Monday, September 03, 2018

5 Common Problems With Middles

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

The only thing tougher than a middle is an ending. Except for maybe the beginning.

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.

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

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

1. It Bogs Down

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

This is usually due to not enough goals to drive the plot to the climax, and is frequently solved by adding a major turning point in the middle of the book (the midpoint reversal). Giving the protagonist (and you) something to work toward gives the middle direction, and dealing with the midpoint gives the middle somewhere to go to lead you out of it.

(Here’s more on the midpoint reversal)

2. It Repeats Itself

While trying to fill 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. 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.

Look at your scenes and either combine or eliminate those that feel too similar, or find ways to change how that similar scene unfolds.

(Here’s more on making similar scenes feel different)

3. It Stalls

Often, a middle stalls because it feels like it’s just going through the motions to get to the ending. Two big reasons for this:

No payoffs: In an effort to pile on the problems, sometimes we forget to reward both the characters, and the readers, for sticking with the plot. Constant failure can make a 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.

No surprises: We set up the beginning, we know the ending, and the middle is all about getting there. But it unfolds exactly as readers expect without any surprises, twists, or discoveries and just feels meh. Add in a little unpredictability and make readers want to stick around.

(Here are more ways to fix a stalled scene)

4. It’s Dumping on Readers

Now that readers are hooked, we dump all the backstory we'd held back from the beginning into the middle. We explain, we flashback, we infodump—and the pace slows to a crawl.

Be ruthless and get rid of all that extra (an 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.

(Here’s more on infodumping)

5. It Doesn’t Go Anywhere

If the middle feels like it’s not going anywhere, check to see 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 that in:

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 she did when she started it. Keep escalating the stakes, or at least have the protagonist learn enough new things so the existing stakes mean more.

No character arc movement: The protagonist solves problem after problem, but nothing is learned by it, and she’s making the same mistakes she made at the beginning of the novel. Let the protagonist learn a few lessons and suffer a few failures.

(Here’s more on internal and external conflicts)

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

Do you ever have trouble with middles?

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

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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?

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