How To Strengthen Your Flabby Middle (for your novel, not your gut)

Writing the beginning of your book was the best! You knew how to introduce your characters, how to describe that setting, and you created a dynamic inciting incident to get the story rolling. You’re rewritten it hundreds of times and you finally got it right!

Then there’s the end. Perhaps you’ve got it all planned out too. You know how the big climactic drama answers all the questions and creates permanent change for the main characters. You can see that last scene, as if it is a movie!

But then you have to deal with the middle. Uh boy. You may have hundreds of pages that just sit there, boring everyone, and you’re not sure how to strengthen them up so that can bring together that exciting first part and the climactic last part. What to do?

If you are stuck in the middle, ask these questions:

  1. Do I have a clear picture of what the ending should be? 

2. Do I know where each of the characters will be emotionally at the end?

3. Have I envisioned permanent changes that will occur by the end?

4. Have I spent sufficient energy on the internal conflicts that my characters face so that the story, especially in the middle, can demonstrate challenges and changes?

5. Have I developed rich antagonistic forces that can affect all of my characters  

6. Have I lost track of your protagonist’s goal?

7. Have I made the situations too easy or too hard for my protagonist?

8. Have I raised the stakes sufficiently?

9. Have I spent enough time developing my protagonist’s motivation?

10. Have I really figured out the end?

11. Have I given your protagonist inward struggles? 

Got some “no” answers?

For any “no” answers, spend some time thinking about your protagonist and how you can make their struggle a series of gradually more difficult tasks. Consider creating a list of layers of conflict — such as health, weather, relationships, transportation, that can speed up or slow down their progress through the story.

In Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius,  she explains how the inner struggles, the more intimate ones, can be the source of more poignant and interesting actions. Coupled with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, these struggles have the potential for a vast array of conflict and can enhance a character.

As for the ending, consider the long term effects of meeting or not meeting goals. If your protagonist meets all of his goals, then ever step in the middle should be a step toward fulfillment. If your protagonist meets only some of their goals, then figure out where they will fail in the middle, how they will handle the failure and how that changes them. If your protagonist meets none of their goals, what do they gain instead? 

The muddy middle is arguably the most difficult part of a book to write. Consider planning it all out, analyzing gains and losses so that your protagonist makes some sort of progress. Then, when you feel like you’ve overcome most of the obstacles, write that dramatic climax, let the dust settle, and resonate truth with your reader.

You can fix that flabby middle.

Now get to work.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.

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