When you have a beginning to your story, you’re on you your way, no matter whether you outline or work by the headlights (only knowing what’s just ahead). Either way, you’ve started the journey. And on that journey, to get from your beginning, rife with possibility and excitement, to your ending, a surprising yet inevitable conclusion that fulfills the hopes of your readers, you must traverse the dreaded muddle in the middle.
Your beginning sets up the story.
Your ending pays it off.
Your middle has to do everything else!
Your middle must show progress in character arcs so we can see the protagonist has changed (or had the opportunity to change and refused to) over the course of the story show characters trying and failing to solve the story problem — or succeeding and making things worse
Your middle has to show things that may be genre-specific — for example, the detective talking to witnesses and looking for clues in a mystery
In other words, your middle needs to show all of the information we need to find the ending believable — whether it’s two people falling in love, a murderer being brought to justice, or an agent foiling a plot to topple the leaders of Europe.
The middle is also where we see subplots arise and possibly be resolved — subplots that may reflect the theme of the book, the emotional arc of the main character, or a different aspect of the character’s journey. Subplots can also look at ideas from a different angle, coming to a different conclusion from the main plot. For example, if the hero needs to overcome his pride in order to reach his goal, we could see his brother-in-law giving in to his pride at a crucial moment, which makes his daughter run away from home (thus leading to a related but different subplot).
The middle is the part where you take everything that was set up in the beginning and complicate it.
This is the part where, if the hero’s car broke down in a safari park, the animals try to get into the car, the hero gets out and runs — only to discover there’s a cliff in front of him, the lions are behind him, and if he manages to make it down the cliff, there’s a river full of crocodiles and hippos. He makes for the hippos, only to discover they’re even more mean-tempered than the crocodiles — and so on. Every attempt at a solution makes things worse and complicates life in some fashion because if it doesn’t if the reader ever feels that the protagonist is at peace with nothing else to work toward, your book gets closed and never re-opened.
I really struggle with the middle of a book, making sure I’ve got enough story in there. I outline before writing, and yet I still wind up stuck somewhere, knowing I don’t have enough going on to justify calling something a novel (or novella, depending). I know the book needs more to entice readers. Or although the plot makes sense, it doesn’t fit with the way the characters and world have fleshed out in the writing, and I need to come up with an alternate next step. So what do I do?
- Ask what the worst thing is that can happen. Even if that’s not the way I was planning to take the plot, it can really strengthen the story as the characters have to cope with something deeper. And sometimes, the worst that can happen isn’t something bad now — letting the hero and heroine deepen their relationship and trust in each other makes the inevitable Black Moment when it seems all is lost that much stronger.
- Look at the three characters closest to the protagonist and ask how I can complicate their lives. Not only can their subplots add resonance to the novel by reflecting themes and motifs, but complications here can also affect the protagonist. When a trusted companion isn’t available, where will the protagonist turn for support or help?
- Look for patterns in the story so far. We’re coded to recognize patterns, and from very early on, we’re taught that things happen in threes. Has something happened twice that can happen again, perhaps with a different outcome? Or has something happened that was a single minor occurrence that could have added significance by repeating it?
- Do some free writing. I sit down with pen and paper and just start writing about what’s going on in the story, where I’m stuck, what’s the next thing that I know I want to have happen, what’s stopping me from getting there. Unlike the previous tactics, I’m not looking for a specific type of solution; I’m just hoping for inspiration of some sort. It often works, and it gives me an angle that I might not have come up with by following a defined path.
- Add in something unexpected. Create a new walk-on character, throw in an unrelated complication (“this just in: tonight’s meteor shower is expected to result in minor property damage in the Tri-State area.”), or include a trope from a different genre (this one works best when used early in the planning process).
- Review the beginning. Are there any promises or hints of things to come, story questions asked but not answered, threads that have not been followed up on?
- Look at the ending. Maybe even write up a short draft of the climax scene. What needs to be in place for this scene to play out? How can I set that up ahead of time?
If all else fails, go work on something else for a while to give your brain a rest, then come back and come at the middle from a different angle, refreshed and able to see what you were missing before.
When all’s said and done, there’s a feeling of excitement to knowing I’m setting things up that are going to pay off down the line, and when I’m about to write the climax scene and all that work is about to come to fruition, I know I’ve survived another muddle in the middle.