Most writers I know are sure upon starting out of what they want to do with beginning and ends, but have clue zero what goes in the middle.
In fact, in all my years of mentoring, I can honestly say I have never, ever, ever had a beginner come up to me and say “I have this great idea for a middle. Now if I only knew how to begin and end it.”
I think to most of our brains, novels are like a journey and in journeys we usually know where we’re starting from and where we end. And then the middle somehow connects it.
Unfortunately, particularly in raw beginners’ novels, but sometimes in pros’ , what connects it is to some degree or another mush.
Say your character arrives at a planet. You know in the end he’ll be crowned king. What goes in the middle? Some of us read enough myth and fairytales as very young children that we have a vague idea he should make a pattern of increasingly more important acquaintances until, finally, he is in a position to claim the throne. Others might be political and/or social science mavens, who merrily will set about replicating some ascent to power. (This second is dangerous, unless you’re good at knowing how to isolate the essential in a true story to make it a good fictional story.) But most of us will fill it with the equivalent of “Alarums and excursions.” And count ourselves lucky if we reach the planned end.
Now, I’ll admit, as with a journey, the middle is not as set in stone as the beginning or ending. You can take the highway, the scenic route or the mountain curvy path and still get at the same end, faster or slower, and still get there.
However, in a novel, the middle ends up being most of it, and therefore most of the experience the readers pay you for. And a mushy middle can be the difference between another sale or the person never reading you again.
So, how do you firm up your middles?
A) avoid repetition. If you consider the middle unimportant, you will find yourself having endlessly looping incidents, some of which will resemble the others.
B) make sure whatever happens is motivated by your character. I.e., no elephants suddenly falling from the ceiling and crushing the poor critter flat. If you must have externally-activated events, then make sure you foreshadow. A lot.
C) Build – this means there should be a crescendo in the challenges your character meets, leading to the climax.
For extra credit
D) make one or more of the incidents in the middle serve as foreshadowing for the big battle.
E) thread the theme of your novel into these incidents, reinforcing the impression you want your reader to take away.
F) use this time to grow your character to face the big bad.
G) lay clues as to who the big bad is, if there is a doubt, and shows us the worst he can do, so we’ll be anxious for the character.
What do you think? Did I miss anything? What do you do with your middles?
* for a good exercise take your three favorite books and make a plot outline from it, chapter by chapter taking note of what facts/clues/plot work is advanced in the chapter, and what other subplots and introduced or disposed of. I bet the structure will surprise you!