Top Tips to Tighten the Murky Middle

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Authors usually have a vision for the beginning of their story: a character, a setting, or a problem that they are finally bringing to life. They might even have a sense of how the book will tie up by the end. The hard part is what happens between A and Z—in other words, the middle. Since nobody wants to read a novel with a saggy center, here are some ways to make the middle of your book as firm as the opening and closing.

Split the Middle Act into Two Parts

Most novels follow a three-act structure. There’s a beginning (the first quarter) and the end (the last quarter), and the middle—which is half the book. Since Act II is twice the length of the others, it’s no wonder that it’s easy to get bogged down. The problem is, you can’t let HALF of your book be soggy and bloated with pointless dialogue, false alarms, and…no plan. Each portion of Act II needs an arc of its own.

If you split the second act into two equal parts, you’ll have a better chance of keeping your story tight and your focus clear. At the midway point, you should hit a climax and then have your characters face increasingly difficult obstacles in the other half. If you think of them as separate entities, you’ll be much less likely to meander from one plot point to the other.

Make Obstacles Increasingly Harder

The protagonist should encounter obstacles in the first half of Act II, but they should be more difficult in the second half. The conflict needs new twists, false climaxes, cliffhangers—the whole shebang. Whatever has been lurking in the background needs to come into the foreground. This will be easier to do when you split Act II because you won’t feel like you have as much time to get from one place to the next. If you’re bored writing, your reader will be bored reading, so think like Ninja Warrior, and keep making the obstacles harder to overcome.

Make a Map

Do you know where you’re going? You know how the story ends, but do you know what happens between page 70 and 350? That’s a lot of blank space. If you feel like you’re writing in circles, stop. Take the time to think about what you want to do and where you want your characters to go. Sketch it out. Make a plan. It’s understandable to “feel out” the first part of the book, but if you don’t have a sense of where you’re going, don’t write yourself into a brick wall. It’s easy to do this if you focus on word count goals too rigidly. Be willing to stop and get a lay of the land to be sure you’re headed in the right direction. Here’s another article to help when you feel like you’ve lost your way: Have You Lost the Plot?

Read What You Wrote

I got stuck on my WIP last week because I couldn’t quite decide what I wanted the midpoint of my book to be. I forgot what I already wrote, and the mood and emotions of my main character were getting a little murky in my mind. It’s understandable! I wrote a lot of that first part months ago. Even though it felt like it might be a waste of time, I stopped what I was doing and scrolled back to Page 1 and started reading. It was a useful exercise because I immediately saw what to cut, what to add, and I was able to put my big twist where it belonged: in the midpoint.

Bottom line: don’t let the structure of the middle of your novel be amorphous. Give it more rafters and support beams, so that you can map out where you want to go and increase the stakes and conflict as you do. Both you and your reader will appreciate it.

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About Author

Mary is a young adult writer and archaeologist. By day she teaches at a local college, and by night she writes about the adventures of adolescence.

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