We tend to think of our stories as:
YEAH MAN WOOO BOOM INCITING INCIDENT AS THE TALE BEGINS.
YEEHAW FUCK YEAH IT’S THE END IT’S AN EVEN BIGGER BOOM AND ALSO A KABLAMMO AND THEN KSSHAOW AND FRRRBZZZT AND AHHH, NGGGGH SWEET CLIMAX.
We have these two moments — dramatic beginning and epic ending — and in the middle is…
Often, we treat it like it’s a sagging clothesline. Dipping down in the middle with the weight of all that hangs upon it — supposedly clean clothes dragging in the dirt.
No. Fuck that shit, George. You must revise how you think of your story’s middle. It needn’t be some untended swamp, fetid and formless, in which your story will become mired.
Instead, think of it as:
The middle of your story is not a straight line going up, down, or on a level plane. The middle of your story is a thing with shape. It has peaks and valleys all its own. It is not a two-dimensional line, but rather, it swoops and turns and loops like a roller coaster. (Bonus read: an older post talking about narrative architecture and the shape of story.) The midpoint has topography, man. It is not an invitation to let the story go lazy and loose but rather to keep it moving, up and down, left and right, through conflict and drama.
Here, then, are some quick tips to keep the middle of your book zipping and clipping along:
1. Do what Delilah says. (I had a similar point here, but it was wordier and more profane. Go read hers, which is as taut as the rubber band you wear on your braces. In fact, most times you can probably just go listen to her say stuff instead of whatever dumbness of mine.)
2. You know that thing in your book where you’re about to dwell over-long in one of the valleys? You’ve got all this plot-flavored stuff to explain and all these transitions to go through and the journey from Point A to Point Z feels long, so long? Skip it. Consider this a narrative exercise — leap the valley and jump right to the next peak. Meaning, get to the next cool part, and summarize — swiftly, now! — how the story got there.
3. Don’t shy away from the slow parts where you breathe some oxygen into the story, though. You need a little oxygen, if only because it’s flammable and you might need it to blow up the room later. A slow spot is okay — but even the slow spots need to be relevant and revelatory. Or at the bare minimum: interesting. Always. Be. Interesting.
4. Drama is conflict that is character-driven. Seize it. Characters lie, cheat and steal. They swindle and betray. They love when they shouldn’t and let hate take them over. They have affairs. They have lapses in judgment — some tiny, some huge, all consequential to the tale. They want, they need, they desire. They have problems. Exploit all of this. (Note that exploiting it too much leads to melodrama, not drama — though in certain story modes, melodrama can work, too.) The middle of your story is fertile for this kind of character shenanigans.
5. Rhythm is created when you alternate things. This is true in writing even a single paragraph — you write a long sentence here, a short one, a short one, a medium-sized one, etc. Then a short paragraph or series of dialogue bits with another big paragraph. This is true too in the shape of the story — a big chapter next to a small one, a slow moment followed by a fast one, a bit of character introspection that leads into an action scene. The middle sometimes falls prey to a gross uniformity, which leads to a loss of rhythm. Do not let the middle be monotone. Look at the shape of music. Then listen to it — listen to how music handles its center. Ape that.
6. The midpoint is a knife stuck suddenly in the center of a dinner table — thwack! It is a dramatic breach — there, at each end of the table are the beginning and the climax. Two guests dining. Between which is a fucking knife stabbed into the hard wood. Why is it there? Examine the knife. Exploit it. Find the knife in your narrative. What is the blade stuck in the middle? What does it say? What conflict emblemizes it? Seize that edge.
7. The thing you think is the actual end of your book? Bring it to the midpoint. Sounds extreme, but try it — drag it forward and plant it smack in the middle. Now the latter half of the book is unclaimed and unknown territory. It is unimagined by both you and the reader. Who knows what lurks there? HERE THERE BE ENDER DRAGONS.
8. The midpoint is not just a knife — it’s a catapult. What I mean is this: an event will take the characters and launch them into the next half of the story. The event must propel them — it must give them dramatic urgency, it must fling them forward. The stakes are upped or changed. The plan is ruined. All seems lost, or a victory that was won is now false. The word “change” is key, here. A change of state is significant — something has shifted, and now the playing field is different. Maybe the whole goddamn game is different.
9. Behold and correct passivity. I make a lot of noise where characters have to be active over passive, but there is a middle-ground here where a character is reactive. Meaning, the story presents them with a problem external to them and they are forced to react accordingly. Still, though, at a certain point the character has become active over reactive — not necessarily “gaining the upper-hand,” but gaining agency. The midpoint is an excellent time for exactly this. It represents just the sort of turning point readers seek in the middle of the story.
10. Throw out the rules. Not necessarily the internal story rules (which may be unseen but should remain consistent) — but your overall plan for them. Got an outline? Now’s a good time to scrap it. Writing is often an act of constantly checking your gut. I can feel when I think the story is starting to go boggy — I trust my instinct and I act on that. When that happens, I search for a way to break things I did not expect to break. I jump out of the plane with no parachute acquired. I find a character to kill, a thing to blow up, a relationship to begin or detonate — I reach out blindly for the toys in my sandbox to see what I can do to smash them together, change their story and modify the action. Fuck my plan. Screw my outline. The only thing that matters is whether or not the story is working right there on the page. Midpoint is a great check-in time for this. When in doubt? Improvise, escalate, and ‘asplode stuff. *hits big red comical button*
Ta-da! Ten tips. Use ’em or lose ’em.
Now go write more stuff.
The NaNoWriMo Storybundle is live — 13 books with another 12 if you meet the $25 threshold. You will note that the bonus tier contains one of my books so go grabby-grabby.