It’s easy to get pumped up about writing the start of a book. New worlds, new characters, exciting possibilities! And after the inciting incident, the reader has typically been presented with an intriguing question—will the characters fall in love? find the treasure? defeat the villain? etc.—so you also get excited to write the ending and answer that question. But then there’s everything in between, all those blank pages that need to be filled. A lot of authors struggle with middles, worrying that they will be difficult to outline, tedious to write, and boring to read.
How does one structure a totally awesome middle that keeps the author typing and the reader flipping pages?
A to Z
Get excited about your middles! Don’t think about simply moving your characters from point A to point B. Think fully-fledged alphabet. A to Z. Every letter along the way offers enticing chances for the characters to grow, discover new things, develop relationships, get beaten down, get lifted up, and ultimately become who they need to be to make your amazing ending feel earned.
If there’s a particular scene or section that you’re dreading writing because it just sounds boring, don’t write it. Instead, rework your outline or ideas until you find a way to do it that inspires you. Of course, there’s a difference between ‘boring’ and ‘difficult’ when it comes to writing. You may have sections in your book that you know will be a challenge for you to write. That’s fine. Take a deep breath, focus on how great your end product will be, and get to work on those scenes! But if you’re dreading part of the story because nothing about it excites you, that’s a problem. Remember, anything that bores the author will bore the reader ten-fold.
Every scene should be fun to read. Every scene should be some reader’s favorite scene. Same with every character, every relationship, every setting. Make each element of your story special and there’ll be nothing ‘mushy’ about your middle.
Try, Fail, Repeat
At their heart, most stories go something like this:
The characters need to accomplish a big goal, but to do that, they first must accomplish a bunch of little goals. Each time they confront a challenge, they either fail and must keep trying, or else they succeed but discover a new complication. This pattern repeats until the climax, and it’s these cycles that fill up the middle of most books.
The middle is a good place to be cruel to your characters, or at the very least, to show them trying their hardest. Have them encounter obstacles that push them to the limit and force them to change. Story is change. If your main character has been trying hard throughout the book, then when they finally succeed, it will feel incredibly satisfying. Or, if you’re writing a tragedy that ends with the defeat of the protagonist, then their hard journey will make that ending all the more tragic.
Let characters fail in the middle. Let them learn from that failure. Those are lessons which can allow them to complete their story arc.
The general arc of your story’s tone will be one of building tension, but unless you’re writing in a genre such as thriller, you’re going to want some moments where the story slows down, allowing both your characters and your readers to take a deep breath and reflect on the plot up to that point. Be careful with these sections. It’s easy to spend too much of the middle in downtime, releasing all of the tension you’ve built up. You never want to have to start from scratch in the middle of a book to hold the reader’s attention. Readers will usually just set down the book and not bother picking it up again. So, build up, have your action or drama or whatever it may be, then go ahead and let the dust settle...for a bit. But make sure to start things moving again before too long.
Sometimes an author gets 50% or 75% through a manuscript and suddenly has a lightbulb moment. They introduce a new major character, theme, subplot, or POV, and love what it adds to the story. But introducing key elements too late in a story can throw off the pacing and be distracting. It makes the book feel lopsided. Usually, it’s best to either go back and have those elements introduced earlier, or else grit your teeth and cut them.
Subplots and Side Quests
One major way to either strengthen or wreck your middle is with the inclusion of subplots. Subplots can come in all shapes and sizes, but they should always relate to the main conflict in some way. You don’t want video game style ‘side quests’, in which characters run off to do unrelated things.
Experiment. If removing a subplot changes nothing in your story, cut it. This doesn’t mean it has to majorly affect the main plot arc. Let’s say you’re writing a detective novel and one of the suspects turns out to be innocent and so doesn’t affect the ending. Should you cut that character from the story? Of course not! But their scenes do need to add something. Maybe the investigation of that suspect brought out a new aspect of your POV detective character, or maybe the discovery of their innocence is what ends up leading the detective in the direction of the truly guilty person.
In a Galaxy Far, Far Away
Look no further than the original 1975 film “Star Wars” for a story that not only has an exhilarating beginning and an unforgettable ending, but a middle which is just as fun.
The central goal of the film is: The heroes must get R2D2’s plans to the rebels so they can blow up the Death Star.
In the beginning, we meet the characters, learn about the universe, and are introduced to that main goal. Then we launch off into the meaty middle, complete with its cycles of failure and complication:
The heroes successfully escape from Mos Eisley and head toward Alderaan, but the planet has been destroyed. They adjust their course toward the rebel base on Yavin 4, but are captured by the Death Star. They rescue Princess Leia and escape the Death Star, but Obi-Wan is killed. They reach the rebel base, but the Death Star has tracked them and will now try to destroy the planet.
All of the subplots in the middle—Obi-Wan’s sacrifice, rescuing Leia, Luke learning the force, Han struggling with selfishness—all revolve around the central goal and will culminate in the finale, so none of them feel like distractions. They are essential steps toward the climax, while each is also awesome on its own. The middle of Star Wars never wastes a moment. Characters are developed, tension rises and falls and rises again, and every scene is captivating.
In a Galaxy Closer to Home
Worried about your book having a mushy middle? Make it crunchy! Fill it with memorable moments, dazzling set pieces, building tension, and characters pushed to change. Fill it with scenes which will be a joy to write and to read, all aimed at making the story feel complete and the ending justified.