When structuring a novel, get ready for your last thrill ride, the miracle finish.
June 5, 2013
Recap: Within the first 15 pages, you have set the hook and stated the theme. Within the first 50 pages, you have established the plot and introduced the primary characters, complete with flaws. Between pages 36 and 50, you have provided the hero and the character with a life changing moment, which will change the direction of the novel. Between pages 50 and 75, the hero determines what needs to be done and makes the definite decision and commitment to accomplish it, regardless of the odds. Beginning on page 90, you begin the secondary story and the sub-plot, introducing your cast of offbeat characters necessary to carry the storyline forward. Between pages 90 and 170, you turn the characters loose, give them a lot of wonderful things to do and conflicts to over come, and let them build the backbone of the novel. From page 170 to 225, the hero knows that the bad guys are closing in. His back is against the wall, and beginning on page 225, he chooses to stare defeat in the face and fight back. He refuses to lose, regardless of the stakes.
The hero has completed his or her soul searching. The hero has managed to endure and survive the darkness that conflict, rage, disappointment, and doubt have swept over him. He is not the man he was. She is not the woman she was. Impending defeat has only made the hero stronger and more tenacious than ever before. The fire has tempered the steel in the backbone. There is a calm commitment and dedication to the way that the hero faces a new day and all of the complications that it has thrown at his or her life.
They say it’s darkest just before the dawn. Well, dawn is on the way. There is a glimmer of light on the horizon. The darkness is fading. The hero is not unlike the lone gunslinger riding into town, the heart-broken man running down the railroad track in the rain to keep his love from leaving him, the brilliant but alcoholic attorney who throws away the bottle and fights all sorts of delusions as he prepares to argue the case of his life.
He is down to one choice. He must win.
The hero realizes that he must reach down into the far depths of a frayed soul and rummage around the sins and failures of his past until he recovers the one great idea that will save himself, the girl he loves, the nation he has sworn to protect, the city burdened with crime, a partner who lies dying in the street, a kidnapped victim who has only hours to live, an innocent man headed for the execution chamber, the young girl whose only hope is a heart transplant, an abandoned bride who has been left at the altar. It doesn’t matter. Somewhere out there, other than himself, the hero has someone more important to save.
However, as we move from page 225 to 270, that idea rests a dark abyss beyond the hero’s comprehension. The idea is nowhere in sight.
Here, for example, is the situation: The hero is hopeless, clueless, drunk, broke, or stupid sitting on the side of the road with a flat tire and less than two dollars in his pocket. The love of his life has been kidnapped. He has forty-five minutes to secure the ransom and meet the bad guy at the old cotton gin at a quarter to midnight. If he fails to show up, if he fails to pay the ransom, his fiancé will die.
What will he do?
Or take another scenario: The detective is sitting in the darkness of a rainy night, his back to the wall, a bullet in his chest, only two bullets left in his .45 revolver, and six men edging up on him.
He must not die. The stakes are far too high.
What will he do?
In both instances, the hero is forced, against his will and better judgment, to admit his humanity and mortality. He is not superman. There are no miraculous powers to protect or save him
But he needs a miracle. And only one entity can manufacture the miracle. The miracle will come from deep within the mind and imagination of the hero. Otherwise, he knows he has absolutely no chance of still being alive when the reader turns the next page.
The author has two options: (1) Wait until the hero finds miracle. Or (2) throw the manuscript away. It’s over. It’s finished. For the want of another good miracle, a great story is lost.
Beginning on page 265, the hero begins to unravel the problem confronting him and climb out of the twisted web that has trapped him.
But no one can help him. He must do it himself.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch could not sit back and wait for the local police to go out and track down those whose lies would condemn an innocent black man to death for rape. Ferreting out the truth was his job and his job alone.
In The Bourne Trilogy, Jason Bourne could not wait around for the CIA to save him from the mysterious assassins who were chasing him all over the globe. The CIA wanted him dead, too. Surviving was his job and his job alone.
In The Lincoln Lawyer, attorney Mickey Haller was being taunted by his client, a rich playboy charged with murder. He threatened to kill Haller’s wife and family. And no one can step forward and help the lawyer. He himself was prevented from going to the police and exposing the information he knows by his attorney-client privilege. hands were tied by the legal system. Defending his family was his job and his job alone.
Page 265 to 285 breaks into the final act of the story. The hero, more or less, has a good 75 pages left to solve the myriad of complications presented by the original story, as well as the sub-plot. By page 300, you are moving at warped speed toward the finale. During this closing section, it is vital to underscore the change that has occurred within the hero’s life.
For example, a detective who is deathly afraid of heights and water reveals his hidden bravery by leaping from a bridge into a swollen river to save the lady he loves, the lady thrown overboard by gangsters. A girl who always felt as if she were an outcast is now in charge, and those who ridiculed her are willing to follow where she leads them. A tough guy detective finally shows a glimpse of the inside of a soft heart, much like Sam Spade did at the end of The Maltese Falcon. He looked down into the face of the beautiful murderess, Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and said: I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in twenty years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.
In fiction, miracles do occur.
In good fiction, miracles, however, never come from out of the blue and from unexpected sources. They are manufactured by the grit, guts, guile, gumption, and maybe even the guns of the hero, who finds a solution to his dilemma because he does not want to face the consequences if he fails. Failure is not an option. Always remember that, when it’s all said and done, love is the greatest motivator of all. Love of life. Love of freedom. Love of country. Love of duty. Love of a woman or a man. Love almost always wins. Or love is the bittersweet and haunting memory left behind when it doesn’t.
The hopeless, clueless drunk beside the car with the flat tire, the one who had forty-five minutes to get the ransom money and deliver it in order to keep his fiancé from being killed by kidnappers? He took whatever advantage he could find. He jumped on the back of a chicken truck, rode to town, picked up the money, stole a taxi, and raced to the cotton gin, arriving on time and paying for the release of his love. Of course, the police were right behind. They knew nothing of the kidnapping, but they were intent on chasing down the stolen taxi.
And the detective sitting against the wall with a bullet in his chest and two bullets left in his revolver while six men crept up intent on killing him? He first stuffed his handkerchief into the wound to stop the blood, then took down the first gangster in the rain with a blow to the back of his head with the butt of his revolver, removed the second from action by strangling him with a pair of shoe laces, shot the third and fourth man, and, while the last two were hiding and searching for any sight of him in a hard night rain, slipped into their car, and roared away toward safety and town.
Heroes did what was necessary. Heroes did what they had to do.
No one, not even an author, knows exactly what can be done until his or her back is jammed against the wall, fighting writer’s block, afraid to commit the ending to a blank screen while the hero is frantically looking for a way out. The hero, in the hands of a good author, can always find one. That’s the way miracles happen. The wild ride on your roller coaster is never worthwhile unless you make sure that the final drop down the coaster’s rails is never forgotten.