As a writer, I fall somewhere in the middle of the pantser/plotter spectrum. I like to plot out basic story beats (Dan Wells’ 7 point plot is my current favorite) and then pants my way from one point to the next. This means that I’m generally pretty enthusiastic about drafting beginnings (when I get to set everything up) and endings (when all the drama unfold), but middles often stymy me.
As a novice writer, drafting my first fantasy novel, I solved that problem by adding dragons. Things dragging here? Throw in an unexpected encounter with a dragon. Don’t know what to do here? Add another dragon.
Needless to say, this isn’t an efficient long-term solution. (Or even a very good one to begin with).
So what can you do to draft a stronger middle?
Understanding the purpose of the middle is an excellent start—the midsection of the story is not just about filling time until you get to the exciting climax. The middle needs to be consciously building toward both the disaster and climax of the story, as events both increase tension and stakes. (For more on the middle, see Janice Hardy’s description of the three act structure).
But the middle needs to escalate not only the external plot, but the internal plot as well. Often, the middle contains a “point of no return” for the character, where they’ve committed to a choice or course of action that—whether it succeeds or fails—means they cannot go back to the person they were at the beginning of the story. Some irrevocable bridge is crossed.
James Scott Bell calls this the “mirror moment,” when the character recognizes some fundamental truth about themselves and their situation that changes their understanding of the world.
Janice Hardy describes something similar with her midpoint reversal: “Something unexpected happens and changes the worldview the protagonist has had all along. His plan no longer works or is no longer viable, and things have to change. This choice and new plan is what sends the plot into the second half of the middle.
“A good midpoint reversal will also raise the stakes, even if they were high to begin with. It often adds a level of personal consequence that wasn’t there before, or reveals a secret (or problem) that was hidden. Sometimes it requires a sacrifice, be it a personal belief or an ally. Sometimes it’s all of these things at the same time.”
In short, the events of the middle ought to be as crucial to the story as the climax or inciting incident. If you can remove them without damage to your climax, they’re not serving the story.
That’s all well and good, but how do you craft these escalating events that lead, inevitably, to the climax?
Here are a few ideas:
1. Build in a try-fail cycle. Or several. The protagonist needs to spend the middle section learning the skills that will allow them to defeat the antagonist—part of learning this is learning what does not work, as well as building a skill set. (Ideally, each try-fail cycle gets bigger and comes with bigger consequences.
2. Add conflict with increasing consequences. In a recent episode of Writing Excuses, Mary Robinette Kowal suggested asking, “what’s the smartest thing my character can do?” Give your character a choice—and then give that choice a consequence. For each choice/action, ask: did they succeed? If yes, add a “but”—yes, but then this happens to complicate things. Or “no, and . . .” then this complication happened. Using yes/but, no/and can be a helpful way of escalating consequences.
3. Borrow some ideas from Chuck Wendig (language warning).
When you’ve finished drafting, here are some helpful tips on revising the middle. Above all, the middle should be something that both challenges and delights you to write–just as it will hopefully challenge and delight your readers.
What tips do you find useful for drafting the middle section of your book? (Bonus question: can you tell what section I’m currently drafting?)
Rosalyn Eves is a part-time writer, part-time English professor, and full-time mother of three. She loves all things BBC, especially costume dramas and mysteries. When not wrangling children (and sometimes when she should be wrangling children), she’s often found reading. Her debut novel, BLOOD ROSE REBELLION, is now available.