I'm sure we've all read any number of books (maybe even most of the books we read) where the middle drags, and we have to give ourselves an extra push to get past that slow bit and find where the story picks up the pace again. As I say, I think the great majority of novels built on the standard 3-act structure tend to sag a bit in the midsection, much like certain middle-aged writers we won't be discussing here.
I have a theory that this isn't necessarily a fault of the writer, but is a function of the 3-act structure itself. I begin to believe that the normal form of the novel is a flawed structure, or at least an imperfect one.
Here's what I think happens: You begin the book with rising action and exposition to set up a dramatic situation, an inciting incident that happens somewhere during the first third of your story. You've done a job of work giving your reader compelling characters with needs and then you build up to a dramatic moment that changes the world of the story, creates a conflict that must be resolved, and then Act One is over, and your reader is hooked.
Well, that's all fine, isn't it? Except what happens then? Essentially, in many cases, the story sort of starts over again. You have Act Two to set up the even more dramatic moment of the climax, which means that your level of action has seemingly fallen off because there's been a new status quo established in the novel's world from which you must again build some sort of rising action. This entails even more exposition, and often we take side trips to explore our theme and subplots, so the new focus on movement toward the climax gets diffused now. It's like moving from a finished house back into an unfinished house that we watch being built around us.
In other words, the traditional 3-act structure has this slow middle section built into it, because after the first big BANG plot-point of the inciting incident, we must basically begin again, nearly from zero.
I don't happen to have a list of useful ways to avoid this. What I'm going to attempt to do in my current book is have the inciting incident open up an interesting and compelling idea to be explored, so that the reader will have something that holds their interest while I subtly build up the dramatic tension in the background again. Will that work? I have no idea, but that's my plan.
Has anyone ever found that their novel dragged in the middle, and fixed it? How did you fix it? Is is a widely-applicable method? Will you use it in the future? Can anyone think of any novels that don't drag in the middle? What do you think the writer did to keep things moving for the reader?