“Here’s a question for you, Doctor of Love and Sentinel of the Scribe. I have the beginning of my story all fleshed out, from character origins and personalities to how they meet. I’ve got a decent end in mind. I know what their main objective will be … although I don’t know how they’ll accomplish it. How in the world do i write the middle?” –Mystified in the Midlands
It looks like I had definitely misunderstood some of the major concerns of fiction writing, but that’s what we’re all here for. We’re here to learn from each other and to grow. (That’s foreshadowing for the whole post, by the way.) And you’re in luck! While Parts One and Two focus on other things, this post and Part Three deal with plot.
The bad wiggly middle is always something that can make me put down a book or a series and never pick it back up. Some middles “sag” and others just seem to drone on forever (I’m looking at you The Gunslinger, which I loved but hated because of its middle). Here’s some ways to not only make a middle but prop up a middle like a good bra.
To fully explain a few different ways, I’m going back to a book I mentioned at the beginning of the series – The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass – and a couple different posts from writing blogs and whatnot to give you a bunch of different ideas.
Maass suggests something that presumes that you have some sort of momentum – balancing Tension and Energy, which basically boils down to make something change. There’s a tendency when writing to have a lot of buildup and then no release – no catharsis. Tension leads to mood builders, sure, but it can also lead to stagnation and festering. In order to avoid that, Maass suggests making your characters or something else to make your characters change drastically by making them learn a lesson. He calls it the Emotional Midpoint, which I mostly just call a volta, which is a poetic term, sure, but it’s useful.
Once most novels get to the middle, there’s an ultimatum. There’s something that makes the audience sit on the edge of their seats. There’s a major/minor Catalyst and Catharsis – a defeat or a failure and it’s other side (as Maass says, “Explosion releases the truth” ). There’s a character’s premature death sometimes that drives the lead into making more decisive decisions (I’m looking at you again, The Gunslinger.)
Just to recap, and here’s some spoilers, so sorry about that ahead of time, but The Dark Tower series has been out for a very long time.
Roland makes a terrible decision to let Jake fall to the depths and die because he can’t allow Jake to hinder him from catching up to and confronting the Man in Black. Jake is the one who has to deal with that fallout by later having a mental split trying to cope with both realities that eventually heals itself when he goes back to Roland’s world. Roland is confronted again later by a similar situation in which he learns from his mistake. Actually, the whole series is about learning from mistakes, but that’s another rant for another day.
Because of Jake’s (temporary) death at his hand, Roland learns from his mistakes in a way and it perpetuates the story in a constructive way by leading Roland to introspection and makes him grow.
The middle is all about making your monsters GROW! (That’s a Power Rangers reference, by the way.)
The volta – the middle and midpoint – is all about characters doubling back on themselves in questioning – in growing through hardship.
And remember! Defeat is imperative for growth!
A few other things can help, too, like what Maass calls “Nothing Scenes.”
Sometimes, “Nothing Scenes” aren’t just helpful but prove absolutely essential for characters to grow (and, from there, your plot). These types of scenes are the kinds where your characters develop and have simple interactions. Not everything has to be a monologue or soliloquy! They can just be little excerpts about their hobbies. Things they miss. Big dreams. Small dreams. Whatever it is, it’s up to you!
The main use of these scenes is to get in touch with your characters by asking: What do my characters need from “nothing”? What do my characters need from down time? What do my characters need from each other when nothing else is happening?
You’d be surprised how much your book starts writing itself when you let your characters write for you.
Another way is to start at the destination and work backwards, which seems a little counterproductive, but if you already know where you want to go – what your goal is – then why not figure out the step right before? And then the step before that?
Another useful tip is using the “Seasons of Self” method (which is honestly most easily visualized in The Voyage of Life painting series by Thomas Cole done in 1842.) This, I can honestly say, is a mix of what I’ve gathered from Maass and my own personal thoughts on the matter.
Every story and every character and every series follows this natural pattern, whether or not it’s self-aware enough to know that it’s doing it. Seasons of Self follows the natural patterns of life – the Spring (birth/rebirth), the Summer (the growing/growth), the Fall (the breaking/brokenness), and Winter (the dying/death). These don’t have to be explicit unless you want them to be, but when you’re feeling like you’ve gotten stuck, find out what season your characters are in and work out how the next season may be achieved. And while this concept can apply to the whole of a novel, remember that seasons are cyclic, and there very well may be several small cycles over the course of the whole.
Getting a bit more back to the Journey, (no, not the band) don’t be afraid to use literary devices you learned back in high school! Remember that all stories have a Beginning, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution, and along the way, every story will have much smaller cycles of several of those leading to the top and back down.
In another book – Writing the Ficiton Series by Karen Wiesner (which isn’t very good, honestly), two primary plot structures are presented.
- The plot oriented: Stasis, Trigger, Quest, Surprise, Critical Choice, Climax, Reversal, and Resolution.
- The character-oriented: Intro to the Hero’s World, Call to Adventure, Choices, Crossing the Threshold, Mentor/Character Intervention, Encounter of Darkness, Internal Darkness to Overcome, Realization, Final Battle, Return to the Wider World
The important thing to remember is that every plot is a formula. Every book is a formula. Some authors are so consistent that they use the same formula every single time with minor alterations (I’m looking at Jim Butcher, here, honestly).
Another important thing to remember is that, unless you’re Stephen King, you’re going to stagnate and feel insecure about your writing. And that’s okay! Just don’t let it get you down.
Here are a few sites that explain things differently (and reword what I just said) about how to avoid a “Sagging Middle” that are actually useful and not just randos saying that you suck.
- Sagging Middle Syndrome: How to Rescue Your Novel From Its Fatal Effect
- 7 Ways to Navigate the Middle of Your Novel (And Maybe Your Life) [this one is eh, but it has good points]
- Sagging, Soggy Middles [short, sweet, and to the point]
- Novel Writing Tips: How to Avoid a Sagging Middle [also gives symptoms of a soggy middle]
Next post, we’ll talk a little about Editing and shaping up your novel!