Writing a novel can be a deliciously unpredictable process. Characters can spring surprises on me. Plots can wind in fantastic new directions. But there’s one thing I can pretty much rely on when working on a fresh idea. Somewhere, and at some point, when I reach the middle, the book will threaten to stall. It will dig its heels in and obstinately refuse to take another step.
Good thing I’m aware of this pattern. Because it’s forced me to learn how to deal with it. I have several coping mechanisms for this type of stubbornness. One is to plot out the book well in advance. However, there are times even that doesn’t work and then I have to rely on the other tools I’ve collected through the years.
Here are five ways to get the heart of your plot beating again when it starts to flatline . . .
Let Your MC Loose
Think of the craziest thing your main character might possibly do. Come up with a list. Of course these actions shouldn’t be entirely out of the blue, but tied to their personality, their wants, desires, losses, etc. Then, consider how instead of that bizarre and insane act, your main character could carry out a modified version of it. For example, instead of flinging himself off a roof, your main character could throw a highly valued item off a roof or something else that would create emotional consequences in his life.
Imagine a Window
In my years as an avid runner, I used to pass by people’s homes and wonder about their lives. Do they eat dinner together? Do they argue? Who goes up to bed first? I’d create all kinds of scenarios in my mind. Sometimes the middle of a book requires an author to take a step back. To adopt a unique vantage point. Behold your novel and your characters as though you’re on the outside of their house, looking in. Stalk them if you must.
Kill or Introduce
Some middles beg me to get ruthless. There’s nothing left to do but kill someone off. Other times it’s not necessary for me to be quite so brutal. Instead, I invite an entirely new, albeit significant character into the mix. Think the mother-in-law in Big Little Lies.
Lift the Candy Higher out of Reach
Know what means the most to your character. Then keep it just out of reach. Or tease it close enough to touch, then pull it away. This creates beautiful tension. It’s all about understanding the acuity of timing.
Press the Button
Along the same lines as dangling candy, a wonderful way to add more tension to a plot is to make your character hurt. I know, so mean. But it works. And as the author are the one with the best insight about what will hurt the most. You have access to all the memories, the scars, the fears, and the insecurities. The middle is the perfect place to press all the right buttons to make it feel like things may never go right for the hero. Cruel as it may seem, pressing the button might be exactly what your plot needs to get a move on.
It’s been given the unfortunate nickname of Sagging Middle. Novelists, don’t disgrace your book like this. Don’t let it deserve that name. Imbue life back into the middle. Get creative. Break from formulaic writing. Free up the plot so it can breathe again.