Review: Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell


by Karen Newcombe

James Scott Bell offers some of the most useful advice to be found in any books about the craft of writing. 

His most recent book on writing, Write Your Novel From the Middle, is the first writing book I've read, out of many dozens, to look directly at what's happening at the midpoint of a story. Most books on the craft of writing make it clear that Important Things happen at the midpoint: this is where the plot turns inevitably towards the conclusion. But what exactly is going on?

To find out, Bell started opening books to their center to look firsthand. What he found was more than just a turning point in the plot. The midpoint of the book is what Bell terms "a look in the mirror", where the main character has to stop and take stock of him or herself: Am I really this kind of person? What must I become in order to overcome these challenges? 

Notice these questions are not about what must I do but who must I become.

This is the moment when the character realizes that he or she must dig down inside and undergo a personal change in order to move forward. In a plot driven book this may be when a fateful decision is made by the hero that will drive the action for the rest of the story. 

Give it a try. 

Pride and Prejudice: In the middle of the book, which falls in Chapter 36, Elizabeth receives a letter from Darcy, whom she has just vehemently rejected in Chapter 34. Darcy's letter is electrifying, revealing to Elizabeth how poorly her prejudices have served her. "How despicably I have acted!...I could not have been more wretchedly blind!...Till this moment I never knew myself." 

The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien intended LOTR to be one book, not three volumes, and that intention is still evident in the structure. Just at the center of The Two Towers the most important moment in the entire story occurs: Frodo, with Sting drawn to kill Gollum, must decide if he's the person who kills or the person who spares. Frodo finds pity in his heart and withholds his hand. On that tiny thread of pity hangs the fate of Middle Earth and every being in it. 

The value in Bell's book lies not only in bringing clarity to what's happening at a story's midpoint, but in his practical tips. He offers clear guidance for how writers can make use of the midpoint to strengthen their work. One of his suggestions is to define this midpoint moment  before you even begin writing, instead of struggling to discover it as you write. With the midpoint in mind, the flow of the work is now clearer: actions and decisions must bring your character to that moment of reflection and crisis, and the person she becomes, or the decision he makes, will now lead inevitably to the resolution of your conflict. 

I immediately gained a useful insight from Bell's approach about the manuscript I'm working on now (May 2014). I knew from my first plot outline that my main character would face a transformational crisis of identity. Now I understand that by placing this key self-realization near the mid-point of the book, it will feel emotionally satisfying to the reader. When my character makes the commitment to never go back, it will drive the plot and action for the rest of the story, and make more sense than if it occurs at a different point in the sequence of events. I had originally planned this moment for an earlier point in the book, but placing it in the midpoint gives me more opportunity to create tension and conflict, and build anticipation for the struggle to come. 

In the last section of Writing Your Novel From the MIddle, Bell throws in a handful of great writing tips about how to generate more ideas, how to prepare for effective daily writing, how to develop a voice as a writer, tips for handling exposition so that it's more natural, and 11 secrets for creating a page turner. 

Bell is a bestselling author, has seven other books about writing, and he runs the blog Kill Zone, a hub for thriller and mystery writers that contains plenty of treasure for writers working in any genre. 

Don't forget to feed your craft today! 

Photo credit: brooklyn / Foter / CC BY-SA 2.0

© Karen Newcombe 2014