Most authors I know agree with one thing about writing a novel:
Middles are the worst.
It’s true. They are. Middles are like the sagging back of an old horse, the rope suspension bridge between Beginning and End that is slowly unraveling, and probably not safe for more than one person to cross at a time.
I totally get that. Somewhere after the inciting incident (about 10,000 words in) and before the build up to the climax (about 15,000 words from the end) you have to, you know–make stuff happen. Fill all that empty, soggy space between Point A and Point B. And it can be really hard to make that middle stuff not feel slow and muddy to the reader.
As I’m revising my middle-grade manuscript, Gryphon, I’ve discovered a few tricks for making middles not only not suck, but possibly become the best part of your novel.
1. Raise the stakes. This “tip” gets thrown around a lot, and for a long time I wasn’t really sure how one could implement such broad-sided advice.
The easiest way I’ve found is to first work out what your characters’ goals are (both small and large), and then determine: what are the consequences of your characters not achieving those goals? Now make them even more dire. Life and death. Death and destruction. Whatever you can do to make the repercussions of your characters’ not achieving their goals worse, do it.
2. Lower the low points. The best part of middles is when it seems all hope is lost–that there is no possible way your character can achieve his purpose.
Remember in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo gets trapped in carbonite? Even worse, he’s shipped off with a bounty hunter to see Jabba the Hut, and our heroes are too busy trying to save Luke to chase him down.
At this moment in the story, we (the audience) feel somewhat defeated, like there’s no possible way Han can be rescued from his terrible fate. And in Return of the Jedi, this situation only gets worse when Leia is enslaved by Jabba.
Find that low point in your story (make one, if it’s not there already) and then make it worse. While you’re beating your hero into the ground, beat harder. Did something go wrong in his heist plan? Find three other things to go wrong, too. And it’ll be really satisfying to your audience when your clever protagonist manages to worm her way out of this ridiculous bind.
3. Up the conflict. Are your characters friends, lovers, or comrades in arms? Are they getting along, smooching, snuggling and heisting in perfect harmony?
This is the primary way in which I find middles sag: the character relationships stale. Either they are at peace with one another for too long, or they’re at odds without any moments of relief.
Cause some conflict. Stir up some drama. But be wary of falling into common conflict traps: misunderstandings that would be easy to resolve, unlikely coincidences, or blowing up a small issue into a big one (this is my biggest complaint with romantic sub-plots).
Use inherent character flaws to guide your conflicts. Is one of your characters prideful? Have that pride lead her to hurt the other character in a way that seems irreparable.
4. Comic relief. I might be the only writer with this particular problem, but I have a hunch that I’m not. Why so serious? If things are getting intense in your middle–as it probably should–be cognizant of how your reader is feeling. In the middle of drama and conflict, give your reader the occasional break.
The break doesn’t always have to be comic. Let your characters have moments of tenderness or insight into one another. In a romance, let passion momentarily override conflict (leading to more conflict, of course). In a thriller, let your protagonist feel victory–short-lived victory. A good middle is a combination of low and high points, leading up to your dramatic finale.
5. Escalate tension. A good climax is the tip of the highest peak of your story arc. Leading up to that peak are your second, third, and fourth-highest peaks.
I suggest doing this with “post-outlining”: now that you know all the plot points of your story (all the “ups” and “downs,”) organize them in order of severity. Your lowest lows and your highest highs should come near the end, leading up to your finale.
This is especially important when revealing important plot information. You don’t want to save all of your high-value cards and staggering reveals for the very end; drop some of your big bombs (but not your biggest bomb) during that sagging middle section, then escalate leading up to that super mondo finale–and hopefully leave your readers panting.
I hope this was helpful to you. The most important thing to remember when fixing your novel’s middle is that you will revise. You have to. I’ve never written a “middle” that was good the first time around; make a conscious effort to improve your ups and downs, to post-outline, to rearrange the puzzle pieces, and you’ll see that muddy middle turn into a high-tension, emotional roller coaster.