Tips for Writing the Middle of your Novel

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A few weeks ago I wrote about the first 3 chapters of a novel. I wrote the post after discovering a call for beta readers where the author said: “Well, the first few chapters are kind of boring anyway. It doesn’t get good until the middle.” If you recall, that statement made me cry real tears.

I think it’s safe to say that if the beginning of a novel doesn’t hook a reader, then, well…said reader will probably not finish the book. But I have to tell you, folks. I’ve been reading books for quite some time now and I have been duped several times by books with great opening chapters that fell flat as the story went along.

And that got me to thinking about novel middles.

One of my book pet peeves is this: don’t make promises to me that you can’t deliver. In other words, don’t start the book with so much momentum that you can’t maintain it throughout.

“But, Quanie,” you ask, “how do I maintain momentum?”

A little something we like to call rising action. A writing professor once said this to me about three act structure: get your main character up a tree and throw rocks at him until you get him down.

Say what now, sugar? 

Story beginning: get character up a tree. Translation: at the beginning of your story life for your main character will be normal. Something will happen to disrupt that normalcy. Said character will generally spend the rest of the story trying to restore order, or solve said problem. Example: Your main character, Lucy, is living life as normal until she finds her husband face down in a bowl of soup. She checks his pulse and discovers there is none. Good golly, Ms. Molly: poor Bruce is dead.

Story middle: throw rocks at main character. Translation: as the character attempts to solve the problem, they will face obstacles that will get increasingly harder to tackle. In other words: no more Mrs. Nice Author. Put your characters through the ringer and leave your readers on the edge of their seats as to how they are possibly going to survive/solve said problem/get the boy back/etc. Example: Lucy discovers that her husband didn’t have a heart attack, and that in fact, he was poisoned. But on her search to find out the truth, it’s discovered that:

1. Bruce was having an affair with Lucy’s sister.

2. Lucy has some gambling debts and a failing sporting goods store.

3. Someone increased Bruce’s life insurance policy to 2.5 million.

4.  Bruce and Lucy attended a charity event the night before and had a terrible argument. Lucy was heard screaming that she would kill him (she doesn’t remember it. Moscato always makes her black out).

5. Because of the affair, her gambling debts, the increase in life insurance, and the threat, the police think that Lucy did it and charge her with the murder.

6. To top that off, the money in her and Bruce’s checking account has mysteriously disappeared so she has no money for a lawyer.

7. Many years ago, Lucy had an affair with Bruce while he was married to the leading prosecutor on the case, so the woman wants her head on a stick.

8. On Lucy’s computer, someone had been searching “How to get away with killing your husband.”

9. Her children are against her and are now refusing her refuge. Her face is plastered around the city so she is forced to go on the run (with a bad wig and an even worse French accent) until she can find out the truth….

Story ending: get the character down. Translation: the main character solves the problem. Life has gone back to normal or perhaps things will never be the same. Hopefully, the character has changed or learned something throughout their journey. Example: Lucy finds out that her sister (that cow!) set her up. She proves it by faking her own death, sneaking into the sister’s house, and setting up a nanny cam that records a confession. She plays it at her trial as the prosecutor weeps. Lucy moves to Montana and starts a new life.

Of course, every story is different (especially those that might be more character driven), but I think it’s safe to say that if your middle falls flat, it’s likely that readers won’t continue to the end.

What about others? What are some of your novel middle pet peeves? And to authors: what are some of the strategies you employ to keep those middles interesting?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!


25 thoughts on “Tips for Writing the Middle of your Novel

  1. Great example, Quanie! I would totally use this in my classes when I’m teaching the little ones how to write stories but I think they are used to my G-rated examples=)
    I always look at it this way… you have to put your heroes through some of the hardest struggles in order for the reader to really sympathize and root for them. The middle of the novel is really where an author can soar with his/her plot because they are capable of captivating a reader’s attention by simply using techniques like problem, desire, action, solution. The middle is where all of the action takes place and there are so many obstacles you can throw at your protagonist. The more he/she struggles to overcome those obstacles, the more exciting the story will be.
    Gina Stoneheart recently posted..The Anniversary of 9/11 and Coping With Fear, Loss and AnxietyMy Profile

  2. I quoted this once in my own blog, but: “Every novel should have a beginning, a muddle, and an end. The “muddle” is the heart of your tale.” –Peter De Vries

    And it’s really true. I have to say, though, you’ve set up one hell of a muddle for your character there. O_o I’ve never been into contemporary, but it’s amazing how much trouble you can get someone into in the real world. Heh!
    Mason T. Matchak recently posted..…but I Want Them to Love Her.My Profile

  3. I’m pretty sure I said this exact same thing when you wrote that post about the first three chapters, but – can you please write this book about Lucy??? MAN, poor Lucy! You always come up with such great examples to illustrate your points that I end the post thinking, “wait, then what happened? How? Don’t leave me hanging!”

    I know, I haven’t commented on the actual body of your post…because I just mainly agree. Getting your character up and down the tree are the easy parts; it’s HOW you get between them that gets sticky 🙂
    Liz Blocker (@lizblocker) recently posted..The Rush of RushingMy Profile

  4. The middle is always where I falter. I was at a writing workshop this weekend where she recommended making a list of things that could go wrong for your character. That’s a great tip! I think part of the problem is I’m not an outliner. That just means I need to force myself to make that list as I get closer to the middle.
    Stephanie Faris recently posted..I’m Not Quitting SodaMy Profile

    • I think middles are problematic for most of us. And I do outline, but honestly, that doesn’t seem to make it easier, lol. I think that writing a list of things that could go wrong for your character is a great tip. Then, you have to figure out how to make those things right and that’s what keeps readers on the edge of their seats.
      Quanie recently posted..Tips for Writing the Middle of your NovelMy Profile

  5. It is incomprehensible that they and apparently a handful of others be OK with the first few chapter are boring? What about make every word count?

    “One of my book pet peeves is this: don’t make promises to me that you can’t deliver. In other words, don’t start the book with so much momentum that you can’t maintain it throughout.”

    Last year I took a class with Cat Rambo, called First Chapters, which was the first 500 words of the your novel. And this was something they talked about.

    I hope my middle is flabby. I hope with a good plot and interesting characters to make the reader see it through to the end.
    Mari Mitchell recently posted..I have lost 18 chapters of my novel. It was the furthest I have…My Profile

  6. By the time I reach the middle of one of my stories, my fingers are popping hot. The story is in my head and my keyboard yelling, “Whoa girl! Don’t make me hit you back!”

    On a serious note, a sagging middle where I’m slogging through means something’s up with the story. I stop at this point. I have to be in love with the story, and characters, and eager to write what’s about to happen next. That’s not to say I haven’t encounter the saggy drag though. I have, and again, I stop and hop on something else. But that’s just me.
    RYCJ recently posted..What Does My Family Think of My Writing?My Profile

    • I think that’s a good strategy: when you find a story sagging in the middle, start working on something else. When I find something wrong with the middle of my story it’s usually because the story is moving in the wrong direction. I typically have to go back and reimagine the characters again and ask myself, “Okay. Now what would these people really do in this situation???” And then it’s revise, revise, revise.
      Quanie recently posted..Tips for Writing the Middle of your NovelMy Profile

  7. The middle of a novel is my favorite part because that’s where all the nitty gritty mess goes down! It’s a little harder to maintain momentum when writing a character driven novel, because the conflict is mostly internal. My focus at that point is making sure the reader cares about the character. That way they can empathize with what she’s going through.

    I’m guilty of writing dialogue heavy too Quanie. In the future, I think I’ll counteract that habit by writing in the first person. If I’m looking at everything from the main characters perspective, perhaps I’ll be more mindful of describing other character’s actions and visual surroundings. Great post as usual!
    Faith Simone recently posted..My New Discovery: Whispers!My Profile

    • The frustrating thing is that there truly are no rules–unless you do things wrong! And I totally agree with you about that character driven novel. Just as you say, the key is having the reader care about the character (making them so interesting that even if they do nothing but go shoe shopping, their perspective on life is so unique/funny/bizarre that we’ll stay with them for pages on end!). If you break the rules successfully people will bow to your greatness. If you don’t break them successfully, people will wag their fingers at you and refer you right back to the rules, lol.
      Quanie recently posted..Tips for Writing the Middle of your NovelMy Profile

  8. Hi Quanie,
    Excellent post. You are right, there is nothing worse than getting that first good chapter, and it’s the only one in the book. My writing teacher uses the metaphor, “have a fox run across the room.” She means that when you’re getting caught up in excessive dialogue, no action, no new news, do something dramatic. You’re sitting at dinner, there had better be dynamite strapped to the table leg. Coming out of a dream, better be because you’re landing a 747 and you shouldn’t be sleeping in the first place. etc. It’s not always easy to deliver all of that and stay in your story, but I guess if writing novels were easy, everyone would do it.

    • Hi Burnita,

      I like that! “Have a fox run across the room.” I used to write so much dialogue that I’d always get comments that my characters were like floating heads, lol. There’s a lot to consider when writing, and not everything will work in every story, but man. No action? I can’t think of a quicker way to turn readers off.
      Quanie recently posted..Tips for Writing the Middle of your NovelMy Profile

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