I’ve heard so many writers complain that they hate writing middles, and have a hard time keeping the tension up and the stakes high throughout the entire story. They talk about sagging middles, saddle seats, plot valleys, and so on. They’re afraid to drop the tension in the middle. Scared of it.
Terrified of the heart-stopping, eyeball-bulging, horrifying middle!
*lightning splits the sky*
Most of the writing advice websites and books on story structure focus primarily on the inciting incident and the crisis, both paramount to the story, but middles are barely explained in a constructive way. The best advice you’ll find is to “flesh out” the middle, to fill it with “additional complications”, include sub-plots, go forth and explore the storyworld, explore the characters, or sprinkle the story with spice and fry it and probe its plot holes with a stick, and other great yuckity-bleh.
Well, shoot. None of this is very helpful. You know why?
Because it doesn’t guide your imagination. I mean, what does “fleshing out” really tell you? What does “additional complication” mean?! If you don’t know precisely where you’re going (this applies especially to pantsers), the only thing this advice will help you do is add unnecessary fluff to your story. Fluff will kill the suspense stone-dead for sure, and lead straight to the “sagging middle” you were trying to avoid. Adding stuff is a wrong approach to middles, and doesn’t do them justice. The middle can be your friend, it can give your story so much more, without adding sluggish flab to it.
Just look at it this way: the middle is your story’s halftime.
In sports, a halftime is basically a breather for the players, the chance to switch the teams’ positions on the field and evaluate the situation. It’s the moment when the coach decides what’s to be done next. And this concept of a halftime fits perfectly to writing middles in novels.
The story’s halftime is where the protagonist gathers his strength after failing miserably to deal with the new challenge / adventure / catastrophe you’ve struck him with.
Halftime is when your hero picks himself up after the initial struggle, looks at the filed, and decides to change his strategy to win.
This is when your protagonist realizes what the stakes really are, and that he must do something else than what he’s foolishly done so far if he wants to succeed.
If you’ve crafted your first part of the story well, you’ve wrecked havoc in the protagonist’s life, have plunged him into disaster (or thrown him on a quest he can’t go back from) and have put his most important thing in the world at risk. Then you have let him try and solve his troubles like he’s always done, and he failed miserably and complicated matters even more. Everything he’s done has taken him deeper into the rabbit hole, everything he’s risked he’s lost, and now he faces the choice of his life-time: change tactics, or perish.
The middle is the perfect moment to do this! The middle is where the story changes around, and the protagonist—along with us, biting our nails—figures out just what exactly needs to be done to succeed. But will he make it?
There’s no hard rule that says a middle is a dangerous hurdle only brilliant plotters overcome. It mustn’t be annoying to write and dreadful to read through. Screw that! The middle is the axis of your story, it’s where where things coalesce and create new possibilities. Write your middle like it’s the halftime of your story. Go switch teams on the field and change tactics, see what happens. And have some fun!
This blog post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012