Writing the middle of a novel: 9 tips to keep moving

Writing the middle of a novel | Now Novel

Writing the middle of a novel has its own unique challenges. You need to develop your story further after your engrossing start and set in place the path to the end. The curse of the ‘sagging middle’ can’t take hold. Here are 9 tips for writing a middle that keeps your story moving:

1: Change locations for new developments and challenges

2: Use the middle to raise uncertainty about your characters’ goals

3: Increase plot complications and character obstacles

4: Create subplots that add interest to your main story arc

5: Introduce interesting minor characters

6: Stay focused on your characters’ end-goals

7: Build to a smaller peak

8: Shorten the middle and move to the resolution sooner

9: Read the middle chapters of favourite books and take notes on elements such as plot development and setting

Let’s examine these points a little closer:

1: Change locations for new developments and challenges

The 5 w’s of story – where, what, why, who and when – can all change to create variety and interest. None of these elements must change. The characters in your novel or your setting could remain fairly constant. Yet change opens up possibilities for new developments and intriguing new scenarios. These keep your novel exciting and interesting.

There are many examples from literature of changes in location that help to create interesting story middles.

In Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, the protagonist Pip moves from his home village in Kent to the great city of London, upon receiving wealth from a mystery benefactor. This change of location underscores Pip’s increase in status. It also introduces interesting new settings and characters, as Dickens moves from describing village to city life.

In David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, each section of the book changes location, from the Chatham Islands just off New Zealand to a futuristic imaginary state in Korea. The central section of the book, however, is set in a post-apocalyptic society. The setting of this section is gradually revealed, as we piece together clues from narration and dialogue about its history.

Through the change in both aspects of setting – time and place –  Mitchell adds mystery. The middle considerably expands the many unknowns of the story wanting resolution.

To avoid your story stagnating in a single location, try shifting somewhere new – another town or country, from the city to the countryside or vice versa. Make sure any change of setting makes sense in relation to the preceding plot.

2: Use the middle to raise uncertainty about your characters’ goals

In the first third of your novel, you introduce pivotal characters and their goals. For example, in Tokien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s quickly established that the protagonist Frodo must go on a quest. He’s tasked with taking an inherited artifact, the powerful One Ring, away from his homeland, The Shire. Yet towards the middle of the book, tension mounts. Frodo faces the novel’s antagonist’s henchmen, treacherous terrain and more.

Using the middle to increase uncertainty about characters’ outcomes applies for diverse genres. In a romance, the middle is often where two characters pull (or are driven) apart.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, for example, the protagonist Elizabeth Bennett visits her friend Charlotte in Kent around the middle of the story. Lizzie is invited to the home of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who is incidentally also the aunt of her eventual love interest, Mr Darcy. There are misunderstandings between Elizabeth and Darcy, who proposes to her with unfortunate timing. He expresses doubts about the differences in status between their families, which in turn intensifies Elizabeth’s temporary dislike of Darcy.

As Austen does, use the middle of your novel to make the likeliest outcome encounter new complications.

Writing the middle of a novel - Dante quote | Now Novel

How do you raise uncertainty? By increasing obstacles:

3: Increase plot complications and character obstacles

When writing the middle of a novel, use a turn of events or sudden setback to add dramatic tension and suspense. Readers become less certain characters will get the outcomes their opening chapters suggest.

Possible complications in the middle of a book include:

  • Misunderstandings between characters
  • Unexpected physical obstacles (e.g. in a quest fantasy, finding a planned route impassable)
  • Discoveries that change characters’ understandings or goals (for example, Elizabeth’s gradual realisation that Darcy is a finer person than she thought in Pride and Prejudice)

The ‘sagging middle syndrome’ in the middle of a book is often caused by insufficient development towards a climax. Obstacles and complications do some of this building by showing the twists and kinks in the path from A to B, in narrative cause and effect.

4: Create subplots that add interest to your main story arc

Subplots are useful for making your main story arc more interesting, especially in the middle of a novel. They can give characters the knowledge or skill they need to achieve an aim, for example:

In J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, for example, there are plenty of subplots within each novel. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, the main arc involves Harry confronting what lies in the secret chamber of the title. In a subplot towards the middle of the novel, Harry and his friends venture into the Forbidden Forest that surrounds their magic school. They do this to understand why spiders are fleeing the school for the forest, following a series of deadly attacks on the school grounds.

They find an enormous spider in the forest named Aragog. The spider gives them vital clues to understanding what lies in the Chamber of Secrets.

Like Rowling’s subplots, the subplots in your novel in the middle should give characters what they need to progress further towards their goals. Harry and his friends can only stop the mysterious attacks by following another lead first. This first lead and its minor arc initially seem unrelated to the main story arc – the unsettling mass migration of spiders. There are thus multiple levels of narrative uncertainty and tension. Thus we need multiple answers.

5: Introduce interesting minor characters

Writing the middle is an opportunity to expand your cast of characters, breathing new life into your story.

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the protagonist’s mother and sister arrive in his city to meet the sister’s fiancé. The timing of the visit is abysmal, since the protagonist Raskolnikov has only recently committed a terrible crime. This character introduction produces high tension and suspense, as the reader wonders whether Raskolnikov will crack under the pressure of having to engage with his close family members under his changed circumstances.

New characters can thus introduce additional suspense and tension. Minor characters can also possess knowledge or skills essential to your characters’ progress towards their goals, as the giant spider Aragog does for Harry and his friends in the previous example.

Bringing in new characters in the middle of your book will enable new dynamics and possible complications between characters to emerge.

6: Stay focused on your characters’ end-goals

One cause for a mushy middle in a novel is the sense of direction and purpose disappearing. Often beginning authors in particular will add scenes to the middle that show relationships between characters but don’t suggest how these relationships are relevant to broader story arcs.

The crucial task in the middle of your novel is to connect. If your main character heads out to see friends and they engage in fun dialogue and banter, relate this dialogue and banter to approaching scenes and developments in your story.

7: Build to a smaller peak

A ‘false’ climax in the middle of a story (as Chuck Wendig suggests) is effective for creating momentum. If there is a grand conflict between hero and villain in a fantasy novel, for example, consider a smaller conflict with one of the villain’s lackeys around the middle of your book. Or else your main character could squabble with a companion or close acquaintance. Conflicts relevant to characters’ core challenges will maintain cohesion or unity of effect while adding tension.

Make sure your first climax leaves the reader saying ‘if that was just the first climax, I can’t imagine how epic the final one will be’. Then make sure the final climax of your book fulfills that promise.

Quote - writing the middle of a story | Now Novel

8: Cut down the middle and move to the resolution sooner

Another reason why some books feel directionless in the middle is that authors spend long on the middle while developing the story.

The middle section of your book, however, can be as short as a few chapters.

If it feels that the middle of your book drags and loses pace, don’t be afraid to trim it down so that your story flows better to its ultimate conclusion. If you introduce subplots in the middle ask yourself, ‘How does this propel the story further? How will this scene further my story’s sense of cause and effect?’

9: Read the middle chapters of favourite books and take notes on elements such as plot development and setting

Take notes on the middle chapters of favourite novels and how successful authors keep their middles moving.

Note how your favourite books maintain suspense and tension, introduce new characters, develop the motivations and goals introduced in the opening chapters, and start moving towards the end.

The examples above from Dickens, Austen, J.K. Rowling and others show how famous authors can inspire better story middles.

Want helpful feedback on scenes from the middle of your story? Join the Now Novel community and get support and external insight as you write, edit and revise.

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  • Sharon Kendrick

    I think it’s the ideal time to get a little deeper into the heads of your characters. Find out why he always checks out of the window before he goes to bed at night….why she feels sick if ever she sees nail-varnish the colour of cherries….

    And you should follow @Sharon_Kendrick for regular writing tips! 🙂

  • “give your protagonist an obstacle that she repeatedly attempts to hurdle without success.” Brilliant! This is really helpful. I tend to want to jump ahead after one ‘hurdle,’ so this is a good tip for me.

  • Thank you, Rose. I’m glad you found the post useful. It’s true, often writing an obstacle for your character and helping her/him overcome it can feel complete but real life isn’t always that kind! Hope your 2016 is off to a productive start.

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