Writing Your Novel’s Middle

Pallerina, the ballerina.

We’ve discussed endings and openings. Now let’s look to one
of a novel’s most critical spots: its midpoint.

Writing Tip for Today: What are some ways to improve a novel’s
middle?

Act II Rising

The middle of a novel consists of the bulk of Act II in the
classic three-act structure. The most important aspect of this act is that
there is rising action, or events which force the protagonist into a fight
against death. This death may be physical, psychological or emotional, but it
must be big enough to force the character to fight for it (high stakes).

Some writers mistake Act II as the place to illustrate all
kinds of subplots or material which is interesting but doesn’t fit the “rising
action” rule. While we want our character to be three-dimensional, we also must
keep raising the stakes to keep readers reading.

Take a look at your scenes list and make sure your highest
cost (to the character) event happens nearest the climax scene. If you find
your most dramatic or costly scene in Act I or anywhere except the end of Act
II, consider revising. If you show the highest stake scene too soon, you’ll
have nowhere to go to raise the stakes further.

A Moment in Scene

James Scott Bell’s excellent little book, Write Your Novel from the Middle, talks about a particular moment in a middle scene which gives a clue about the outcome and also cements the character into a point of no return.

It’s also the moment when readers understand where the novel is going and what the story is really about. Readers may not actually discern the story’s ending, but they now have a sense of the story direction.

Pick up any novel you enjoy and flip to the midpoint of the
book. See if you can find the clue or hint the author is throwing out. Try to
identify this “moment” where everything changes—the character’s attitude,
circumstances or surroundings.

A Major Crisis

The midpoint also shows the character facing a major setback or crisis which he must overcome. This is comparable with the “All hope is lost” place, just before the Final Battle or Climax. We give the character this steep challenge to reassure readers that the goal, obstacles and the character herself are worth fighting for.

If all goes well for our character, we stop reading. It’s a little like a story I once heard about from a student: a boy wanted to play the French horn in the school band. So he did. This really isn’t a story at all, since there are no stakes (character has nothing to lose or face death over), and no obstacles to overcome.

If the school bully grabs the horn on the way home from school and mangles it in the dirt, or if the boy’s mom couldn’t afford the horn in the first place, the story begins to have meaning. This is why it isn’t enough to give a character a goal. He also must have obstacles as well as high stakes.

Overall, a novel’s middle is a test of your writing skill. Sagging middles are common in drafts, and they can result in readers who stop reading. Stand your draft against these tests and then revise accordingly—your readers will thank you.

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About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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