Thursday, February 7, 2013

What Makes a Good Middle Part 1

by Stephanie Morrill

On Monday, I talked about seven elements that I think make for a good story beginning. The middle, unfortunately is a little tougher to nail down. Which is probably one of the reasons writers struggle with it so much. But here are some thoughts on what builds a strong middle of a story:

Each scene needs to be building something. 

One of the reasons the first drafts of my middles start to wander and sag is that I forget that for a tight, page-turning middle, I need to be building. By this I mean at the end of each scene we should know something that we didn't know before. It could be something about a character or the plot or both, but we always need to be moving forward with the story.

This is one of the reasons that I find first dates, school dances, an outings with friends to be very difficult scenes to write. It's hard to write a first date that goes well without it being a total snooze.

When you're writing any scenes - but especially your scenes in the middle - be asking yourself why this scene is necessary and what the reader has learned by reading it.

A plan that's underway

At the end of your beginning, your main character decided to go on a journey of some sort. After they've made this decision, a very natural next step is that we see plans or journey underway. So if you've written a book about a girl who's decided she's going to pursue a certain college despite her parents' disapproval, you might have a scene that has her sneakily printing out her application or meeting with a college guidance counselor in secret.

Or if your character is on a more literal quest, like Frodo on his way to destroy the ring, you would want to show your character on his journey. Ideally in a scene that sets up who's with him, what they're up against, and what the strengths and weaknesses of the group are.

The introduction of the B story

Sometimes this is a full on subplot - a storyline that has its own beginning, middle, and end within the story. Other times it's a story layer that enhances the main plot. Commonly it's a romance or suspense thread. While you might have laid groundwork for the B story in the beginning, you'll likely want to bring it forward again early in the middle.

In Me, Just Different, one of the plot layers is the budding relationship between Skylar's younger sister, Abbie, and Connor's younger brother, Chris. It gets introduced somewhere around chapter three or four.

Obstacles that are increasingly harder to overcome.

That's nice and vague, isn't it? Obstacles are anything you put in your characters way of achieving their goal. So going back to our example of the girl who's trying to get into her dream college without her parents knowing it. Some obstacles you might come up with are:

She flunks a test
Her parents take away her personal computer - now she has to do everything on the family one.
She doesn't get accepted for financial aid.

You want the obstacles to get progressively harder for her to overcome. Not qualifying for financial aid is a bigger deal than flunking one test, so you would want the test thing to happen first.

The show 24 was really great about doing that. First Jack Bauer and team might be pursuing someone who they thought was trying to blow up a mall, and that would be the focus for awhile. But then we would find out it was tied to a bigger group of terrorists, and the mall was a decoy while they worked to blow up an airport instead. The obstacles (and the stakes) grew almost every time they thought they had something solved.

We talked about character development not long ago and about letting your main characters fail an early test so they can have victory later. Keep in mind that these obstacles can foreshadow what your characters' weaknesses might be in the time of the final battle. 

A scene that exposes your character for what they are - either good and bad.

Ideally. I think it's whichever they've been trying to hide more. If they have some ugliness inside that they've been trying desperately to hide, I would bring that out. Or if you have a main character with a tough exterior, I would write a scene that reveals their softness.

Or why not both? Maybe one before the big middle scene and the other after.

A big middle scene.

I'll admit, this is a new-ish concept for me, so you probably won't be able to find one in the Skylar Hoyt books. (Or if you do, it was dumb luck.)

A big middle scene can involve a false high, a deep low point, or a complex pivot in the story. The best one I've read recently was in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. We had a couple chapters of bad news, and then some really bad news, and I actually had the thought, "This has got to be the middle of the book." And it was almost exactly the middle. (I know I'm being vague, but I try to be sensitive about spoilers on here. Especially for a fifth book in a series.)

In The Hunger Games Katniss's showdown with the Careers and the genetically altered wasps is a complex pivot in the story and a great middle scene. Another great example I've heard is in Gone with the Wind when Scarlett O'Hara holds up the carrots or the radishes or whatever they are and vows that she'll "never go hungry again!"

I'll continue this list on Monday! What are some obstacles you've given your character in the middle of your story?


  1. Love the middle pivots. =) In my first book, A Stray Drop of Blood, it's the crucifixion. In Jewel of Persia, it was the big blow-up between the characters after Thermopylae. In Annapolis, it was the chase that resulted in a dip in the Bay. And in Ring of Secrets, it's when Winter runs out of time in her grandfather's ultimatum, and she meets his full wrath.

    Hey look, I could label a plot point in my books! LOL. Patting my non-labeler self on the back. ;-)

    1. SO love the chase that resulted in a dip in the Bay, by the way. :)

  2. Sagging middles are no fun! Back before I learned my lesson and started plotting my novels a bit more, I would find that I knew the beginning and the end, but had no clue what happened in the middle. So my middle sections meandered like a sluggish stream, and I'm still working to fix some of them up! Whew. Thanks for the list, Stephanie. It's a super helpful reminder to make sure that all of my scenes are building toward the end. :)

    1. It's a good reminder for me too now that I'm back in first draft land!

  3. I know when I'm at the middle because that's when something *gasp* happens. Like when the Gamemakers change the rules in the Hunger Games, or when Harry finds out what the Deathly Hallows are. In my WIP, it's when the MCs fail (to a degree) at their mission and must find a new way to defeat the evil baddie.

    1. Order of the Phoenix is a great book, by the way! It's one giant BLACK MOMENT. :D Everything that can go wrong, does.

    2. Oh, I know! Umbridge - shudder. I was on the verge of tears almost all the way through that book. And I WOULD have cried at the end, except I thought somehow it would all get reversed... :(

  4. I am so bad with middles. :P My book kind of revolves around the ending, so writing the middle is very difficult for me. *Sigh*


  5. Oh, I'm so glad you're posting about this. I am at this point in my re-write and have realized this is where I loose things and also that I have problems with the logistics of plotting. I'll spend more time with this post and hopefully it'll help.
    Last night, I was laying awake thinking about subplots, I even wondered if I should I ask you to post about them?! I'm not sure i have a full understanding of a subplot. I read that the usually start in the second act and I started what I've *thought* is my subplot very early in the first. Did I do that wrong? As I've been thinking about it I'm not even sure if it is a subplot but just a different part of the main plot. I made a note of my phone last night to research it today. :)

    1. The way subplots were explained to me is that they have their own beginning, middle, and end. Which is confusing because a lot of times we refer to subplots in a story, when we mean plot threads or layers.

      I'm trying to think of it in the context of a book that I know you and have both read, but I'm coming up blank.

      Let me try with the first season of Gilmore Girls since I know we're both GG fans. If we looked at just the first season, the Rory/Dean stuff would be a subplot. It has a beginning, a middle, an all-is-lost moment, and a resolution. But Luke and Lorelai or the stuff with the grandparents would be more of a plot thread. Those are storylines that really just support the main plot. Does that make sense at all?

    2. Thank you, it does make sense! Another time I'm seeing how much I have to learn. I've stepped out and showed my mom some of my WIP, she'll ask me things and often I respond "well, on Gilmore Girls..." She just stares at me.

      Just to make sure I do understand it I'm going to use an example from my WIP. A large part of the plot revolves around the MC, Katelyn who has a crush on her guy friend, Liam but he's datin someone she hates. At one point her mom says something to her about not pining because guys don't and that upsets Katelyn. You know mothers just know things whether you tell them or not. It sets off scenes through of katelyns mom telling the truth and some arguments etc. I was thinking Katelyn & her mom were a subplot BUT if I understand what I've read today and what you've said, it is NOT a subplot, its still part of the main plot?

    3. A subplot has a bit of its own life.

    4. Exactly... A subplot in your book might be... I don't know, the guy's little sister having dating trouble. It's not a part of the main plot, it's there to give your reader a break from the plot. Like, in my book, the main plot is stopping evil baddie. The romance my MC has is a subplot. It's not a main part of the story.

    5. Yes, I think you've got it, Tonya!

  6. I don't think my middles have a lack of events, mainly because I don't plot so when I think of something exciting that could happen I go ahead and write it. Although I can think of scenes off the top of my head that come in the middle that don't move my story forward. This should be helpful in keeping my middles flowing and on track. Thanks for the post!

  7. I've really got to remember this. My story's a bit darker, and I'm still at the end of the beginning. M problem is building up--the climax always falls short. I'll remember this, though, when I get there. Thanks!

  8. I'm up to a Middle right now...and it's looking daunting. Journeys, I've found, are fun middles to write because you can just keep throwing terrifying obstacles at the characters. I'm doing a dystopian now, and I have to hold back from just shooting everything to spark an exciting "middle". I think it's time to unravel some of the "past"... :) Great post! Very helpful for me right now!

  9. I'm trying to fix the middle in my second draft right now. It feels like I've got a bunch of events that I'm struggling to juggle. But I'm really glad for this post, because I never realized that I do sort of have a big middle scene. A character who was lost to them has returned, and it gives the group such relief that they decide to use the dangers of their environment to their advantage. (Of course, that doesn't work out exactly as they'd hoped.) I never realized the potential of these scenes for making a more... substantial middle.

    So wow, I'll have to think on this! Thanks for the post!

  10. I have the giant middle scene now, and I didn't know that was a good thing to include! I feel so accomplished...I personally think it feels natural to have a big middle scene, sorta leading up to the climax. Without that scene, my Dystopian book would not have worked out, because that scene changed two different people's views on the issues at hand. This post was very helpful, thanks!

  11. Great list, Stephanie. Thank you! I love lists like this--having stuff to check off always helps. :)

    Hmm, a big obstacle I gave my FMC in the middle of the novel I submitted to Genesis would be a brand-spanking-new character whom she *thinks* should think like she does as far as religion goes...but actually presents a whole new view. :)