Ten things you can do in the middles of novels
(I suppose some of these might help in the middle of a short story, too, but since I tend to write short stories all of a piece, I have less experience with wrestling the middle of one).
1) Be prepared to restructure. Stories—the best of them, I think—are living things, and living things don’t like chains. So something might happen that breaks the outline, or renders the old story structure impossible. Or, alternatively, you might find that you can’t use the nifty scene you planned in the middle because it would work much better at the end of the story.
Few people seem to mind revision of a complete draft. So why refuse to revise an outline or planned structure? True, putter around with it forever and the story won’t ever end. But taking a while to reconsider in the middle is not a crime. Treating an outline as sacred can cause a lot of problems with trying to force the novel into a structure that simply no longer fits. Cramming a growing animal back into a small box doesn’t work.
2) Spin side-stories. This works best with a world that’s “middle-of-the-road”: you’ve got enough of it defined to work comfortably, but not every corner so smushed full of detail that you can’t add anything new. So you toss out casual mentions of background incidents in the characters’ lives, or histories of events that you won’t explore fully in the text, or even the Eleven Dark Names of the Grand and Powerful Lord Julian that you didn’t know about five seconds ago but which are now hovering in the background.
This has at least three advantages: it can make the middle of the story sparkle, reviving prose that’s become tired with “filler” scenes (about which see point 3); it can give you, as writer, the opportunity to create something new, instead of only relying on notes scribbled down before you started the damn story; and it can provide solid plot points for later, stepping stones to deepening the world. Maybe the Grand and Powerful Lord Julian turns out to be the protagonist’s great-uncle, and the catalyst of the next book in the series.
3) Remove known filler. Sure as sunshine, a reader is going to think of something in the story as filler that you never meant to be so. Descriptions you spent time to lovingly craft will make some people yawn and skim the paragraphs for the next conversation, while other readers are bored with the umpteenth rehashing of the protagonist’s mental issues and want some action Now, Please. Meanwhile, a scene that you thought of as horrifying might become a comfort read for someone particularly enchanted with gore. You can’t control reader response to your stories. (No author can learn this too many times).
But putting in scenes that you think of as filler, just there to take up word or page count?
If you don’t want to write these scenes, if you’re bored when you’re stapling them in, the prose is more likely to drag, the plot to sag, the action to lag, and the whole of the middle of the book to be slag.
Fill the middle of the book with scenes that you are looking forward to writing. This is simple, obvious advice, but it apparently needs emphasizing, given how many people seem to become bored when they aren’t writing beginnings or endings. Why in the world would you trap yourself in scenes you hate before you even write them? (Hating them because you’re struggling to write them is a different matter).
4) Let what’s already in the story work for you. Sometimes, dropping a bombshell into the middle of a story, such as a new character or an unexpected plot twist, can work. However, it’s far from the only solution, and unless the author’s clever and subtle with it, it often seems artificial.
Look. By the middle of the book, with tens of thousands of words behind you, you know these people better than you did when you first started writing, don’t you? And you know something about the novel’s world and the direction of the plot, don’t you? (At least, I sincerely hope you do. For some reason, of any of those three, plot is the most likely to be neglected).
Then you can use these known quantities to generate story, and plot. Peel back the layers of the characters. Look at the way they react to one another. Use their interactions to help propel the story along. They may have already established patterns of interaction, sure, but only stock types refuse to do anything save butt heads or banter.
Likewise the world. They’re entering a city that has a dangerous spy reporting to their enemies? Then have them come to the notice of the spy. Or you can think about what the structures you’ve already described imply. What has to exist to enable them to exist? The existence of farmers implies crops they grow/animals they breed. What kind of crops are those? Who buys them? What happens to those fields in the wake of the war you’ve already set up?
This kind of speculation may not seem very rewarding at first. That’s because it’s hard work. Thinking always is. Also, it may not be inherently dramatic. But, likewise, you’ve got to work for the drama, unless you want it to change into melodrama.
That’s another thing.
5) Quiet scenes can be a blessing. Just because every scene in the middle of the novel is not whiz-bang-slam! action, or the moment when the hero and heroine find out they’re in love with each other, doesn’t mean those scenes are worthless. This is the place to build character, lay foundations for what would otherwise be castles in the air—to make it seem as if the plot twists have grounding, in other words, instead of tossing them in as dei ex machina or “oh, yeah, here’s this very obvious feature of their quest which I never explained”—construct situations that are tense because of disagreements and not imminent danger of death, scatter clues to future mysteries, and give your readers a taste of ordinary life.
In the cases where writing even these scenes is boring, I think the problem is much less the structure of the story and more an authorial attitude one. Yes, believe me, subdued and understated scenes can be just as effective as yelling and swinging magic or swords around, or having sex. Given how bad some writers are at the open things, I wish they would go for understated more often.
6) This gives a way to vary the story’s emotional tone. I’ve complained before about books that are all farce or despair the whole way through, with the author never giving her audience a chance to take these people seriously or recover from the blood-and-thunder atmosphere. Well, perhaps, you reason, the beginning has to be of that tone in order to establish the kind of story you’re writing, and the ending is where you want all the plot threads to come together, so a climax of one single emotion is vital.
That does not mean you need to numb your readers by dragging them through unrelieved danger/angst/bickering in the middle. Usually serious people do, in fact, have moments when they are not deadly serious. The dull can show flashes of wit. A character who’s normally just a tagalong can demonstrate his competence at a task that all his friends ignore because it’s beneath their dignity to be good at it.
Unless reader numbness is the effect you want to produce, consider painting the middle in colors, even if the beginning and ending must be in chiaroscuro.
7) Use this as a chance to discover your own themes. If you’re not a conscious writer who sets out with a handful of themes in her back pocket, the middle can be a good place to discover what the hell is running at your heels. Since the middle of the book is, usually, the majority of the story’s time and page-space, it’s the vastest playground for your themes, and the best place to spot them in the wild.
By “discover,” I do in fact mean exactly that. Look at what you’re writing and notice the similarities, connections, and patterns; don’t force them. I would like to take this opportunity to make a conscious stance against the Forcing of the Theme. Conscious writers don’t have to do it, since they already know what they want to write about; unconscious writers can do better when they aren’t pushing something into the story that doesn’t want to be there. Remember what I said above, about stories being living things? Force-feed something to a story that it doesn’t want to eat, and it will promptly be sick all over your shoes.
Yes, this is probably part of my prejudice against message-stories. I don’t care.
8) Try experiments. The beginning is important, right? You have to know what you’re doing there.
And the ending is important, right? You have to know what you’re doing there and land with the perfect balance of force and speed, unless you want to toss your audience over a cliff or into a brick wall.
This does not mean the middle is unimportant. It can mean, especially if you work mostly unstructured and without a net, that this is the place where you can try little experiments in structure, or form, or plot, and see if they work. If they don’t quite work, they can take their place as one among many mosaic pieces and no harm done, because they don’t control the whole course of the story. If they’re really horribly wrong, they can be revised out of existence.
This is similar to point 2 and its side-stories, but not identical. Side-stories are for adding depth you might never get to explore, mountains you might never get to climb—subtext. Experiments can be text as text can be, but still spice up a middle that might get a bit draggy, particularly in a long work.
9) Hand action off between arcs. Got a long plot arc that won’t close until the end of the novel, like the protagonist’s growing up? Got a number of subplots that won’t close until almost the end, like the discovery of a traitor and the protagonist’s love interest maturing enough to confess his love to her? This can be a cause of the middle dragging, or being on its way to dragging. The author is writing solely to add weight and accumulation to larger plots, waiting for the emotional payoff at the end. One step down from there is the known filler again.
Most people forget that, without the groundwork, the emotional payoff is usually insubstantial, unsatisfying, or completely out of the blue.
So try having a number of smaller arcs in the middle of the novel, including the development of secondary characters, changes in location, confrontations with weather or enemies or intractable social problems, the resolutions of minor mysteries, and so on, that will open and close in a much shorter space of time. One to a chapter might be too much, but what about one every few chapters? Or, when one arc takes off, it joins four others already in the air, two of which are going to land in this chapter, one of which goes flying all the way to the end of the novel, and the fourth of which will end five chapters from now. The one that just took off might land at any point in between.
There’s one solid, invaluable advantage to using smaller arcs this way, at least from my point of view: they encourage the author to focus on other characters, because the protagonist’s important emotional revelations are often delayed for the climax. And that means a populated world, without people who are just there to show up when needed and fade away otherwise. I approve of populated worlds.
10) Develop a feeling for the pace and structure of your story. Looked at in one light, this is nearly useless advice. How in the hell is it possible? Or, given the vastly varying nature of stories you can wrestle with, you might learn how to structure one that requires strictly defined chapters, only to have that do you no good when facing an episodic novel.
On the other hand, starting out with the intention to understand pace and structure can do your story a world of good. I’ve seen too many books with rushed endings to fool myself into believing that all writers carefully consider this point. Pace is, in fact, one of those things most likely to produce a boring middle of a book when ignored. The author never notices the drag if she never pays attention to how fast her steed walks, or when it needs to trot, canter, or gallop.
So get used to thinking about it. Even writing without an outline, you can get an idea of how “big” your story is, how fast it needs to go, whether it’s episodic or not, whether it will be useful to structure it in chapters or not. Believe me, I’ve done it. It might take a lot more work and planning before you begin to write, but that’s not really a problem, is it? It’s only a problem if all the planning means you never write the book at all.
So there you are. Full of my own prejudices, but I’ve tried to admit them—you may have noticed the propensity to think of stories as animals—and I hope that it didn’t drag in the middle.