Monday, October 19

NaNoWriMo Prep: Planning Your Novel’s Middle

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

It’s middle time! Middles just might be the most common tough spot for writers, and with good reason. It makes up half the novel, and it’s where all the heavy plot stuff happens. We usually have a decent idea of how our stories start, and roughly how they end, but that middle? What do we put in there?

This is when a lot of novels start to bog down, so there’s a good chance many NaNo writers will stumble here. But don’t worry, because I know a great trick to overcome middle woes. The Mid-Point Reversal!

This is a major event that happens in the middle of your novel that helps bridge the gap between the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end (act one and act three for those using the Three Act Structure). It effectively breaks your three acts into four acts, making each section a little easier to manage.

Why is this mid-point reversal helpful? Because that’s what you’ll be working toward as you start the middle. At the end of the beginning, your protagonist has just made a decision and is about to act on that choice. They have a goal that is connected to the core conflict of your novel. The protagonist will start trying to solve that problem and things will go wrong. Their world will be turned upside down. Things they thought they knew won’t be true. They’ll start looking for help as this problem gets bigger and bigger, and the stakes get higher and higher.

This is key to a good middle: escalation.

If all you do is throw a lot of stuff into your story, it’ll read like a lot of stuff happening that doesn’t really go anywhere. You want to look for things that will keep your story moving and raise your stakes at the same time. Let your protagonist face choices that matter to make readers care about the outcomes. This is where the subplots and character arcs really kick in. You’ve setup a lot of events in the beginning, now it’s time to let them play out and cause trouble.

But back to the mid-point reversal…

The first half the middle is all about the protagonist fully throwing themselves into the problem. They’re making a commitment, gathering friends, facing off against the bad guy and/or his minions (whether literally or metaphorically if you have a man vs nature (or similar) conflict). Then something happens that sends the story sideways. (the MPR) Something the reader didn’t see coming that changes everything the protagonist just did. It makes it all harder, mean more, turns out it was the wrong thing to do, whatever works for your story. The MPR shakes things up and kicks the stakes up again so you have something to work with for the second half of the middle.

The first half of your middle will unfold generally like this:

Protagonist acts on decision made at end of beginning – choice leads to a problem (often subplot related) and forces protagonist to make another choice – protagonist realizes problem is bigger and needs some help (often shows a weakness of the protagonist they need to overcome), or help appears in a problematic way to cause even more conflict (possibly another subplot or character arc) – protagonist discovers a secret or gathers information regarding problem/bad guy and decides to do something, but there’s a risk (raises stakes) – protagonist (and friends) act on that info, thinking they’re going to be victorious – something unexpected happens and the story goes sideways, leaving the protagonist and their friends in serious trouble (either physically or emotionally).

The number of subplots and characters arcs will be determined by how large your book and story are. I’ve found that having the subplots conflict with the core conflict and main goal work very well to keep a tight plot and the story moving. The subplot might get them what they need (internal goal), but not what they want (external goal). All your various story arcs (plot, character, theme etc) will unfold in the middle as well, both setting up victories and failures for your protagonist to experience in the ending.

After you’ve totally shaken your protagonist’s world, it’s time to move on to the second half of the middle. Look back at your outline sheet and find the thing you wrote down for “second major crisis.” This is what you’ll be working toward now.

The second half of the middle is different from the first half, because your characters are feeling pretty dejected. Things have not gone well and they’re sure all is lost (it isn’t, that comes later during that crisis). They’re scrambling to regroup, retreat, and deal with the major curveball that just hit them. Often, there’s a ticking clock that’s making everything even harder now. Something that requires them to succeed before something horrible happens. By the end of the middle, you’ve positioned your protagonist so that they only choice they have is to face the bad guy. And it won’t be pretty.

Here’s a general overview of the second half of the middle:

Protagonist scrambles to deal with the events (or discovery) that just happened in the MPR – any upper hands achieved are gone and the bad guys close in – friends desert or die, those believed to be trustworthy turn out not to be (betrayals might occur here) – protagonist gets more and more determined to win at any cost, setting up a possible major sacrifice later – ticking clock is introduced if applicable, raising the stakes again – subplots cause extra trouble and put the protagonist under tremendous emotional pressure – protagonist feels that all is lost and there’s no way they can win – protagonist goes through deep soul searching (often accompanied by an event to trigger this) – major step of protagonist’s character arc is achieved - protagonist realizes that they only way to succeed is to risk it all – protagonist decides to take the fight to the bad guy in some spectacular way (or go on the offensive of the bad guy has already brought the fight to them).

By the end of the middle you’re ready for the end. Now, the middle doesn’t end with the climax, but the beginning of what leads to the climax. You’ve set up everything so the protagonist is ready to march toward the ending and that final showdown with the antagonist.

Next, we’ll take a look at the novel's end.

What issues do you struggle with in the middle? Do you have a mid-point reversal? 

Looking for tips on planning and writing your novel? Check out my book Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a series of self-guided workshops that help you turn your idea into a novel. It's also a great guide for revisions! 

Janice Hardy is the founder of Fiction University, and the author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, where she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, (Picked as one of the 10 Books All Young Georgians Should Read, 2014) Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The first book in her Foundations of Fiction series, Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is out now.

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  1. Great post! Those middles really are tough.


  2. Great explanation. I've been reading Save the Cat, and he talks about this very thing. It's actually what I'm working on now. :)

  3. Ooooh! Great post. I haven't been fiddling with my middle for a while. I should probably take a closer look. I know it's generally following the course you described. But maybe it would be good to take a closer look.

    Ferb, I know what we're gonna do today! :)

    P.S. "On a Windy Night" looks cute! Thanks for sharing.

  4. I've got a good chunk of my middle done with an MPR, but now I'm trying to work out where it's going next beyond the vague where they have to end up to resolve the main story arc.

  5. This is great advice. Thanks for the help!

  6. Personally, I think of the Mid-point reversal as the protagonist's "darkest moment", which is the 4th act. It's that low part of the narrative where everything had piled onto him. But once he sees the light again, the plot kicks up again as the protagonist takes control of the situation again, speeding through Act Five to the climax.

    For me, the Mid-point Reversal involves another criminal organization--who uses music for magic. They manage to meet up with the protagonist and gang. Long story short, the mentor goes missing, the protagonist and his friend are marked fugitives by the criminal organization, and now they're on the run with the MacGuffin.

    I'm still trying to figure out how to deal with Act II. It's almost a story by itself.

  7. I have apparently been planing my stories with a Mid-point reversal since before I knew that was a thing. Both My current and previous projects have events that throw you for a loop about half-way through.

    In the previous project, the MacGuffin gets stolen by the trickster mentor, who turns out to be the big bad. In this one The Big Secret is revealed. Although mostly my motivation for making it there is that The big turn can't come too early to two late, so it ends up in the middle.

  8. Great post! This is definitely where I struggle the most - I tend to have general ideas but I can never fully outline my middle

    Breaking my second act in two makes it feel so much more manageable. This was a super helpful post, will be returning to this one as I expand on my outline. Thank you!

  9. Thanks all!

    Janet, I finally read that book, and it was very interesting. I really liked how he broke it all down in the beat sheet.

    CO, sounds like you break your novels up a bit more than I do and that's okay :) By that's why I like it in the middle of act 2, because it helps break it up and makes the middle easier to deal with. Your reversal sounds like a good one.

  10. I so needed this right now. I'm a pantser (I try outlining and it just doesn't go so well) and the middles can throw me. I've been struggling with my WIP because I know how it needs to end, but I've got to figure out the middle. Otherwise, as you say, I'm just throwing obstacles at my characters. But after reading your post I think I have the MPR figured out, so now I have some direction. Thank you!

  11. Heather, oh good! Even just having an idea of that middle event can give you direction for your pantsing :) Hope it works out for you.

  12. Oh, such a timely and great post. I've been reading another blogger who is also talking about story planning but it's confused me more than anything.

    The way you've laid it out makes it much easier to apply to my current story, as well as planning for my nano story. Thank you so much! I feel like a little light bulb has just gone off over my head.

  13. Eva, oh good, glad it clicked for you :) I strive for those light bulb moments, hehe.

  14. Bookmarked this one too! I wish you could live in my head :)

  15. Julie, hehe, I'd just leave my stuff lying around and you'd have weird random thoughts all the time.

  16. Thanks beyond words for posting this blog. You really got me out of a corner. I'd reached that dreaded 50-word mark and was sincerely stalled out. This not only got me out of a bind, but also helped me create a pitch I was struggling with. THANK YOU!

    1. You are most welcome, and I'm thrilled to hear I helped you get past a tough spot :) And grats on the 50K!

  17. Thanks for this. Middles are always the hardest for me. Usually, when I have an idea for a story, the beginning and ending come pre-packaged. It's figuring out how to bridge that gap that makes such problems.

    1. Most welcome. Adding that mid-point reversal event made all the difference for me. It broke the middle in half and gave me something to write toward, and then something to wrote after as the characters dealt with what happened at the mid-point.