I'm still drafting my new novel and am currently in the throngs of my happy place--the middle of the story. For many (I'd dare to say most) writers I've talked to, the "muddling middle" is the most frustrating part of their novel. The excitement of establishing their premise and their characters has worn off, and they feel overwhelmed with this massive sea they need to travel to reach the end of their story. So as I've been writing, I've paid close attention to why I love this section, and I thought I'd share with you what I've observed. And don't worry, if you're not converted to the Cult of Magical Middles when I'm finished, I'll still be your friend. Perhaps you can help me enjoy beginnings and endings more. :-)
1. It's play time! For me, the beginning of a novel is more technical. So many things need to be established to get the beginning right. I'm constantly playing a game of plunging full-steam into story vs. the exposition necessary before I get too carried away. With middles, the stage it set, the inciting incident has happened, I am now in the full-blown story where anything can happen. I embrace that liberating feeling!
2. The characters take the reigns. Their flaws, conflict and goals have been established. All I have to do is stick them in the same confined space with an initial nudge of direction, and they go at it. For the middle of the story to work for me, ALL of my characters have to have opposing goals--even people in love, even best friends. That conflict drives the story forward, creates complications, weaves in surprising twists and turns. With the story I have on submission right now, The Rowaness of Shalott, all of the plot twists (besides one) came by my giving more control to the characters--letting them tell their stories to me. I didn't "pants" my way through Rowaness. I knew the ending, I knew the big important events along the way, but my favorite parts of that novel are the layers my characters seemed to create on their own.
3. There's still structure to fall back on. The middle isn't just an abyss between the inciting incident and climax of the story. There are landmarks along the way to help you not get lost in the darkness. As dynamic as your characters may be, they still need some focus. They are the actors in your play of a novel, and they need some direction so they don't derail you into the land of indulgent writing. I'd highly recommend studying structure in novels. I think a lot of writers spend their time studying the craft of writing on the line level, but they don't study the art of plotting--of actual storytelling. Two fabulous books I've read in recent months are Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell and Save the Cat! by Blake Snyder.
From Plot & Structure, I've learned if you're middle is muddling (or even if it's not) you should:
- Raise the stakes (a character should suffer tremendous loss if she doesn't achieve her goal, and you should amp up that up even more in the middle)
- Strengthen the adhesive (the strong relationship or circumstance that holds opposing people together)
- Add another level of complication to your plot (usually comes from my #2 above)
- Add another character (this is about to happen in my WIP)
- Add another subplot (use this one with care; you want to keep focused on your main plot)
Now before I pop in a DVD, I check it's running time and calculate when the exact middle will be. When that time comes around, I pay close attention to the story. What is happening--false hope or false failure? How does that color the characters and the remaining plot? I do the same thing when I read a book. For example, I recently finished Shadow & Bone by Leigh Bardugo. When something CRAZY happened in the story, I stopped, stuck my finger in the page, and closed the book. Yep, this jaw-dropper happened in the perfect middle of the novel. I love the midpoint beat!
Here's hoping you and your middle become better friends. And if you're already on good terms, I'd love to hear your own tips on how you navigate the great divide between beginning and end.