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!