novel, and I hate this book.
Stuff that I set up around page 12k with a minor character didn't quite work out as I'd planned. So now I have to head back and clean that up.
And it would make more sense if the scene with the "man with the knowledge" actually happened around 20k instead of 30k, because then it could tie in better with Red Herring #2.
So, yeah, I hate this book.
But, soon I'll be at the end. Then, as the Murderati blog said yesterday, I'll have all new reasons for hating this book. I hate this book

Charlieopera said...

The middle is usually a mess for me too, but then turns a bit better once I'm at the end (if that makes sense) ... then writing backwards is the most fun for me.

Justified. Damn, is it back on yet? I'm searching for the very first show all the time because I loved Pronto so much (especially the last scene in the novel, which is apparently the start of the Justified series). I love the other episodes (the entire concept), but I "need" that first show--when Raylan shoots Tommy the Zip (the Pronto movie is hilarious). Just asked someone yesterday about this but they haven't seen the new season begin yet either. Let me know.

John McFetridge said...

Patti, if you saw last night's episode of THE GOOD WIFE, it's a good example of not knowing what will happen next. If the same set-up of a bunch of lawyers trying for a last minute appeal for a guy about to be executed it may very well have followed the standard structure, but because previous episodes of THE GOOD WIFE have surprised so much I really didn't know what was going to happen right up to the end.

Dana, I think you're right, agents and editors complain about those things. And some reviewers, but not all. And some readers, too, but not all. And those of us out of the maonstream need boks, too ;)

Ha, Steve, yeah, I hate this book.

But Charlie is right, once I get over the hump it gets fun again. Maybe I'll try having some guy listen to opera....

Dana King said...

JUSTIFIED starts up again in February. I think last season's shows might be available online somewhere. I Googled "justified epiusodes" and found several places that looked like they might have them available now, but couldn't find the pilot. It's probably out there somewhere.

Charlieopera said...

Have you guys and gals seen Pronto (the movie)? Oh, it is so funny ... I enjoyed it more than the book (and I liked that plenty). Falk was hilarious ... everybody was terrific really.

John McFetridge said...

No, I've never seen the movie, but Falk seems ideal for it.

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Like others said, the middle of the novel is the toughest and usually where the editing sucks the most. It's also the crucial point where you going to lose the reader if they are on the fence.

Don't watch much network tv, last thing I tried was Life on Mars and it showed promise, especially when Imperioli was flicking his cig ashes on the bodybag in the morgue. Didn't last long though, and I found the BBC version to be quite entertaining and better. But then again, I still miss a lot of the great 70's crime series, like Street's of SF, where they actually broke the show down into acts. Those were days.