Anyone who ever started a novel knows, beginning is the easy part. And anyone who ever tried to finish knows, the middle can be a nightmare. This is a universal truth among all writers of all creeds. For whatever reason – be it lack of confidence, lack of drive, lack of planning – the middle is one rather large bump in the road.
Many people never get over this bump. I mean, it’s a serious problem. Folks come up with all sorts of tricks and cures and ways of getting around it. I know some who outline, some who pack it with action sequences, and others who just try to plow through it headfirst.
Everyone reasons that the important thing is to write the middle. Doesn’t matter how. Doesn’t matter if it sucks. Just write it.
As much as that makes sense, and as much as I empathize, I’m always frustrated with the outcome. I read a novel because the premise is intriguing. So often, I’m disappointed by a middle that won’t even touch this premise. I’ve read middles that deflated once I reached them, complex middles that have nothing to do with the ending, and middles that jerked me around so many different ways, I didn’t even care about anymore.
How do the middles get like this? No condemnation, but this sort of thing happens when the author goes for a “fix.” It can be any combination of fixes, with a few in particular that I’d like to point out:
Bridging – point A to point B.
When you bridge the middle, it’s with the purpose of getting from your beginning to your ending. You come up with “stuff” for the characters to go through. You weave in subplots that will resolve themselves once they aren’t needed. This is the middle that is quaint, perhaps enjoyable, but inconsequential. It’s a detour. Red herring. Wild goose chase. No one is fooled.
The worst part is, a bridged middle coasts over plot events that might have held credence to the ending – as is, whatever happened in the middle simply isn’t important anymore.
Stuffing – throwing rocks.
Some writer advised that whenever things lag, drive your character up a tree, and pelt him with rocks. Monica Wood calls these “situations.” You have a guy in a tree, and someone’s throwing rocks at him: then what? He either comes down, climbs higher, or stays where he is. You either keep throwing rocks or you stop.
As much as you play with the situation, it’s always going to come back to a guy in a tree.
Many writers stuff their novels with situations to add action where it’s lacking. It’s a trip, all right, but an astute reader will notice the lack of any real development. Others may have a vague sense of being unfulfilled. It’s crazy and fun, but like a bridges, stuffing doesn't do much for the ending.
Overcomplicating – act vs react.
This is the trickiest one of all, because it starts out as a good solution. You have a situation, and then you complicate it. Take our character-in-the-tree. Perhaps someone joins are rock-thrower and starts climbing after the character. The higher they get, the smaller the branches are. If they climb too high, they could fall. And also, someone lost control of a fire. It’s spreading to the tree. Does our character climb higher, wait it out, or come down? What if he notices a thin branch that stretches out over a river? Should he crawl out and jump? What if the other climber gets stuck? Does the character help him, or leave him to die?
You can go on and on. But at some point, the character needs to deal with the situation. If all he does is react, and continue to react, the plot starts to feel overwrought – or worse! – manipulated. The reader feels jerked around. The story isn’t reliable anymore. No one trusts it. Too many complications without resolution leave everyone dissatisfied.
Any and all of these “fixes” may feel right at the time. You may figure out how to prevent them in your first draft. Or you may not. At some point, the middle does need addressing. When that time comes, what do you do? How do you fix a “fix”?
Focus on your main story goal.
Your middle needs to accomplish two things: deal with your beginning premise, and prepare your characters for the climax. This doesn’t have to be a physical preparation. It can be emotional as well. Hopefully, your climax requires both a physical and an emotional task; perhaps conflicting tasks.
Look at your climax. What is the final challenge your characters face? How has your middle prepared them for this task? Go back and find places to prepare your characters. Try to make your middle a series of lessons that build, one upon another, for the final test.
Make the journey as important as the destination.
If an event isn’t vital to your main story goal, it must at least compliment it. Pretend that you want to cut your middle by ten thousand words. Look for as many shortcuts to your ending as possible. What if the killer confessed, instead of leaving clues to pique the police? What if character A overhead character B explaining the whole gag?
The shortcuts would probably destroy your story, but that’s okay; you aren’t keeping them. Instead, look at which shortcuts make your story worse – less tension, less conflict, less development, etc – and which only cut back on your wordcount. Was something there “just because?” Cut it. Die, darlings, die.
(*Scaredy-cats are allowed to weave the main story goal into otherwise unnecessary scenes.)
One final thought. If you have a uninvolving story goal, your middle is going to sag no matter what you do. The characters should change. They must face challenges, they must learn and grow, and at times they must fail. Your story is important to you, right? Otherwise you never would have started it. Make it important to the reader, as well.
- Creative A