Wednesday, May 29, 2024

5 Common Problems With Middles

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The middle is where most of a novel happens, which is why they're often so difficult to write.

For a long, long time in my early writing days, middles were the bane of my existence. I could start a story no problem, but once I got past the beginning, I narratively drove into the deep weeds. I don’t think there was a problem I didn’t run smack into when it came to middles–which is why I spent so much time figuring out how to make them work.

What makes middles so tough is that middles are where most of the plot happens. The protagonist tries and fails to resolve the story problem, the antagonist makes things harder and harder, the character arc unfolds, and all this stuff has to support whatever the beginning set up.

That takes a lot of work and finesse to get right.

Which is why the only thing harder than writing a middle is writing the ending. Except for writing the beginning.

If a middle isn’t working, it’s usually due to the story slowing down in some way, and losing sight of what the plot was trying to accomplish.

Let’s look at five common problems with the middle:

1. It Bogs Down in the Muck

Since the middle is half the novel, it’s common for plots to drag and wander without direction. Subplots bloom as we "flesh out" the story , but all we're really doing is sending the characters running around, killing time. After a while, we forget what we were trying to do in the first place. These subplots might add words, but they’re not adding any value to the story.

Stories often bog down because there aren't enough goals to drive the plot to the climax. 

To Fix: Add a major turning point in the middle of the book, called the midpoint reversal. This moment gives the protagonist (and you) something to work toward, which gives the middle direction. Dealing with the midpoint problem also sends the plot toward the ending. 

In essence, it neatly splits the novel in two between "what happens to get to the midpoint" and "what we have to do now because of the midpoint." 

(Here’s more with Story Structure: How the Midpoint Reversal Works in a Novel)

2. It Repeats Itself and Doesn't Go Anywhere

While trying to "flesh out" all that space, we write too many similar scenes. Multiple chase scenes, several attempts to solve the same problem, repeated interactions between characters, and way too many conversations around a kitchen table. The scenes themselves might all be good scenes, but they don't add anything new to the story. They also don't raise the stakes or change the way the characters (and the readers) see or understand the story.

Repetitive scenes can indicate a middle that’s light on plot, or one that needs to vary how the protagonist accomplishes the goals so the scenes feel different.

To Fix: Look at your scenes and either combine or eliminate those that feel too similar, or find ways to change how that similar scene unfolds. Check your stakes at the beginning and the end of the middle–do they escalate? If not, add more consequences and sacrifices. Also pinpoint what changes during the middle, and make sure readers learn something new in every chapter, if not every scene. 

(Here’s more with 6 Tips on Making Similar Scenes Feel Different)

3. It Stalls and Stops the Story Cold

If not enough changes, the middle can feel like it’s just going through the motions to get to the ending. Nothing that happens actually matters, because the protagonist is just killing time in the story. There are two common reasons we see this:

1. We forgot to add payoffs for the reader: In an effort to pile on the problems, we didn't reward the characters or the readers for sticking with the plot. There are no wins, no discoveries, no sense of forward progression, and thus, no reason to keep reading. Characters don't learn from their mistakes, and keep making the same mistake. 

Constant failure can make the middle feel like it’s not going anywhere, but a few victories (even if they’re small), can make the plot feel like it’s moving toward the end.

2. We didn't create any surprises for the reader: The middle unfolds exactly as readers expect without any surprises, twists, or discoveries and just feels meh. Even if what the characters are doing is fun, it's nothing readers didn't see coming a mile away, so it isn't engaging them. 

The more trope-heavy the story (like a romance or heist), the more important it is to add surprises to keep readers from getting bored.

Have you ever seen a cop show or medical drama? You know exactly what's going to happen at every beat in every episode, but you're there to see how the characters figure it out, and how they interact, and what surprises might occur.   

To Fix: Make sure your middle is moving the story and not just killing time until the climax. Raise the stakes, move the plot forward, reveal secrets and change how the readers see the story. Add in a little unpredictability as well, and readers will stick around. 

(Here's more with 5 Ways to Fix a Stalled Scene in Your Novel)

4. It’s Dumping on Readers and Boring them to Death

Now that the beginning has readers hooked, we throw all the backstory we'd held back into the middle. We explain, we flashback, we infodump—and the pace slows to a crawl. The story and plot are no longer important and the focus shifts to exposition and explanation, which bores readers and they start skimming to get back to "the good stuff." 

The middle isn't a dumping ground for bits that weren't good enough for the beginning.

To Fix: Be ruthless and get rid of all that extra and unnecessary information. If there’s anything you feel has to stay, find ways to make it part of the narrative and put it to work for the story. Hinting at secrets is a great way to make readers want to read an infodump to discover what those secrets are.

(Here’s more with 6 Places Infodumps Like to Hide in Your Novel)

5. It Doesn’t Go Anywhere and No One Cares

If the middle feels like it’s not going anywhere, check how your internal conflict and character arc is affecting your external plot arc. If these two aren’t causing trouble for each other, that’s a likely trouble spot. 

You’ll usually see these problems with:

Stagnant stakes: Bad things happen all through the middle, but the stakes never escalate. The protagonist faces exactly the same danger by the end of the middle as they did when they started it. For example, it's always "they might die" or "the world might end." Readers know this won't happen, so there's no fear. 

No character arc movement: The protagonist solves problem after problem, but nothing is learned by it, and they're making the same mistakes they made at the beginning of the novel. This is doubly problematic if in the end, they suddenly realize the key to fixing all their issues and change for the better—even though they did nothing to earn that change. 

In a bad middle, problems never get worse, and characters never get better.

To Fix: Keep escalating the stakes, or at least have the protagonist learn enough new things so the existing stakes become more personal. Let the protagonist learn a few lessons and suffer a few failures to show their growth and why they grow. Let them earn their win.

(Here’s more with The Inner Struggle: Guides for Using Internal Conflict That Make Sense)

No doubt about it, middles are rough and notorious for bogging down and frustrating writers, but don’t worry if you find yourself hip deep in the weeds. Just plant a few guideposts to get you out, and follow the trail to freedom.

EXERCISE FOR YOU: Take five minutes and examine the middle of your novel. Write a bullet point list of the scenes and determine if they're driving the story or just rehashing the same problems. Also look at your major turning points and character arc moments and determine if they're advancing the plot and character arc or not.  

Do you ever have trouble with middles? What do you struggle with?

*Originally published February 2016. Last updated May 2024.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I used to have trouble with the middles. I think that's something you grow out of with practice as you realize that every scene is inevitably leading to your climax.

    1. I'd agree. Good story building skills fixes most story problem.

  2. I had this trouble as well. Then I discovered Three Act Theory and in specific the Middle Crisis or Middle reversal. At his point, your main character discovers that what he or she thinks is going on is wrong. In truth it is much 'worse'. The stakes are kidded up, way up, Books by Robert McKee, Larry Brooks, and James Scott Bell all have better explanations than I can give.

    1. Also, Janice has some great resources on this website that can explain structure.

    2. The Three Act structure is my favorite for sure.

  3. good reminders, thanks. I've been worried about repeating myself. I guess that's a clue I might be doing it...

    1. Trust your instincts :) Our subconscious pays a lot more attention to that stuff than we do.

  4. "For a long, long time in my early writing days, middles were the bane of my existence. I could open a story no problem, but once I got past the beginning, I narratively drove into the deep weeds. I don’t think there was a problem I didn’t run smack into when it came to middles. Which is why I spent so much time figuring out how to make them work. The only thing tougher than a middle is an ending. Except for the beginning."

    A good reason to follow the advice I have been following when writing my fan fic (if I'm stuck, it's not with parts not working, it's with author - me - not getting sleep as author should) : write the salient parts first, the ones you feel inspired to. Then step back, and look where you can fit something in to one of the holes. Then write that. Then ... (How to write and sell a novel - unfortunately by a Freudian, but has quite a few good tips on technique : I read it over a decade ago, buying it on a market or in an old books shop, back when I had a home).

    Sometimes the really salient parts will be beginning and end, as in my case. Though part of my original end became demoted to middle.

    1. I have a friend who writes that way. Totally out of order and whatever scenes inspire her as they do. Glad you found a process that works so well for you :)

    2. The one drawback with me, I tend to procrastinate painful scenes.

  5. Definitely an advocate of the mid-point reversal. Gives the writer something concrete to work toward and is an excellent reminder to up the stakes and the tension of the story. Most importantly, writers must keep in mind that every scene must move the story forward and add something--to the character development, the story arc, the stakes, all of these building toward the ultimate goal and climax. If every scene contributes meaningful to the story goal, there will be no sag in the middle.

    --Sam Taylor, AYAP Team

  6. The more I write, the more I solidify a pattern: I come up with a character/situation/something and start writing. At some point, I consciously identify the core of the story, sometimes before I start writing at all.

    If I don't consciously define the core for myself, my writing will stall. When that writing progress stalls will be about the 10% mark for the full story, so it can be useful for identifying how long a particular story's going to end up. :)

  7. Good points. I'll work'm hard in Lamprey the middle book in the trilogy. He has to learn he's only 400Gm from home.

    Ed Buchan

  8. Gm = Giga-Miles?

    In space somewhere?

  9. Admiring the commitment you put into your site and detailed
    information you offer. It's nice to come across a blog every once
    in a while that isn't the same out of date rehashed information. Wonderful read!
    I've bookmarked your site and I'm including your RSS feeds to
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  10. My rule of thumb (you'll notice I talk more about writing than actually write): the intensity must rise all through the story.
    I've decided to copywork your blog posts. So far I've already copied "The Trouble With Reactive Protagonists".

    1. LOL that happens :) Copywork? I'm not familiar with that term.

    2. In other words, retyping.
      Only I write in OpenOffice and export to PDF.

    3. Ah, that makes sense :) I've heard of folks doing that.

  11. Mike Van Horn6/07/2024 9:35 PM

    In the second book of my sci fi trilogy, my heroine hijacks an alien spaceship from the government. She and her two Spaceketeers decide they're going to fly into space on an adventure. But it's outfitted for very non-human aliens, so they have to re-design and re-build the interior. I could have used some handwavium, but I needed to talk them through the process of getting all this done. That was the entire middle of the book.
    Plenty of action: Pursuit by three angry nations. Crash on the moon, and later into the Bermuda Triangle. The alien vessel eating spaceships that had flown to the moon long before. Venerable lady engineers outperforming Stanford hotshots. A rude interview with the woman US president. One of the protagonists gets knocked up. The heroine (a singer) does concerts on Hawaii.
    But the story keeps moving, and they get there.

    1. First, I love you terms :) Your middle sounds great. It has all the "promise of the premise" action Blake Snyder talks about in Save the Cat. That's the stuff readers are going to want to see based on your idea.