Writing Through the Middle, By Maria V. Snyder

Back to Advice.

The middle of the book is the hardest part to get through! I call it the cold hard slog and it doesn't get any easier with practice (I'm working on book #16 - trust me!). Look at the graph below of a basic novel structure.

As you can see, the middle is approximately 80% of the novel! That is a daunting percentage. Have you ever talked to aspiring writers who have written the first three chapters of their novels and are in the process of revising those chapters until they're perfect? Once they're perfect, they'll write more. Uh huh. Right. They're lying to themselves. They've hit the middle and the really hard work. Here's a pet talk from author Neil Gaiman:
By now you're probably ready to give up. You're past that first fine furious rapture when every character and idea is new and entertaining. You're not yet at the momentous downhill slide to the end, when words and images tumble out of your head sometimes faster than you can get them down on paper. You're in the middle, a little past the half-way point. The glamour has faded, the magic has gone, your back hurts from all the typing, your family, friends and random email acquaintances have gone from being encouraging or at least accepting to now complaining that they never see you any more---and that even when they do you're preoccupied and no fun. You don't know why you started your novel, you no longer remember why you imagined that anyone would want to read it, and you're pretty sure that even if you finish it it won't have been worth the time or energy and every time you stop long enough to compare it to the thing that you had in your head when you began---a glittering, brilliant, wonderful novel, in which every word spits fire and burns, a book as good or better than the best book you ever read---it falls so painfully short that you're pretty sure that it would be a mercy simply to delete the whole thing.

Welcome to the club.

That's how novels get written.*
*excerpted from Pep Talk from Neil Gaiman read the rest HERE

The middle of your book has a BIG job. It must do the following 7 things:
  • Develop the characters
  • Advance the plot
  • Raise the conflict and tension
  • Present obstacles
  • Explore the setting
  • Develop themes
  • Introduce, advance, and resolve subplots
Below is an in depth look at each of these elements:

Develop the Characters: Important to develop the main protagonists (MPs) to forge a connection to the reader. The first impression is over now need to show what the MP is made of – how he/she reacts to certain obstacles, problems, etc... Also must show the character's arc – how she changes during the course of the story – or rather sets it up for change in the climax and ending.

You also need to explain the goals of all the main characters, what they are striving to achieve in this story. Basically, WHAT they want MORE than anything else. What is his/her goal? If you don't know this, then writing the middle is going to be impossible. Basic story plot is that the MP wants X and in order to achieve X the MP must overcome a series of obstacles. For example in my book, POISON STUDY, Yelena wanted to live and be free, but she had to overcome obstacles like the poison Butterfly's Dust, her boss, Valek, General Brazell, etc... before she achieves her goal.

As you develop your MPs, you will need to reveal his/her backstory (expose secrets, fears, etc...). This shows your readers WHY the MPs want this goal more than anything else. In my example, Yelena wants to live, that is a basic survival instinct, however as her backstory is revealed, the reader discovers that she had a horrible experience which led her to kill the General's son. In POISON STUDY she is given a second chance at life and she doesn't want to mess it up.

Character actions must further the plot (or subplot). Their choices, their decisions, their actions all have consequences and repercussions and these choices, decisions, actions ALL must be in pursuit of that GOAL! Back to my example, Yelena needs to find the antidote to Butterfly's Dust in order to achieve her goal. But the antidote is locked in a cabinet in a locked office. In order to get past those obstacles, she asks her friends to teach her how to pick locks.

The development of your characters also includes showing the relationship between characters. As characters interact and work together or not - it all shows the reader who are friends, enemies, who are related, who is in love, etc... In POISON STUDY, Yelena is the new food taster for the Commander and Valek is her boss. He's one of the obstacles to Yelena's goal, but as they interact and deal with problems, the readers learn more about their personalities (Valek's creative side and Yelena's sarcastic humor). It also gives your characters depth!

Advance the Plot: Middle of the book shows most of the events of the story/plot. Novels are written in a series of scenes and what happens in one scene will trigger the next scene. It's important that all your scenes have at least three purposes. One should always be "advance the external plot" and the other two should be from the following list:
  • Develop character
  • Show character interaction
  • Explore setting or culture and values
  • Introduce new character or subplot
  • Forward subplot
  • Increase tension and suspense
  • Increase reader identification with the characters
  • Anticipate solution to problem
  • Divert attention from solution (but still show it)
  • Show how character reacts to events or causes events
  • Show event from new point of view
  • Foreshadow some climactic event
  • Flashback or tell some mysterious past event that has consequences now
  • Reveal something the protagonist has kept hidden
  • Reveal something crucial to protagonist and/or reader
  • Advance or hinder protagonist's "quest to achieve their goal"
Advancing the plot also includes assembling the "evidence" that will solve the problem or answer questions. In POISON STUDY, Yelena wants to find the antidote to Butterfly's Dust. So during the story, she learns where the potion is kept and then how to get to it. And as the MPs encounter and deal with obstacles, it is all building toward the climax.

Raise the Conflict and Tension: The situation at the beginning of the story becomes more and more intense as you advance through the middle of the book.

The characters' actions have risks and consequences. You need to show what these risks are - that increases the tension. Also don't be afraid to make your MPs suffer. In POISON STUDY, Yelena risks being caught by Valek as she picks the locks into his office. If she's caught, Valek might decide she's becoming a problem and could deny her the next dose of the antidote. If that happens, she'll die.

You can raise the conflict by presenting obstacles to the MPs goals. This forces the MPs to grow and change as they deal with the obstacle. In POISON STUDY, Yelena wants to survive, but General Brazell wanted her executed for killing his son. The General becomes an obstacle to Yelena's goal to live by sending his goons to kill her. In dealing with these goons, Yelena learns she has magic and that Valek is willing to protect her...for now ;)

If you're stuck in the middle, you can think about what can go wrong for your MPs or what is the worst thing that can happen at this point. Then include it! That can set off a chain of unexpected events and further complications. Or something surprising can happen. Things are bad enough, and now THIS happens! For example in MAGIC STUDY, Yelena is tracking down a serial killer and dealing with a kidnapper who wants to exchange his victim for Yelena. In the middle of all this, Yelena's mother arrives to spend some quality time with her daughter!

Your MPs are not perfect! And if they are, then no one is going to want to read about them! Instead, show your MPs making mistakes and this will cause unexpected events and unexpected consequences. In MAGIC STUDY, Yelena decides to disobey an order and give herself up to the kidnapper. She thinks she can handle it, but she's wrong! Also don't be afraid to have a calm before the storm where things are just going too well or you can give your characters a bit of a rest before the next crisis.

Explore the Setting: How does the "world" effect the characters? Are you characters in a harsh environment or dealing with bad weather? In science fiction and fantasy there are a lot of world building details to incorporate. Besides the details/description of the setting, you need to show what the MP's relationship is to society. Is she/he a rebel? A conformist? Is he vital/important or invisible? Or a stranger in a strange land? Also to consider how the MPs interact with society. What are the MPs values and moral code. How they react to certain situations. In MAGIC STUDY, Yelena is surrounded by a group of beggar children when she enters the Citadel for the first time. Instead of ignoring them like the other members of her party, she stops and talks to them and gives them money. Her actions show her inner moral code.

Develop Themes: I believe your story's theme will only reveal itself once you've written the book. In my case, I don't set out to explore certain themes when I start a book. I focus on the characters and their actions and reactions to the various obstacles in their paths. From that, certain themes develop. In POISON STUDY, Yelena's determination to succeed and not give up resulted in the themes of persistence and hope. These appealed to many of my readers and they were inspired to overcome their own problems. But that's how I write, you may know exactly what your theme is and the middle of the book is where you explore this and show it to the readers through the actions of your characters.

Introduce, advance, and resolve subplots: Subplots are strands of stories that support or drive the main plot, but are much smaller in scale. They start after you've established the main plot and usually end before the climax (not always – they can be part of the denouement "wrap up" at the end). Subplots bring realism to your main plot by interrupting the flow - life is never a straight line – we juggle lots of stuff in our life. Subplots can make life difficult for the main protagonist and increase the tension and conflict. Also subplots add dimension and complexity to your novel – short stories don't usually have subplots unless they're long. Children's and Middle Grade novels also are thin on subplots and Young Adult books aimed at readers 12 to 14. Subplots should NOT overwhelm the main plot - they are there to enhance and strengthen – support main plot.

Here's what subplots can do for your story:
Help to move the main plot forward – more to do with character growth – dealing with other issues helps the main protagonist "see" how to solve the main problem.

Raise the stakes for the main protagonist (or other significant character) – lots of problems are good – don't be afraid to make your main protagonist suffer!

Allow for plot twists. In my book INSIDE OUT, the MP Trella likes to explore the pipes/gapes of the world - this isn't part of her goal of finding Gateway, but it does lead her to find a nice surprise twist.

Deepen characterization – showing characters dealing with problems, interacting with other characters. If the subplot is from another character, can see main protagonist from that character's eyes.

Reveal suspense and/or foreshadowing - good for when you let your antagonist have the stage – show her plans to thwart the main protagonist – laying traps or causing problems. This is well done in the book, Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn.

Speed up or slow down the story's pace. In the movie, The Raiders of the Lost Ark there are a ton of things going on, but then it slows down when he's back teaching. This gives the viewers a chance to catch their breath. Or when the characters are waiting for something in plot to happen, you can switch to the subplot to increase the pace. For example, waiting for test results or a package or an appointment - the subplot can fill in that time.

Provide contrast to the main story – home life vs work life or stress vs humor. Ari and Janco, my characters from the Study series, frequently provide humor to help ease the tension.

Induce mood: menace, comedy, etc... Show menace by switching to the antagonist's POV.

Now you know why the middle is the hardest part of writing a novel. I hope by breaking it down into manageable elements will help you get through the middle and finish your book. My two favorite words are: The End! :)
Books & Excerpts |  Biography |  Appearances |  Writing Advice |  World Map
FAQs |  Short Stories |  Links |  News |  Home
All contents copyright © 2004-, Maria V. Snyder
Contact Maria at maria@mariavsnyder.com
Designed and Created By Depixelate Web Design