Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Firm Up Your Middle

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!


Anonymous said...

You mean, we shouldn't just flail around and get to the end somehow?

::sigh:: You keep sending me off to reevaluate my beautiful babies...

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Great post, Sarah!

I could so with some tips to firm up my middle!

T.M. Lunsford said...

You make it sound like an exercise regime. Although a much more enjoyable one than an actual exercise regime :)

C Kelsey said...

So I have a choice of doing crunches or making my story do crunches? Hmmm. That's going to depend on which is more like work on any given day.

Jim McCoy said...

I usually have a series of events planned. What I find though, is that I have a beginning and basically the equivalent of a bunch of ends. Where I need to do some work is on connecting all of my various "ends." I'm aware of the problem, it's fixing it that's the hard part.

Kate said...

And don't forget pace - there's a rhythm to a good story that's pretty much universal.

I think I absorbed that part because even when I'm not sure where the heck I'm going, I find myself muttering "okay, someone needs to die about now" or "There needs to be some action in the next chapter" and so forth.

C Kelsey said...

For me there needs to be that "thing" that I can latch onto in the middle of the story. Problem is, I don't know what that thing is. Is it emotion? Maybe, if it's the right emotion. Action? Well, I always love action but too much makes the end really hard to pull off. Peril? Possibly. It's hard to define. Actually I spent the entire day trying to figure out what a strong middle is... and I still don't have an answer.

Anonymous said...

A little more seriously, I try to keep in mind the Hero's Journey. The Main Characters need to meet friends and enemies, pick up any gadgets or learn any skills they will need in the future. Fight and lose a couple of battles. Grow up, man up, or whatever change is needed.

Keeping in mind that what constitutes a battle and what constitutes winning or losing can vary wildly depending on the book.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Do it. Your babies will be more beautiful when properly fed.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


LOL. I just saw pictures of me at a con. Now I'll be looking behind my shoulder for captain Ahab.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Well, it is FAR more interesting.

(Says she who can only exercise while listening to Audio Books.)

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Yeah, that's how it works. But in a way it IS like exercise. There's a discipline to it. Weirdly, when you're used to the work and the discipline, you'll find just writing without it meh.

Synova said...

I think that what I do mostly with my middles is avoid them.


Synova said...

I'll be spending some time thinking about how those points apply to the middles I've got to traverse through, on how to get from here to there, and so on.

It may take a while.