One of my weakest writing areas has been the middle of the novel. This “needs improvement” area is shared by many novelists and would-be novelists–I’m not alone. The middle (also known as ACT II) is the novel’s largest section, so we should revise it to sweep readers along effortlessly.
Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss a few ways to help tame the curse of the slow or sagging middle.
Be Willing to Sag
Not your pants, your novel’s midsection. I think it’s a mistake to try to keep the middle from sagging on the first draft. If you’re already a plotter, well yes, you can plan your scenes and maybe your draft won’t sag as much as my pantster draft will. But consider this: As I draft without regard to how well or not the chapters pull the story forward, I may stumble upon a revelation that both deepens and enriches the story. I maintain, especially on first novels, that “mistakes” such as a bunch of scenes or even chapters which will eventually need cutting actually help writers understand their characters and the all-important motivations they display. Don’t be afraid to fail as you write toward the climax. Is this method likely to result in more “work” (read: revisions)? Absolutely. But I’d rather fail and learn and grow my skills than stay in one spot on the technique scale.
Sharpen Your Scalpel
Be willing to create a hot mess, but also be willing to cut out stuff that isn’t getting your character closer to that goal or climax scene. If you start with a weak premise, you’ll be rewriting a lot. The adage “Writing Is Rewriting” applies here. One way to determine what should stay or go is to create some sort of scene list or storyboard. You can use 3 x 5 cards, post-it notes or a simple list to see how the story as a whole moves. Write one sentence for each scene and assemble in order. Now step back and you should begin to see spots that march in place or sag the story. These scenes can either be rewritten, deleted or summarized with transitions to bridge time gaps. When I begin revising in my master document, I first copy/paste the scene into a new file and work on it until I am satisfied before I insert it into the master. It’s a form of insurance against what I call “another shortsighted Linda move.”
Keep Tension High
As you remedy a sagging middle, look for tension. Does it flag? Are you excusing weak tension by calling it a “breather?” Readers do want relief from high action but only in very small doses–I’m talking about sentences or paragraphs, not scenes or chapters. Each succeeding event should ratchet up the tension on your protagonist, culminating in the “do or die” moment of the climax scene. “All is lost!” is the sentiment you need going into that scene, and either victory or defeat should be the climax scene’s result. If your story runs out of steam too soon, you will want to re-examine the stakes of the story, your character’s goals, the obstacles and how many people are affected. The bigger each of these, the higher the stakes and the more tension the story will contain. Most of us desire a firm and toned middle. Your novel needs one too.