How to Write the Middle of Your StoryNov 30, 2017
Many writers have questions about how to write the middle of a story. It can be a really exciting section to write; your characters are developed, your protagonist is beginning to transform, and the climax is creeping ever nearer. There may even be a love interest who’s tantalisingly within reach (but likely to dart away again before the third act...).
In short, writing the middle is not only great fun, but hugely important because it’s crucial to the story structure. But sometimes, a writer finds themselves with a sagging middle, with characters meandering around their plot, not quite sure how to move on to the next act and reach the climax. It’s a place where many of our fellow writers get stuck writing.
In this article, we’ll look at three common pitfalls and how to write the middle of your story in a way that’s engaging and purposeful, maintaining the tension in your narrative and ensuring the reader doesn’t lose interest in your stories.
But before we get into our tips, we need to say a huge WELL DONE for creating so much material. Hats off and we’re betting you’ve struggled on and dragged the novel along against your own fading hopes for a few chapters now.
Fear not. If a novel has a sagging middle, it’s usually easily diagnosed and fixed.
Mistake #1) Your character is TOO close to you in gender, age, background and location
Often, writers of novels and short stories alike find themselves stuck because the protagonist bears great resemblance to who they, the writer, are in real life.
We are never meaner or less sympathetic to anyone than we are to ourselves. So that’s not a good ‘hero’ for a story because if you’re lacking in sympathy for your hero or heroine, the reader will be too.
You won’t be able to stand your own company for an entire story, or give yourself a satisfying character arc. You’ll get stuck writing, and it’ll be a real battle to create something that can keep readers engaged.
You need some new characters to play with, and a story that isn’t a straight autobiography. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be writing fiction.
Here are quick fixes:
1. A makeover
Change everything superficial about the protagonist.
This is what The Novelry founder Louise Dean calls the ‘back of the head’ test. You must be able to see the back of her head. Immediately, that’s not you since you haven’t seen yours. Immediately, it asks you to think about their hair colour and build, their posture (tense, nervous, headache?) and all the wonderful assumptions that other people make with regard to tall, short, fat, thin persons and so on.
Change their age. Change their location. Change their socioeconomic background. Then change their name too to see things freshly.
2. Change their gender
This is the easiest way for anyone to write a first novel.
Now, take a couple of days to write a portrait of your main character on one page of your notebook. One page is just right.
Steal from the people you see, know, work with over the next few days, and write it all down for yourself. These are gems to line your novel with. For example, take HIS taste in music. HER clothes. HIS family background. HER way of speaking. HIS interests. HER illnesses. Cobble them together.
But at THE HEART OF IT grant them your own greatest flaw or failing. We have a deep desire to treat and cure it or at least face it in our writing. That’s the point of fiction. And it can make for a very compelling hero’s journey, as you set your main character on a quest to overcome your shortcomings – a great way to drive the story forward.
Mistake #2) The conflict is too remote
Conflict makes the pages turn. It’s the very foundation of story structure and what keeps a reader engaged not just through the middle part, but the entire book.
If you can see the back of your hero’s head, you need to have the antagonist or anti-hero RIGHT in their face, day in day out, page in page out, making things a whole lot worse and forcing our hero to face things throughout the course of your plot.
So, if the conflict in your story is from a remote point of origin in the main character’s external world (for example alien forces, the government or mankind itself) then make one person in your novel a neat and complete fit with the mentality, attitude or philosophy that antagonises your protagonist.
Mistake #3) The worst things that happen to your character are not happening here
Either the worst thing happened in chapter one or before the beginning of your novel. No! Build sympathy for your characters. Make us hope they’ll find some form of triumph. Then, quickly show the reader that your protagonist is probably not going to be able to deal with what might go wrong during the course of the plot.
Of course, you’ll very soon have it go wrong, somewhere near the beginning. Readers will have to watch your protagonist flail as things get even worse, leading right up to a tumultuous climax. That’s tension. That’s a novel. (Ouch…..OUCH....OWWW!)
So, how do you fix it now you’re 3040k into the book?
You have two options if you’re writing a story and find yourself with a mushy middle.
Rather than tinkering away and re-writing the middle of your novel, revise from the beginning.
Insert an opening chapter that shows (not tells!) the protagonist’s character flaw right from the beginning. Think, for example, of David Lurie reckoning he’s got sex cracked as the first line in Disgrace.
End the chapter with everything changing. Show us that the character might not be so sorted after all. You may or may not end up keeping this. I bet you do, but either way, it will orientate you nicely to keep writing for now.
Alternatively, you can take the new protagonist you’ve created and just press on writing the new material, continuing your narrative. Then you can go back and rewrite with this whole new character and catch the earlier chapters, swapping in your new protagonist in the second draft once you have the plot nailed down.
Personally, I’d opt for a midway between the two points and do a working revise, taking big chunks of material over a short period of time (for example 5-8k a day), after I’d set up that opening chapter for the beginning of the novel.
You’ll find every scene has a new life when you know what your protagonist is capable of, and you have a ready point of conflict and tension up close and personal. Even minor characters will feel fuller with a great protagonist to bump up against. You might even think up brand new characters to exacerbate (or complement) the flaws you’ve given your protagonist!
Not only will you revamp your previously sagging middle, but your final climax will likely feel all the more satisfying.
Don’t procrastinate: drive the entire story forward
Don’t dally, or while away the hours thinking of sub plots that could brighten up a sagging middle. Just make your story exciting for you and your reader.
Remember you need to know what each character is capable of, for your fingers to hover over that button of theirs in every chapter without pressing it. Your readers need to have an interesting question to answer at the end of every scene – one that’s relevant to your overall plot and the bigger question that drives the whole book. As each scene draws to a close, leave your reader wondering: how the hell is he or she going to deal with THIS?
If you don’t know how the hell the protagonist will reach their end goal or tackle the events and obstacles that stand in their way, so much the better. Tomorrow you’ll be racing to get back to the white page and find the door handle, the emergency brake or the banana skin for them.
If you want even more advice to progress your story and avoid getting stuck, we have plenty more fiction writing tips for the middle of your novel and beyond!
We help writers all over the world bring their story idea to life, progress at pace and turn it into a novel that’s ready to publish.
We will see you through the middle of your novel all the way to a happy ending when you start writing with one of our online creative writing courses at The Novelry. With plenty of interesting examples to help with writing the middle of your novel and structuring your narrative, you’ll find your novel comes to life. We learn from some of the best stories in the world, and hold tight onto the joy of writing. Join us today!