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The Tight Abs of Your Novel

Beginners’ novels tend to sag in the middle. We have lost some of the fire of the beginning. We are still far from our stunning resolution. Yes, the protagonist is in trouble, but he’s been in trouble for 200 pages, and it’s all beginning to blur. Sound familiar? The problem, of course, is the plot.

When Inspiration Fizzles

A deep and rich plot will bolster middles. Almost every unpublished manuscript I read suffers from weak plotting. Not that the events aren’t interesting; but there’s not enough there. Plan for lots of meaningful dramatic action. So-called “organic” writers trust they will find much of what they need as they go. That’s like building a house without a blueprint. Oops! Forgot the back door; ran out of insulation; is it too late to make it a Tudor? Although cool ideas always emerge as you write, I wouldn’t rely on sudden inspiration for the middle. It’s where the reader puts down your book and wanders off to find something really satisfying. Like potato chips.

Friends, there is no excuse for sagging middles. It is the most important part of the book. It’s like an Olympic swimmer with a sagging middle. Are you kidding me? She is taut, muscled, lean and ready to win.

How to Save the Middle

Avoid kindness. Many stories flounder because of polite, over-civilized characters acting as we ourselves might. This is not the sort of character with whom we want to spend 400 pages. (Though I would love to have coffee with you, of course.) Put your character through hell. Attack her most cherished assumptions, his most shameful weaknesses. Don’t be afraid of this. In Story, Robert McKee says, “The essence of life is conflict,” and points to many serious films to make his point. The internal (and interpersonal) is still conflict, if it’s gripping enough.

Use the climax to pull your middle along. The climax, as we know, is the story’s payoff. It is the ultimate scene, and without a great one, your novel is in trouble. In How to Write a Damn Good Novel, James N. Frey makes the case that your story premise is proven at the climax. You may not go so far. But still, the middle is where the opposition gathers strength. The middle is where the main character realizes she is willing to sacrifice the unthinkable. Her growing courage and desperation drives the opposition to pull out all the stops. This process creates a rising action in the middle. It’s worth reading McKee on escalating conflict.

Throw these into the mix:

  1. The midpoint scene. Write to a big scene in the middle of the book. Crank it up in a stake-filled scene. Make it a sex scene where trust is established and a terrible secret revealed. Or make it a death scene. Now the hero has new energy to pursue his goal. (Gleaned from The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray)

  2. Subplots. These should peak before your main plot. Here is where the action has velocity while your main plot may move into an energy-gathering lull before culmination.

  3. Reversal of fortune or change in direction. In the middle of Bright of the Sky, the main character’s true goal switches from a pure but simplistic desire to rescue his family to one of pursuing redemption. This strategy can reenergize your character.

  4. Tests and allies. In The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler explains how tests and allies are making your main character grow and become capable of dealing with death, loss and revelation. Use them. Let supporters and setbacks carve deeply into your character, making him more than he was. Someone approaching legend, heroism, martyrdom or some other lofty place.

Middles are where all this happens. Rightly constructed, it is the most thrilling part of your novel. Really.


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