I just did a whole series of writing posts about beginnings, and now it’s time to move on to middles. While beginnings are important for snagging the interest of editors, agents, and readers, the middle has a lot to do with whether a book sinks or swims. A strong beginning doesn’t help if the middle sags. Many authors find the middle to be the most difficult part of the book to write. It’s tricky keeping the pacing and tension going without resolving everything too soon but also while having very good reasons that things can’t yet be resolved.
You can generally divide the middle — the part that comes after the hero has chosen (or been forced) to take on the story goal and before the build-up to the resolution — into two parts. There’s the getting used to new circumstances, meeting new people, and figuring out the situation part, and then there’s the setup for the climax.
If you’re thinking about it in terms of the Hero’s Journey, the first part would be Tests, Enemies, and Allies. In a way, this is the “ordinary world” of the special world of the story. You probably don’t want to spend a lot of time in the beginning showing the ordinary parts of the ordinary world, but this is where you can play with your worldbuilding, showing how things are different now that the hero has taken up the challenge. The hero really may travel to a different place — going to Oz, Narnia, or some other fantasy world, or possibly just leaving the familiar to go on a journey or quest within his or her own world. Or the hero may stay in the same place but encounter different people and situations. It may be a new job with new co-workers, a new home in a new neighborhood, or a new group of friends or colleagues. The hero has to learn the rules of this new situation, how it all works, and who to trust. The protagonists will learn more about the villain, more about what they have to do to achieve their goal, and may pick up skills and weapons that they’ll need later.
In his book Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this part of the story “the promise of the premise.” It’s when the things you expect to happen in this kind of story happen. In a fantasy quest story, it’s when the questing party really comes together, and they may have a few lower-stakes adventures and encounters in which they learn what the dangers of their quest are likely to be. In a space opera, this is life on the spaceship and meeting the crew, maybe having a minor space battle that shows off the skills of the various crew members. In a romantic comedy, it’s the part where the hero and heroine are stuck in a situation together, with witty banter, and we meet their various friends.
Think of some familiar stories: In The Wizard of Oz, it’s when Dorothy has arrived in Oz and been given her quest by Glinda, and she sets off down the Yellow Brick Road, picking up her traveling companions along the way and having a few encounters with the Wicked Witch and flying monkeys. In Star Wars, Luke goes with Obi-Wan to the cantina, where he gets a glimpse of what Obi-Wan is capable of and meets Han and Chewbacca, and then they escape in the Millennium Falcon — a sequence in which we learn the capabilities of Han and the ship — and Luke starts his Jedi training.
The challenge is keeping readers interested after the beginning. There is a natural slowdown after the big bang of the opening, but you can’t let the pace or the energy lag. Things need to happen. There need to be some stakes, even if it’s not entirely do-or-die at this point in the story. This is a good place to set up the things you’ll need for the climax and resolution — the hero learning or gaining things, trying and failing at something he’ll later need to do properly to save the day, encountering the villain and surviving but not winning. The conflict that keeps the story going through this part needs to be real, not contrived. If the story would end if two characters who are capable of having a conversation just had a conversation, you need more going on. If the story would end if the characters just figured out a rather obvious thing, you need very good reasons for them not to know about or notice that very obvious thing.
If you’re struggling with a story that feels like it’s sagging at this point, look at the conflict. Is anything stopping the heroes from achieving their goals? Are there any intermediate goals on the way to achieving the story goal, and what’s getting in the way of those goals? Finding a good reason for the heroes to struggle will usually fix a sagging early middle. You can also have conflicts among the characters, like Han Solo’s disdain for Jedi ways and Luke’s disdain at Han’s greed.
Next time, I’ll look at the second part of the story middle.