By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
Raise your hand if you've ever had trouble with a saggy middle in your novel.
Middles tend to sag because we spend a lot of time and effort setting up the story, and we spend an equal amount of time and effort on the climax and ending, but the middle gets less attention. It's like it's an airport terminal where the characters wander around, grab some food, and hang out until the call for the climax is heard. It's often the time when we think, "now that I have the reader hooked, let's dump all that backstory I was holding back on them!"
Neither of these are good recipes for a happy middle, let alone a happy ending, since your reader has probably wandered off to do something else by now.
Middles used to be the hardest part of the novel for me. Then I finally figured out a way to combat Boggy Middle Syndrome.
The Mid-Point Reversal.
The middle is the largest part of the novel. If you're like me and use the Three Act Structure, the second act takes up the middle 50% of the book. That's a lot of space if you don't have interesting things going on to drive the story. It's also a long time to go without some forward momentum in your plot, some revelation of the world or characters, and some sense of the protagonist accomplishing something. Without these things, a story grinds to a halt, even if the scenes in the middle are exciting in their own right. It's just that they start to blend together after a while and the reader feels like there's nothing new going on.
I like to plan for something major and shocking to happen in the middle of the book. That gives me a goal for my protagonist to work toward (and thus providing narrative drive to get me through the middle) and something exciting for my reader to anticipate. (or be surprised by if I spring it on them)
But it can't be just anything. A good mid-point reversal is something that throws the entire story sideways and leaves the reader open-mouthed in shock, because they never saw this coming. (or they worried it might happen and were desperate to find out if they were right) It changes the story and suddenly the ending is unpredictable. Readers are flipping pages fast, amazed by the unexpected turn of events, and dying to see where this new predicament goes.
A good mid-point reversal will also up the stakes, even if they were high to begin with. It'll often add a level of personal consequence that wasn't there before, or reveal a secret (or problem) that was hidden. Sometimes it requires a sacrifice, be it a personal belief or an ally. Sometimes it's all of these things at the same time.
Once you've shocked your reader, you'll have new momentum driving your story toward the end. The mid-point reversal has made your protagonist's goal harder to accomplish, will cost them more to win, and will have serious consequences if they fail (heck, sometimes even if they win).
So, if you're stuck in the boggy middle right now, ask yourself a few questions:
1. What is the absolute worst thing that can happen to your protagonist at that moment? Find a way to make it happen and force them to work overtime to get out of it.
2. Is there a way to make your protagonist's inner goal clash with their outer goal in a disastrous way? That old "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma can really crank up the tension.
3. What's the one thing that could happen that would make your protagonist give up? Do it. Now think up a way to keep them there anyway.
4. Are there any deep dark secrets that could be revealed and ruin everything? Reveal them, but make the result not the one the protagonist was worried about. Make it worse.
5. Can you mirror the climax in any way? Sometimes a mid-point reversal will foreshadow what's to come, either by showing the protagonist failing or hinting at what they'll need to do to win.
Getting through a boggy middle is a lot easier if you have stepping stones. Look at your plot as a path through the swamp. Each stone is another step toward a major set piece, and once you get there, each stone is a step toward how the protagonist gets out of it. Before long, you'll be racing through those middles without getting your feet wet.