Sagging Middles

There comes a time when you’ve turned the corner on your story opening, and you feel like you’ve got it down right . . . and then . . . you go into your middle.

Typically, by the time that you’re into the middle, you’ve gotten a lot of your character development down, your settings have been firmed up, and you have a very good idea where you’re heading.

But you can still run into problems. Here are three problems that bring me to a halt mid-book.

1) I failed to plan properly. Usually this failure to plan means that I didn’t think enough about a particular character, and I hate to admit it, but with me it’s almost always my villain. I may not have thought enough about what his motivations are, or who his allies are, or about the scope of his plans. Perhaps I haven’t made him strong enough–as committed or wise or cruel as he can be.

But other characters can also be problematic. You typically begin to develop your characters pretty early in a novel. If you’re the kind of writer who creates dossiers, you might know your heroine’s hair and eye color, her birthday, her bust size, and you might even know that there was a time at the age of eight when she thought that she would die of a cold. But knowing such far flung facts about a character doesn’t bring them to life.

I often find that once I create a voice for my character and get them two hundred pages into a story that I begin “discovering” new things about them. I often find that they are more clever than I initially thought, and little choices that I had them make on paper suddenly lead to some startling new revelation about what “they” planned. I’m not saying that my characters are alive, or that they take over. I know that they’re fictitious. I’m saying that very often as a writer, our subconscious does a better job of creating a character than our conscious mind can. Sometimes you have to be open to discovering what your subconscious is trying to say. In short, my characters tend to change–for the better–from what I originally intended.

The fix here is to stop and brainstorm that character anew–considering his or her options throughout the story under a new light.

2) I sometimes discover that I got lazy and didn’t think a plot point through. For example, let’s say I have a subplot–a romantic twist. I planned to have this romantic subplot all the way through. I prepared for it. I made sure that the audience loved both the proposed hero and the heroine from the beginning of the book. (That’s one key to writing a romance. The audience has to be in love with the characters before the characters realize that they are in love with each other.) But maybe I didn’t think it through well enough. Maybe I didn’t come up with a moment where my two characters discover that something is pulling them apart. So now I’m deep into the third act, and my characters are so crazy about each other that there seems to be no stopping them. The problem of course is that I “put off” making a crucial plotting decision for too long. Sometimes you can get away with that–but too often you can’t.

The fix here is to stop and plot immediately. Very often the new plot points may force you to go back and do a minor rewrite of some earlier chapters.

3) Sometimes the story just seems to get boring. You get the feeling that you’re doing the same old thing over and over. When that happens, it is because you either did not deepen or broaden the conflict.

You deepen a conflict by making it more personal to your protagonist. By that I mean that the conflict begins to occupy more and more of his or her time, more and more energy.

When we broaden a conflict, it means that its effects widen. It’s not just about one person anymore.

Sometimes, just deepening and broadening a story a bit isn’t enough. Some editors suggest that if you want to write thrillers–big thrillers, the kind that sell millions of books–that your conflict ends up needing to be broad enough so that it covers the whole world.

Now, of course, if you’ve been following my advice from the beginning, you don’t have just “One Big Conflict.” Each of your major viewpoint characters will have at least a couple. I might give my protagonist a journey that he has to go through, such as a world that needs saving, but also grant him some lesser conflicts–a personal weakness that needs to be overcome, an old score to settle, and so on. Each of these conflicts should broaden and deepen continuously throughout the middle of the story.

So those are the failings that I note in my own writing. I hope they are helpful.

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