Your book or story has a powerful beginning. It engages the reader. It makes him want to read more. The main character has a big problem, and the reader wants to know how it will be solved. Pretty soon, though, the reader is yawning. She puts the book down and goes to do something more “interesting.” What happened?
You started strong, but your middle is weak.
Based on my experiences as an editor and as a book junkie, two problems create most weak middles: 1) Nothing is happening to increase the conflict; and 2) The writer doesn’t remind the reader about the conflict.
A sample for discussion
A man is trying to impress a business owner so that he can get a good job and take care of his mother. (Ok, as a plot, that’s a bit simple, but it can work.) He meets the owner’s daughter and falls in love. The man knows that the owner is very protective, so he has to hide his attraction. Getting good now, right? The tension is rising! Eventually, the man and owner’s daughter kiss. This is exciting stuff.
Over the next 20 pages, they kiss more. They walk in the park holding hands. They exchange little gifts of affection. They see a movie and share an ice cream sundae afterwards. They talk for hours on the phone. They gaze into each other’s eyes. While the father is taking care of his business, they meet at the man’s apartment. Maybe they have sex. After carrying on this way for weeks, they are discovered by the father. But by now, the reader has put down the book.
Problem 1: Nothing is happening
In spite of all the activity, nothing happened during those 20 pages. All the mushy stuff is not relevant to the conflict—or, at least, the writer hasn’t shown us how it is important. At the beginning of the story, we get involved in the conflict, how the man is affected by it, and how he responds to it. The conflict is what interests us. But where is the conflict in this part?
In most weak middles, the writer has lost focus on the conflict. In this sample, the tension isn’t increasing. The problems are not getting worse. The man isn’t doing anything about his problems. His goals aren’t being promoted or thwarted. In fact, he seems pretty happy.
Our advice (for this theoretical story): Cut everything from the first kiss to the father’s discovery.
The best service that we provide our clients is, at times, cutting out the stuff they love. The result, however, is always better.
Problem 2: Forgotten conflict
When the writer loses focus on the conflict, when the events and actions don’t support the conflict, something bad happens: the reader stops caring. Reader attention is a fragile thing. It must be nurtured. This means the writer has two responsibilities.
First, the writer must make sure every event, every action, relates in some way to the conflict. Each scene is important. We just discussed this, so let’s look at the second responsibility.
Second, the writer must keep reminding the reader of the conflict. He can do this in two ways, the pretty good way, and the really good way. A strong writer will use both ways, particularly if the story is long.
Using the pretty good strategy, the characters will discuss or think about the conflict openly. This makes the conflict obvious. The reader is interested in the conflict, and this technique keeps the conflict at the forefront the reader’s attention. In the sample story described above, the man and woman can discuss the man’s need to support his mother.
The writer tells the reader, “Hey, this is what’s important. Don’t forget that this is what we’re dealing with.” The reader responds with, “Oh, yeah. That’s interesting. Tell me more.” This is the literary equivalent of being poked in the ribs when you’re sleepy.
Using the really good strategy, the main characters directly confront the barriers to their goals, i.e., they engage in a clear demonstration of the conflict. They take their problems head on. Instead of talking about the conflict, as in the pretty good strategy, they do battle. In the sample story above, the man may be at his mother’s bedside while she wheezes, listening to her complaints that he is a bad son and doesn’t care for her.
The writer is showing, “Look, he’s fighting the source of his problems. Here is the problem he’s struggling with.” The reader responds with, “Ah, that’s how it looks. Gee, that’s serious!” This is the literary equivalent of daily strength training at the gym.
A real example
I just finished re-reading The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, a series of 11 books, each of which has almost 1,000 pages. That’s a long, long, long story. But it works. Other than a short chapter about 1/2-way through book 5, it doesn’t lag in the middle.
Jordan weaves a complex tale that follows 5 groups of people, all working toward the same goal, though against different foes, and all striving with the same conflict, though by different means. And he follows the tale of 3 groups of people who can be classified as the “bad guys.” As I said—a complex tale. At each event, the reader can say, “Here’s how this relates to the main conflict . . . .” Each scene is important and focused. Something is always happening.
Also, Jordan doesn’t let the reader forget the main conflict, which is quite possible with a story this long. Sometimes the characters talk about how they are going to overcome the bad guys (pretty good strategy). Sometimes they are fighting the bad guys (really good strategy).
Keeping a strong middle for 11 books is a remarkable achievement, but Jordon does it by following the strategies discussed here: Focus events on the story conflict, and remind the reader what the story is about: the conflict.
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