Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Keep Your Middle From Sagging

I am thinking a lot about middles of novels right now, as I am just embarking on the middle of a first draft. The middle of a book is notoriously the place where the story slackens and readers find themselves slogging along, laboring to make headway through your book, almost fighting against you to make it safely across the swamp that is the Second Act of your story.

I think that there are a couple of things that make middles sag:

1. The story is too simple and the middle 100-200 pages are, frankly, padding (as Nick Hornby says, you're just keeping the reader's left and right hands apart).

2. The story is suspended for a few hundred pages while the writer digresses into discussions of his pet subjects, which have nothing to do with the story you're reading.

3. The plot becomes episodic, one similar conflict resolution after the other, and despite the author's imaginative new dangers to throw at the hero, the story feels repetitive (and dull).

4. The plot, the characters, the story are all sort of wandering around and going nowhere in particular for 40,000 words.

Now, consider that numbers 3 and 4 are actually symptoms of number 1.

In number 3, the story becomes a long series of episodes because the writer is attempting to show growth or progress or something, and it's all just mechanics: a dramatized list to prove that the hero is ready for the climax in Act Three. Or, the author is blindly following the maxim to "put your protagonist in a tree and throw rocks at him." But it's not a story, it's just the hero doing whatever the story's equivalent of pushups is. There is no real forward motion, there's just a lot of running in place or in circles. That is rarely interesting for long, and shows that (as I claim) the story is too simple to justify its length.

In number 4, the writer has no idea what to do and has to fill in space until it's time for the climax, so (because the story is too simple) the characters just mill about waiting for the bell to ring and let them back into class, as it were.

So really there are, as I see it, only two real reasons that middles sag: the writer decides to digress and leave the story behind for some length of time, or the writer has not got a strong enough story to fill the length of a novel.

Both of these problems are problems of structure, of the way the story itself is conceived by the writer. To fix Problem Number 2, my answer is Don't Do It. Seems pretty straightforward. But then you don't have a middle of your book, and you're back to suffering from Problem Number 1.

I pause to insert the idea that another possible problem with the middle of the book is that it's simply badly written and even if the story is well-structured, the telling is not well done. That's a whole other (and larger, sadly enough) topic. So back to where I was.

Problem Number 1: The story is too simple.

I see, in my wide travels as intinerant internet reader guy, a lot of early novels that have sort of one-dimensional stories. By that I mean stories where there is a problem put before the protagonist and they doggedly push on to solve it. There is, essentially, only one thing happening in the story, and the story operates at a single level: the level of the primary action of solving the problem. This means that these stories lack depth, usually, and they also lack variety and suspense.

They lack variety because there is basically one action: the protagonist moves toward a goal and encounters resistance. Even in those books where the protagonist gets the quest at the end of Act One, gathers strength during Act Two and then has a dark night of the soul before the climax in Act Three but suffers through the epiphanic moment to make the triumph possible (that is, books which follow the Campbellian Hero's Transformative Journey), you still have just the one real action, of the hero implacably moving against the antagonist. You throw in subplots all you like, you've still got a one-dimensional story going.

These stories lack suspense because the meaning of the actions are generally clear by the beginning of the Second Act. Yes, the story question ("will Luke destroy the Death Star and become part of the Rebel Alliance and clear up that skin condition?") remains unanswered, but if that's the only question the reader has, the suspense will turn to mere waiting during that long middle stretch. There is no mystery behind the story question, no deeper unknowns than the outcome of the primary conflict. That amount of suspense is not enough to carry a whole book.

What you need, then, is more variety to your story, more mystery and more layers of suspense. How do you do this? By making the story more complex. I am going to suggest a general framework for this, and it's a very old and reliable framework that's been around for centuries.

I call it the Inner and Outer Conflict Structure, and I have come to lean heavily on it because it works, it's flexible, it's generally invisible to the reader and it's applicable to all genres of fiction including literary.

It works like this:

You already have a story with a conflict (if you don't, then you don't have a story and this isn't the post for you). This conflict is either an external (Outer) conflict (Luke versus the Empire) or an internal (Inner) conflict (Gogol versus his idea of his parent's expectations of him, which is to say, of his expectations of himself). What you need to do is figure out which type of conflict you have in your story, and then come up with a conflict of the other type. That is, if your story has an outer conflict (George must kill the dragon), you need to find an inner conflict (George's father was saved by a dragon and George is, you know, morally opposed to killing dragons because he was raised with stories of the benevolence of dragons even though he has never, it must be said, personally met a dragon).

So you have your inner and outer conflicts. What you do then is build a three-part structure where the outer parts (Act One and Act Three) are the outer conflict, and the middle of the story (Act Two, natch) is the inner conflict. Like so:

Act One: George versus dragon (unresolved)

Act Two: George versus his feelings about dragons (conflict resolved during this act)

Act Three: George versus dragon (resolved)

When Act One ends, the outer conflict is still unresolved, and the reader doesn't know which way things will go. This is the unanswered story question, and is the primary suspense that will go stale if that's all you've got. So Act Two introduces the inner conflict, which is related to the outer conflict. This is variety, and the new story question adds more suspense for the reader. Also, the inner conflict is often more interesting to the reader than the outer conflict, which makes the reader perk up her ears and become more interested in your story as the middle of the book progresses. There's no reader boredom because there is a whole miniature drama in the center of your story, and this inner conflict must be resolved before the outer conflict can be. George can't commit to battle (or not battle) against the dragon until he works out how he feels about dragons in real life, once he has some exposure to the ways of real dragons. If he decides that dragons are as he thought, peaceful but misunderstood beings, Act Three isn't going to be a bloodbath. If he decides that dragons are actually dumb, violent beasts and his father made up the story about being saved by a dragon to hide a crime he'd committed, then maybe George will sharpen his lance and go slay a large reptile. Either way, the story has become much more complex, much deeper, possibly more meaningful and certainly it will be easier to write the middle when there's really a middle to be written.

If this is all obvs to most of you, then I apologize. If this is new stuff, or if you disagree with/see flaws in this version of the 3-Act structure, say so. If you have a different, but widely-applicable way of structuring your stories that defeats the devil of sagging middles, please share it!


  1. This makes a lot of sense to me, Scott. I've never thought of it in these simple terms before, but I should. Making it too complex, like I did with Monarch, can create some problems (which I'm still trying to iron out).

    Do you make your middle a separate 3-act structure to resolve the inner conflict?

  2. Great post, Scott. I just read a book by a very popular, succesful author. I started out liking it, but then it seemed the MC was just wondering. I get bored even though she was in very interesting places doing interesting things.

    I thought maybe I had a small attention span, or was too picky a reader, but you've made me see that the real issue- the character was simply a vehicle for the writer to describe in her humorous way all these interesting places-and fill pages/time passage by doing so.

    I'm going to look hard at my own middle. Thanks!

  3. This was, quite simply, an awesome post. I think it may have been your most helpful yet, good sir. Well done!

    I have no other advice. I'm just filing this one away for future reference.

  4. Very apropos timing. I'm in the middle right now and for the first time, it's sagging a bit. Now I know why! Thanks :)

  5. Great post. I wish I could make a career out of agreeing with you, that would be cool.

    It all has to tie together. Throwing rocks at the protagonist as he/she climbs a tree is awesome if:

    - Reaching the top is the climax
    - Some of the rocks miss and knock down the pine cones the protag has been relying on for food during his/her journey up the tree
    - Other rocks miss and break / weaken the upper branches, making the climb more perilous the higher he/she gets
    - The lack of food results in weight loss that actually enables the protag to safely navigate the upper branches (although one or two may snap under his/her weight for some tension/suspense)

  6. Great post Scott.

    I agree with everything you said except perhaps that the inner and outer conflicts should be intertwined fully from the very beginning instead of alternating. The intensity of inner and outer conflict through all the acts can usually carry the reader right through.

    Well done.

  7. Michelle: Yes! I'm a big fan of the three-act structure. My acts have three parts, my chapters have three parts, and so do each of my scenes. This forces me to always think in terms of dramatic arcs.

    sbjames: There are other ways to structure a story; this is just the one that always works for me. It can still fail if you pick a stupid inner conflict, or one that's got nothing to do with the outer conflict. As Rick says, it all has to work together.

    Mr. Larter: I had awesome for dinner last night, and we made a lot of it so I thought I'd share.

    L.T.Host: Hope this post helps!

    Rick: Word.

    Mayowa: I was going to say (but I felt the post was running long) that one useful variant of this structure is to have both inner and outer conflicts going (usually alternating somoewhat) at the same time, which ups the total suspense/mystery content of the whole story. A well-known movie that does this is "Silence of the Lambs."

  8. Nice post. Middles are definitely my nemesis. Earlier on, I was guilty of episodic conflict. Currently, however, my middle's exploded into something much larger than I expected plotwise and I've got to wrangle it in somehow before it balloons into something crazy.

    Wish I could find the middle ground on my middle.

    PS - love the pushup analogy.

    PPS - your George v dragon example actually comes quite close to my current plot -- dragons and internal/external conflict.

  9. Bane: Substitute "choosing between the use of harsh discipline or gentle empathy in a 19th-century girl's school" for "working out whether or not to kill the dragon," and you've got Literature!

    Still, this inner/outer conflict structure works for all sorts of stories, I think. And you can structure the narrative in ways other than the 3-act as long as you've still got both forms of conflict going. One of my beefs with "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri is that the middle is episodic and you have the same inner conflict played out over and over again with different supporting characters. It wore me out, and not in a good way.

  10. I agree with Mr. Larter (even though he is Sierra's nemesis.) This post is a must-read.

    Episodic middles are major problem with all genres of fiction, and even a shoot-em-up thriller needs some internal stuff. This formula can help everybody.

  11. Scott, excellent identification of what goes wrong in the middle and how to address it. So many books seem to lose me in the middle. You make great points to consider as writers. May we link this post for our blog's Friday round-up? I suspect many writers (and readers) will appreciate it!

    Thank you :)

  12. Anne: It's always dangerous to agree with Mr. Larter.

    Marissa: Link away, and thanks!

  13. I pretty much just finished my rewrite of Act II and I'm like a million times happier with it.
    It's hard to describe what I did. Some of it was obviously cutting the parts that didn't work. But more than that, I made a decision that instead of revealing everything in the end as a bunch of a-ha moments, I would reveal things much earlier...so my MC doesn't know whether she's coming or going. The outer struggle is actually I think lessened in the rewrite, but the inner struggle is far greater.
    Am I just throwing rocks as my MC climbs the tree? I like to think of it as my MC keeps climbing trees...but they each lead nowhere.
    (Where does a tree go, anyways? )
    I don't know if I can make anything out of that metaphor.
    Anywho, I think the secret of the middle (for me) is
    A) Keep raising the stakes
    B) Make the (moral) choices harder and harder (and less good)
    C) Mix in some key wins (at rising costs of course)
    D) Conflict that is in conflict with other conflicts. Think about work, where you have three projects due, the boss is yelling at you, the spouse wants your attention, the kid's teacher is calling, and the dog is sick. That's not conflict. That's a shitstorm. In Act II your character wades through that mess and finds out which of those are important and which can wait.

  14. This post is the ultimate spandex wondergirdle for sagging story middles- it shows us just what we have to do to get the suckers into shape for the long haul.

    And the best part is...I already have both kinds of conflict in both of my manuscripts! For once it seems I'm doing something right *laugh* I'm so happy.

    Seeing that and the Skywalker reference- well you just can't ever go wrong with that.

    Thank you, Mr. Bailey!

    Oh, and that blog post I promised you guys expressing my gratitude for the Lab is up finally. It ran a tad longer than I intended building up to that part but I promise you it is there. Thank you again for this blog and this post.

  15. This was a really helpful post. I mean, I hear you when you wonder whether the basic info was a little obvious, but the way you've stated it and the way you explained the practical application was simple, straightforward -- and perfect. Really helpful. Thanks so much!

  16. Great post, Scott. Timely for me since I'm in the middle of a first draft. Thanks!!

  17. This post was so awesome I had to come back and read it again. I've just linked to it from my blog.

  18. hahah I love the Nick Hornby quote


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