Cures for a Sagging Middle
by James Thayer
You’ve written the first hundred pages of your new novel, and it has such promise. A dazzling opening, compelling characters, intriguing settings, and fresh plot developments. This first third of your new novel is the literary equivalent of a 1952 Pontiac grill: it sparkles and shines.
But now you’ve reached the middle. The task of writing the second hundred pages lies before you, and as you try to outline and write the upcoming scenes, the novel’s shine starts to fade. To mix metaphors: your novel begins to resemble a damp and steamy bog.
Welcome to the middle, that portion of a novel many authors find the most difficult to plot and write. At times like this the fun of writing disappears, and the end of the project seems farther and farther away.
Why is writing the middle of a novel often hard? Why do writers slow their pace, waste time, become discouraged, and sometimes abandon the project when plotting and writing the middle?
The reason the middle is often so hard to write is that the story doesn’t have enough story.
The story doesn’t have enough story? What does that mean?
Not enough obstacles. And not enough sub-plots.
First, obstacles. Almost all popular fiction is about a protagonist who wants something he or she can’t have, and the story is about the struggle to get it. She wants love, wealth, revenge, safety, redemption, or freedom. Someone or something is placing obstacles in her path.
The middle of the novel seems hard to plot and write because we haven’t invented enough obstacles. We haven’t come up with a sufficient number of things to block our hero from obtaining his goal.
Think back on some popular novels. What are they but the account of one impediment after another blocking the protagonist’s path? In A Painted House—set in the rural south in the 1950s—John Grisham sets out one hurdle after another: a bully from the hills, a fire, a cranky grandfather, a bully from Mexico, a lazy deputy sheriff, a stolen truck, a bully from the bottom country, and falling cotton prices. And we can almost hear Grisham think as he was plotting: not enough obstacles yet. So he adds a terrible flood.
How about Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind? What separates Scarlett from happiness? Ashley’s commitment to Melanie. But that wasn’t enough for Margaret Mitchell, so she added an unhappy marriage to Charles Hamilton and the stifling requirements of faux-grieving as a widow. Melanie’s saccharine nature. Having to nurse the wounded in a dreadful hospital. Still not enough. Fleeing a conflagration. Hiding from Bluecoats under a bridge. The ransacking of her home. Hunger and hard work. Petty sisters. The greedy carpetbagger. The rapacious Union soldier. Whew. Margarett Mitchell must finally be done tormenting poor Scarlett,. Nope. More of Scarlett’s hopeless love for Ashley, the collapse of her business, the death of her child, one thing after another, and then Rhett’s goodbye. Margaret Mitchell had a wonderful penchant for placing barricades in front of Scarlett. It’s as if Mitchell had a List of Random Calamities from which she plucked one obstacle after another.
Is this technique for plotting the middle of a novel—inventing more and more obstacles—used just by modern genre writers? Watch the master, Charles Dickens, erect obstacles, one after another.
Ten-year-old David Copperfield’s widowed mother has a new fiancé, Mr. Murdstone, who sends David to Salem House, a wretched boarding school. David’s mother and infant baby brother die. David is sent to a counting house in London, where he starves. With his only possessions—a small trunk, a half shilling, and the clothes on his back—he flees London for Dover.
David is in dire straits, but Dickens has just begun tormenting him. A brigand steals David’s trunk and half-shilling, leaving him penniless. David sells his waistcoat for a meager nine pence to buy food, and when that proves to be not enough, he sells his jacket to a merchant who cheats him. David arrives in Dover after six days of walking, his “shirt and trousers, stained with heat, dew, grass and the Kentish soil on which I had slept. . . . My hair had known no comb or brush since I left London. From head to foot I was powdered almost as white with chalk and dust, as if I had come out of a lime-kiln.” In this condition, he presents himself to his only living relative and his last hope, Aunt Betsey. Is Dickens finally done with this poor boy? Aunt Betsey’s first words to David are, “Go away.” David could’ve had an easy walk to Dover. Dickens knew better.
This is the “One Darned Thing After Another Technique.” Grisham knows it well, and so did Mitchell and Dickens. One obstacle after another is placed in front of their protagonists. The middle of a novel should be filled with people or things preventing your protagonist from reaching her goal. If the middle of your novel seems to slump, consider adding more roadblocks.
Another technique to keep the middle from sagging is to mix in a subplot, which is a secondary plot that is related to the main plot. It is a story within the story, often involving a secondary character. Subplots are similar to the main plot in that they have a beginning, middle and end.
The key to a good subplot is that it enhances the main plot. A subplot doesn’t feel as if it were pasted into the novel simply to increase the distance between the book’s front and back covers. A subplot adds tension or clarifies motives or deepens characterization. If the subplot were deleted, the main plot wouldn’t be complete.
An example of a subplot is Nick Carraway’s relationship with the tennis player Jordan Baker in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Carraway is the novel’s first-person narrator, so his impressions are the reader’s impressions, at least at first. Carraway’s father has told him “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone, just remember that all the people in the world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” So Carraway says—on the first page of the novel, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments.” Too much so, it turns out. The romance between Jordan Baker and Nick Carraway is designed to illuminate Carraway’s naïve suspension of critical thinking. He doesn’t see Jay Gatsby for who he is. Carraway tells Gatsby, “You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” Partly due to the Jordan Baker subplot, the reader begins to understand that Carraway is an unreliable narrator. As the novel nears its end, a disaster is imminent. The reader sees this clearly, but Nick—the first person narrator—does not. The subplot has deepened the reader’s understanding of Nick Carraway.
Thinking about first things first is human nature. When developing a plot, a writer thinks about the beginning of the novel most. Writing the middle is often daunting and discouraging because not enough thought has been given to the middle. It hasn’t been adequately plotted. There’s not enough story.
The cure: add more obstacles, and a subplot or two.
James Thayer’s thirteenth novel, The Boxer and the Poet; Something of a Romance, was published by Black Lyon Publishing in March 2008. He teaches novel writing at the University of Washington Extension School, and he runs a freelance editing service (www.thayerediting.com).