We’re talking about strengthening a writer’s storyline here, not his or her tummy—although that dangerous “sag in the middle” may require some vigorous exercise to fix.
How many times have you reached page 200 in a book that got off to a great start and wondered why you feel compelled to describe the passengers on a bus in excruciating detail or flash back to childhood memories so distant that their relationship to the main events of the plot are totally obscure? Maybe you don’t have this problem. Maybe you’re one of those writers who doesn’t experience the doldrums in Act Two. In that case, unless you’re fooling yourself (I’m just sayin’) I extend my congratulations.
For the rest of us, how do we bust out of the mid-book stalemate? Let’s say you’ve got an excellent outline, complete with solid motivations and growing conflict, with the crises and resolutions laid out on a graph, peaks and valleys in all the right places, no surprises. Did I say no surprises? Oops.
You may know exactly where you are going and still run out of gas before you get there. It happens to driver on the highway all the time, why not to writers?
What to do? Here are a few ideas:
Ask yourself – “did the plot come easily to me and if so, will the reader find it as predictable as I do?” The answer may be “yes,” but don’t despair. You can use this predictability to your advantage—for example, if you are writing a thriller or a mystery, consider reincarnating your run-of-the-mill villain as a red herring. This will leave you free to create a new, more complex antagonist whose machinations will spiral the story up to a whole new level.
Let’s say your story is a quest and you think you have successfully mined your protagonist’s insecurities and challenged her to face her greatest fear. Or have you? Dig deeper.
In her excellent book, “Write Away,” Elizabeth George quotes author T. Jefferson Parker as saying “When my story stalls out on me, I’ve played my hand too soon.” Take another look at the journey – have you taken shortcuts around obstacles that you need your protagonist to face directly in order to build suspense? Does she have an Achilles heel, a weakness that trips her up just when she is about to prevail? In ASK THE DEAD, Jo Epstein’s biggest fear was that she would die by drowning and this was foreshadowed in the beginning, intensified in the middle and resolved at the end. I didn’t plan it this way, but as her character developed and her core needs and emotions surfaced, the story gained traction.
I hope I’ve provided enough examples to get the discussion going. Now it’s time to hear what YOU have to say.