Surviving the Muddy Middle

We all learned about the parts of a story when we went to school. The beginning, the rising action, climax, and resolution. But when it comes to writing a story, these four points leave a lot to be desired in the “How Do I Do This?” department.

Many people feel like they have a story idea, a basic premise and beginning. They know what the climax is and how it will end. But…what about the middle parts? How do you stretch out a story for 50,000+ words and not let the pace drag?

You can find all sorts of plotting guides to go over turning points and midpoints and pinch points, and those are important. I swear by those now. But when I first started writing they only made my head spin. So this post is for you beginning writers, or you “just thinking about writing but haven’t actually done it yet” writers, and all you pantsers. Solidarity, my friends.

The secret to keeping up the pace in your story and stretching it out while connecting the dots that lead to your climax is tension.

I know what you’re saying.

DUH!

But hear me out.

Creating space for possible tension at the beginning of your story will give you a place to go when you get to the middle and aren’t sure what happens next. You can always set off something brewing between characters or play around with one of the subplots. Here’s how to do that.

To show you what I’m talking about, I’m going to use a mystery novel I just finished called Hollywood Homicide by Kellye Garrett. It will be released in August and was a fun, well-paced read. The reason I’m using a mystery as my example is because it’s easy to think that a mystery novel really only has one plot thread, right? That it’s all just about solving the mystery and so you just ride along from clue to clue and that’s what keeps the pace alive. And while that is somewhat true, mystery novels still require more than just the tension of the unsolved case. So let’s look at how Garrett provides tension all the way through her book with elements outside just the mystery/main plot.

Character & Motivation-

1. Provide Several Sources of Motivation

Hollywood Homicide is about a retired commercial actress, Dayna, trying to solve a hit and run. She decides to pursue the case because she’s broke and her parents are about to lose their house and she wants to help. That additional motivation, beyond just wanting to find a killer, adds a lot of tension and provides ways to keep up the pace of the novel without constantly racing straight from clue to clue. There’s the tension of running out of gas and not having money for more. The tension that comes from talking to her parents about the bank foreclosing on their house.

In other books, this could also be referred to as the external and the internal goal. The main plot may be about a certain journey or outward action, but the main character must also be struggling with something internally. Another motivation. When you feel like the pace is dragging and it’s to soon to get to the next key part of your plot. Play around with your character’s underlying motivation and make things worse for them somehow in regards to that. Each phone call Dayna gets from her parents in Hollywood Homicide ups the stakes and tension.

2. Each Character Needs to Bring Something to the Tension Table

When Garrett introduces the book’s cast, there is tension introduced with each character. There’s Omari, the love interest, who Dana accidentally offended the last time they spoke. Her best friend and roommate, Sienna, who is intent on being famous. This creates tension because Dana is intent on not being famous. Hard to do when your roommate is trying to get her own reality show. Then there’s Dayna’s other friend, Toni, who doesn’t like to leave her house but is forced to when Dayna’s case hits a little too close to home. All of these tensions allow for a breather between “clues.” They make the story more than just a break-neck race to the conclusion.

If you’re looking to up your word count and not sure where to go, lean into some of those tensions between your characters. Have something spark. Maybe it will lead you somewhere good.

3. Give Your Characters Secrets

Of course there are other characters in Hollywood Homicide. The many suspects of the book. And, of course, each one has something to hide. And all these hidden motives and secrets make for plenty of misunderstandings, wild goose chases, fighting, and drama in their own right. Giving each of your characters a secret, or something they’re trying to hide, is the quickest way to not only flesh out a character, but add tension, depth, and word count to a story.

So, don’t be afraid of that muddy middle anymore while you draft. Sure, you’ll probably have to clean things up in revisions and switch them around or delete certain things entirely. But if you’re stuck and not sure how to get from point A to point B. Look to your characters and their motivations. They’ll lead you to some juicy paths.

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Amanda Rawson Hill grew up in southwest Wyoming with a library right out her back gate, which accounts a lot for how she turned out. She now resides in central California where she is a gardener, chemist, homeschool mom, Yosemite explorer, and Disneyland enthusiast. She writes middle-grade fiction and is represented by Elizabeth Harding at Curtis Brown LTD.

Leaving Things Unresolved

For most of us, we like things to be neatly tied, with ribbons and bows. But in fiction, this can actually kill tension and cause readers to put down books, fully satisfied when they reach the end of a chapter.

I recently attended a class about keeping tension high and increasing the suspense in a novel. The author wrote suspense/thrillers, but her advice was absolutely spot-on for anyone trying to craft a page-turner.

She spoke about the novel as a whole, the chapter as a whole, and each individual scene. I’ll admit, my head sort of exploded when I thought about analyzing my book on such a close level. Every scene? That’s really taking a look at how you’re building and releasing tension.

One piece of advice that really spoke to me was leaving scenes and chapters unresolved in order to keep your readers engaged and anxious to turn the page. She cautioned against resolving the scene/chapter within the first paragraph of the next scene/chapter, which I also agree with.

But leaving your reader hanging prompts them to keep reading for “just a few more minutes.” To flip a few more pages while their dinner timer goes off.

Some questions you can ask yourself to aid in upping the tension:
1. What’s the worst thing that could happen here?
2. What does my character care about most?
3. Who will suffer if they don’t reach their goals?
4. What are the worst two things for my character to choose between?
5. What does my character stand to lose? What are they up against?
6. Why can’t they give up?
7. What’s the deadline to accomplish the goal?
8. Are the antagonist’s and protagonist’s goals opposite?

Looking closely at these questions, and then your scenes and chapters, you can create tension–whether it’s internal or external–on the page. This will keep readers flipping pages way past their bedtime and then raving about your book.

How do you increase tension and suspense in your writing?

Liz Isaacson writes inspirational romance, usually set in Texas, or Wyoming, or anywhere else horses and cowboys exist. Her Western inspirational romance, SECOND CHANCE RANCH, is available now.

She lives in Utah, where she teaches elementary school, taxis her daughter to dance several times a week, and serves on her community’s library board. Liz is represented by Marisa Corvisiero of the Corvisiero Agency. Find her on Facebook, twitter, and her blog.