Anyone else getting their asses handed to them by the middle chunk of their novel? Don’t be shy. Let’s have a show of hands. I’d raise my hand, too, but I was always the kid in the back terrified to lift my hand up, lest the teacher actually notice me and make me talk. So I’ll be in the back, doing that halfhearted hand raise, where it looks like I’m reaching for a pencil, or behind me like I’m scratching my head, so I still feel like I’m participating, kind of. Then the teachers’ beady eyes will look in my direction and it’s a whole lot of please God don’t call on me, don’t you see the girl in the front waving her arm so hard she’s gonna smack the kid next to her?
Me: (God bless it. FML.) *cannot look up* everyone is watching, omg. “I…hate the middle pages of a novel because…sometimes I have a hard time connecting how it started to where I want the plot to end up.”
“Middle pages are hard! I don’t know how to keep it exciting, even if I outline, and move the story along in an acceptable pace! It gets slow, or I don’t know what to keep in and take out! I’M A TERRIBLE WRITER.”
*cue other children staring and snickering at me, and I am now shaking like a leaf. Thanks, forced class participation. THANKS.*
Wow, I just relived some embarrassing moments from elementary school.
I did attend a ‘class’ about this. The middle pages, specifically. What one author called death valley. There was no raising of the hands, and no one got picked on, so I was happy as a clam. The mystery conference I attended had workshops on all three chunks of the novel: beginning, middle, and end. I’ve always had the beginning of a novel in the bag. I can picture it effortlessly, like the beginning of a great movie, or a perfectly sculpted cupcake right before the frosting gets smeared all over my face. The ending, too, is always pretty strong. I’m an outliner, as well, for most of what I work on. I’ve tried to be a pantser and wing it the whole way through, but I end up flailing around totally directionless after the first few chapters, so I tend to prefer a guideline of sorts before I try and tell the story. Even with that outline, though, sometimes I feel like I run out of steam at around 30-40,000 words. I was quite interested to hear from other authors what methods they used to ride through the middle pages funk. I’m going to share with y’all what I took out of it to be particuarly helpful:
Look at the beginning of every chapter as a new beginning.
That sounds like a fairly simple idea and a bit of a ‘well…yeah,’ but it kind of struck me when Shane Gericke, author of Torn Apart, worded it like that. It’s drilled into us to make sure our hook is in the first page, the first paragraph – the first sentence. And this is certainly true. But why not try and apply that mindset to the beginning of every chapter in your manuscript? Try to look at the start of each chapter as a fresh new scene, a different way every 10-15 pages to hook the reader in again and again. Doesn’t mean something fantastically exciting has to be happening all the time, hitting you in the face every chapter (depending upon your novel. If you’re The Hunger Games, you do this, because HG is one giant adrenaline rush and that works for plots of that nature). But the plot still needs to propel forward.
Pry open your characters.
The middle chunk is a good area for character development. To understand their motives, learn about their past, even expand into multiple points of view to jazz things up and really get inside the heads of your main characters. What do they want? How do they get it? A few books with memorable middles that just popped into my head – Mattimeo, by Brian Jacques, the aforementioned Hunger Games, Seize the Night, by Dean Koontz (what a hodgepodge of genres. This is my brain, in a matter of seconds: talking animals, dystopian futures, and doomsday viruses) – all encompassed a journey, physical or mental. The middle in Mattimeo was segmented into scenes, jumping to and from the crisis at Redwall to Mattimeo’s quest beyond. In The Hunger Games, it was all about Katniss’ survival in the arena; in Seize the Night, it was not just about a time constricted search for missing children, it was the characters gaining new information and slowly peeling away the layers of the frightening truth surrounding their hometown. As the characters develop, you grow more attached to them, and soon you’re up at two in the morning trying to finish the book and you have to be up at five. In every one of these, the characters were allowed to shine, show the readers what they’re made of, and make us care about them.
Don’t get married to your outline.
Like I said, I enjoy outlining, but it’s not always in a coherent order. I have scenes I know I want to happen, and I try to insert them in an orderly fashion as it makes sense to the plot – or, I try to find the plot by tying them together and connecting the dots. With the fantasy series, my coauthor and I broke down the first novel in three chunks, evenly divided the chapters up between the three, and outlined the story by chapters. ‘This is what we want to happen in this chapter, in order for blah to happen in chapter blah’ kind of thing, but it was fluid rather than rigid. It didn’t matter how the thing happened, as long as it did – I was content to let the characters show me how the scene would actually play out. However, if we tried to force a certain scene to happen or a character to do something that, by the time it came down to writing it, just wasn’t going to play out the way we wanted, it was awkward and very obvious we were trying to make something work that simply wouldn’t do anymore. You write that scene that you wanted in there when you outlined two months ago, but when you get to it, it doesn’t flow at all with the rest of the story. So take it out – don’t delete it! – but pull it, save it, and maybe you can use it somewhere else. It’s okay to deviate from the outline.
I want to reiterate about not deleting little bits and scenes that you find don’t fit into your story anymore, or aren’t working or necessary. Save those hot messes! They won’t always be useless! I’m a huge believer in never deleting your own work – if there’s even the smallest unpolished gem in there, a line, or a descriptive paragraph, or a snatch of dialogue – put it somewhere for safe keeping. You never know when you’ll want to use it again. A four page scene that I really enjoyed writing went out of the fantasy, because we didn’t think it fit there. After two revisions, we realized it was a useful scene that fit in better in a different chapter, and I was able to pull it out of the additional scenes folder, tweak it a bit, and reuse it. I’ll even write little scenes or expand on current ones I know won’t end up in the final manuscript, but I wanted to see it through because it either let me know something about the character, or…well, I just wanted to write it. It’s easy to cut those corners later, and toss them in a garbage, catch all file of odds and ends.
I’d be interested to hear what other people found works for them. What issues have you come across in your own writing concerning the dreaded middle pages?