The dreaded middle section of the novel. The bit that sometimes makes would-be novelists give up entirely and take up gardening instead. The part after the amazing beginning and just before the satisfying ending has a habit of stalling many writers, because often they are not sure how to progress.
Once you’ve begun the novel, it’s daunting to sustain it for 25 chapters and this fear can cause problems later in the novel. The main thing to remember is that the novel will have a chronological flow. It’s your character’s journey from the beginning to the end.
The middle section is where most of the action will take place, slowly building up as you edge towards the climax of the story and it’s where the reader learns everything about the characters, the situation and what is driving the character to achieve his or her goal.
The middle section of the novel is where the reader learns the motivation for your character’s struggle to solve his or her problems. The beginning of the novel is the set-up; the middle is the execution of the events that lead to the resolution – the end. Always keep this in mind – motivation is what will drive your story forward.
As with actions, motivation comes from the reactions of characters and events. There are always motivations: the motivation to save an individual, find the truth, discover something in the past, to kill someone, to avoid someone, to get something, to do something...all these kind of motivations might appear as you move the story forward.
Of course, the ultimate motivation is the goal of the main character, so don’t lose track of how important this is.
Pacing the novel is about giving balance to the story, of knowing when to go from a gentle, steady pace to an exciting action packed sequence before slowing the narrative again. Think of the story as a roller coaster ride – lots of highs and lows and dips and plenty of twists and turns. Most stories slowly build to a defining crescendo.
Varying the pace of the writing can heighten the tension and action within your story. Slowing the pace will allow the reader to momentarily relax before speeding up the action again. Writers can employ different strategies to do this - descriptive passages, or passages of explanation, or interjections of tight dialogue and action.
Remember action and reaction. In other words, for every action there is a reaction. A character might say something, and another character will react. Or your character might do something, and this always affects the outcome, there is a reaction. Everything happens for a reason, and this must also be true for your novel.
Description, Dialogue and Narrative
These three elements should be working together to create the story, but you should be looking for a balance of all three. Try not to have pages and pages of description – it’s likely to send the reader to sleep. Likewise, don’t have pages and pages of dialogue, otherwise this could irritate the reader. You can keep the reader interested by varying the balance.
Narrative works on different levels. Your job as narrator is to make the reader respond in a particular way. Clever narrative can make us sad, make us laugh; it can horrify or excite us. We write stories to entertain and inform and they help us understand human nature and the world around us.
Dialogue gives your character’s something to say, plus it moves the story forward. Characters always have lots to say!
Description is very important. If you don’t describe the scenes, how will your reader truly be involved or understand the story? Lack of description is a major flaw in many writers. They write the scene, put in some dialogue and a bit of narrative and think that is sufficient. It isn’t. This is the ‘telling’ rather than the ‘showing’. Description allows a writer to show what is happening. Again, balance is key, but don’t neglect to describe what’s happening not just to your character, but what is happening around them.
“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Anton Chekhov
This is something else that could prove useful for when the middle section of your novel slows down or begins to stutter. The use of the flashback has three functions: to involve the reader about past events that relate to the story in the present, to inform the reader and move the story forward.
What has happened to your characters in the past ultimately influences their actions in the present, so flashbacks are used to interrupt the narrative to show or explain past events. The most useful way to make flashback more effective is to introduce this device after you have hinted some future action in the story.
This will also help flesh out your chapters and help you on your way to the end of the novel.
Plot Twists and Turns
Think about the rollercoaster again. There a few straight sections of track. Instead you have something that rises and falls and bends in all directions. This is how you should think of the story – the middle section is perfect for building up tension, yanking away that comfortable carpet from the reader’s feet and keeping the excitement going.
You are the writer – add subplots or new events to shake things up (keep them in context with the story).
Many first time novelists give up completely while writing the middle section, or they move onto something else. This happens for several reasons:-
1. You run out of steam
2. Lack of planning – leads to writer’s block or giving up altogether
3. Lack of focus – tendency to start something else
4. Boredom – Lack of planning, can’t think of anything else to write
There is a temptation to leave the novel and start something new because the initial excitement of a new project is far more appealing than finishing something that is giving you problems, and so you give up. The novel, half finished, sits in a drawer to collect dust.
So why is the novel plodding? Why have you run out of steam? You’ve got a great beginning and introduced the characters, but you’re struggling by chapter 8 and scratching around for ideas to get the story moving again. Very often, this is down to a lack of planning. If you don’t have a chapter plan sketched out, it makes it difficult to ‘see’ the likely events to come within the story. It’s like travelling along the road in the dark, not knowing when the next turn might be. It would be so much easier with the headlights on to illuminate the way.
If you haven’t already done so, do a rudimentary chapter plan of possible events, situations, scenes and characters to explore.
Another reason why the novel tends to sag in the middle is that you’re looking at the writing from only one angle. This means you’re writing the story like a straight line: this event happens by chapter 8, and that scene happens by chapter 9, then something else by chapter 10, then the story dries up and then comes the sudden realisation that you have another ten chapters to fill before even contemplating an ending, and you have no idea how you can achieve that.
This often happens because a writer hasn’t involved the main character thoroughly.
Characters are like real people, they’ll always have something to say. Your novel will be no different. Your characters have so much to do and say throughout the story, you have to find ways of showing the reader. So make life difficult for your characters, construct conflicts and put barriers in their way, give them some subplots to play with. Most importantly, give them a voice. Give them thoughts that they can share with the reader. This creates immediacy; it involves the reader on a personal level with your character.
If something important is happening in a scene, don’t just write about the scene with your character in it, involve your character. Jump into your character’s head and find out what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking and why they are in this situation. Do that, and before you know it, you’ve fleshed out those chapters and now you’re edging towards chapter 20 and the end is in sight. Of course, if you have a multi-viewpoint novel, you can do this for other main characters, too. Remember, the reader wants to know everything, so involve them.
Whatever the character viewpoint, delve into your characters and let the reader know what everything that is going on. What are the characters thinking in that scene, how to do they feel about what’s happening, what could they do to make things different? How to they feel about the other characters? What’s important to them? What might happen? How can they resolve things?
• Create action and reaction
• Create motivation and more conflict, add obstacles
• Move the story forward – dialogue, narrative, description
• Involve the character’s thoughts and feelings
• Pace – Keep it varied
• Keep up the plot twists and turns
Next week: The end is nigh. An effective, satisfying ending.