Unmuddling the Middle
On writing better middles in novels
This month’s craft letter discusses avoiding Sagging Middle Syndrome™️ in novel writing. This is a 10-minute read.
I recently stumbled upon NK Jemisin’s Book Renovation blog, and was inspired by it to write about the revision process of my current book-in-progress, Warrior of the Wind (please add to your Want-To-Read shelves!). That’s Book 2 of the Nameless Republic trilogy (or as some of you know it, Son of the Storm Book 2), which is going to be out sometime in mid-2023.
But rather than write about my whole revision process, I want to focus on novel middles. Especially that of WOTW, which is a middle book of a trilogy. (If you look at it sideways, the middle of WOTW is literally the middle of the whole trilogy!)
A muddled middle (definition: middle section of a novel where events or character actions/motivations are unclear, scenes seem to point in no obvious direction, and readers are left feeling adrift, bored and disinterested) feels like one of the biggest crimes an author can commit (just ask any veteran Goodreads reviewer!). Readers tend to have their feelings about a book swiftly altered by a lack of direction in the middle of a narrative. Yet, many books and stories—mine included—continue to exist where middles are just not all the way there.
The question, then, becomes: why are middles so challenging to get right?
The purpose of middles
Middles are different beasts from beginnings and endings. Beginnings tend to demand the most creative inertia from a writer—they’re challenging to get right the first time—but they’re also the section with the least reader resistance, and therefore posses a lower expectation of perfection. Muddled middles and endings are far more criticized, with the barometer for endings being how hastily or carefully the writer sets the reader down. Middles, therefore, play a very specific role in narratives—three specific roles, in fact, which I’ve narrowed down to:
Conveyor: links the narrative’s setup (beginning) to its conclusion (ending)
Riser: increases or improves on…pretty much everything—tension, conflict, milieus, characters, events, etc.
Complicator: introduces complications into the narrative (via characterization, internal & external conflict, new events and revelations, etc) that make the reader interested in learning how said complications (and therefore the rest of the story) will be resolved.
Therefore, the answer to the question above is that for a middle to work, it has to adequately perform all three functions. Being deficient in just one could be enough to knock a story’s effectiveness down a notch.
WOTW is currently divided into 3 sections: ochela, nameless, and risisi (you heard it here first!). I’ve been revising nameless, the middle portion, for over a month now, to ensure it meets these functions above. To achieve that, I considered the following (and you may too, if these work for your novel):
1) Motion, momentum and the pause/propulsion ratio
You can think of motion in a story as things happening, i.e. events and passages that give the narrative forward movement. Plot is another way to think about it (though, by employing useful language, one can have motion without obvious plot). Momentum is more like pacing (the manner in which the narrative events and/or language choices are sequenced), which contributes to how the narrative is propeled (moves quicker) or paused (moves slower).
This pause/propulsion ratio is a solid criterion to measure how well the middle of your novel is working. To think of how this ratio works, consider:
Of all your passages/scenes/chapters/etc, how much cause readers to pause and introspect, to ruminate on the words, the ideas, the language; and how much cause the reader to be propeled, to want to turn the pages, to find out what happens next?
You want to aim for a near balance of this, especially in a story’s middle. A balance of:
Number: How many portions offer pause, and how many offer propulsion? You want this to be closer to equal than not.
Sequence/layout: Ten chapters offering back-to-back pause, and then six offering propulsion thereafter, will pose an uneven reading experience. Something closer to a one-to-one ratio will offer more balance.
Presence/De-presence: Scenes/passages that play out on the page in real time give the reader an experience of presence. Scenes/passages with minimized presence—summarized, introspective, flashed back or forward, etc—I think of as de-presenced. You also want to keep this experience near-balanced too.
An example of this done well is in Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel, which I read recently.
In this middle section consisting solely of passages, Mandel’s sequencing is what offers the narrative momentum. The first passage in this image is a scene with presence and momentum: Olive returns to her parents’ home for the first time in a while. The scene after is similar: Olive leaving. This pattern is then broken by a short ruminative passage. After that, we get a de-presenced passage of summarized events (a choice that tends to quicken momentum), braided with some introspection (to slow down the momentum and prevent it from screeching to a halt and falling flat). Then we’re back to a scene with presence, ending with some introspection on the next page. Note that all of this is the story of an author on a book tour in the future, which isn’t a particularly intriuging event on its own!
For my WOTW revision: I’ve been thinking about pause/propulsion in this way as I work on the middle section (currently containing 20 chapters). Here’s what I’m keeping an eye on:
Single-scene chapters are prone to irrelevant droning on, so I’ve required that all single-scene chapters in nameless will be propulsive, i.e. will have a central focal point for the events being told: whether that is an event occuring in real-time, a question that needs answering imminently, a destination (which must be reached—or the journey hampered—before the chapter closes), etc. Any conversation, introspection or rumination here will occur as a backdrop to the event that the reader is being urged toward.
Multiple-scene chapters, especially in the middle, allow more room for pause, but are then prone to other tricky endeavours, e.g. chunks of exposition, flashbacks, POV shifts, etc. So, I’ve decided on a pause-propel-pause (or propel-pause-propel) approach to three-scene chapters, and pause-propel or propel-pause for two-scene chapters. This way, though the lengths of the scenes may differ accordingly, I still keep my balance. (For chapters with four or more scenes—rare in my work—the ratio need not be one-to-one. You just need at least one type of the other kind of scene/passage to avoid having the reader feel rushed/breathless or stalled/bored).
Front-loading scenes with more presence whenever I can, giving the reader a lower entry barrier into the chapter, then sandwiching the de-presenced scenes in-between. Ending each chapter with a promise of something to come also helps offer momentum.
Switching POVs between chapters aids motion. I’m also ensuring no two introspective-heavy chapters follow each other.
“Tension on every page,” as advised by literary agent Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.
If there’s any lesson to learn about middles here, it’s to keep things moving, switch it up, and keep ‘em guessing.
2) Clarity of relevance
Many authors hold back on crucial information in the hope of a grander reveal or bigger payoff or twist or surprise. But I’ve found that delaying crucial information is often confused for withholding it, which leads to lack of clarity that tends to annoy readers. If an event/occurence, behaviour/action place in a story is relevant to the overarching narrative—whether said relevance becomes apparent in the final third/fourth/fifth act, or in the next book or seventh book—it has to be made clear to the reader why that event/action/place is important or useful now.
Why is the protagonist going into the haunted house now? Of what use to me, now, are the six paragraphs describing their garment? This action, place, choice—of what use is it to my better understanding of the narrative so far?
The author’s duty during middles, I believe, is to provide a response (note: response, not answer) to questions like these that sates the reader’s need (for now) for an answer to bigger questions in the narrative. The author may delay crucial information, but must at all times offer clarity as to why the matters occuring on the page are important to the narrative so far.
For my WOTW revision: Whenever we have a location/POV change, I’ve been asking: Why here, why this person, and how is this relevant to the overarching narrative? My revision includes querying if there’s a new piece of knowledge the reader did not have prior to entering this chapter, and if what they know at the end takes them a step (however small) toward understanding the bigger picture of the overarching story. Every chapter, scene or passage that’s not doing this, I’m revisiting to question its place.
3) Obvious change
Middles are where change often occurs: in the turn of events, in the disposition and predicament of characters, etc. Oftentimes this change is a slow-burn one (the best change narratives are) and it’s not always obvious to the reader, both when it is occuring, and when it has occured. So, when this change becomes important to the narrative, it sometimes leaves readers confused. It is the job of the author—and the middle—to make this change obvious when required.
A recent novel I read that did this well was Black Water Sister by Zen Cho. The protagonist, Jessamyn, is haunted by a ghost—except she doesn’t belive in ghosts, or spirits, or gods. She spends the better half of the novel soon learning that not only are all these things real, they have an impact on the goings-on in her Malaysian city of Penang, and want something to do with her. Of course she’s reluctant, but that soon begins to change.
However, it’s not just the what of this change we see, but the how and why. They manifest in the different relationships in Jess’s life, made obvious by how they’re presented. Jess’s mother, used to speaking at her, eventually comes to desire dialogue, expecting (and respecting) responses. Her grlfriend’s gentle ribbing of her overbearing and suspicious family turns into fierce debates where Jess finds herself defending them. Her ambivalence against the city turning into activism toward preserving its shrines, sneering at would-be gentrifiers, sparring with businessmen and their gangsters. Even her relationships with the gods and spirits is shown to move quickly from refusal to bargaining, and eventually, wholehearted acceptance.
If a character changes and the reader cannot see why, cannot connect the dots or recognize the seeds planted, they will consider the change swift and unearned. If the change has been seeded but then is not demonstrated on the page via action or decision, readers may miss altogether that such a shift has occured. These are two burdens shouldered by the middle section of a novel, and not fulfilling these needs could mean readers find the book wanting.
For my WOTW revision: I started a small document I call a change tracker, where I track each decision, action or moment of introspection by each of my key characters that demonstrates their progress on their change arcs. It could be something they did or a response they had to an event or a thought they had that demonstrates to the reader where the character is situated on their change arc. Then, at the end of the first revision, I returned to each of those moments and sharpened them, so that the exact point of their purpose becomes clearer and more obvious to the reader. (Not in a Now I’m going to tell you this character’s position way, but in a way that the action/choice/hehaviour/thought featured in that moment is clearer, less muddled, and implicitly directs the reader to understand that this marks a mental point in this character’s change arc.
Before you go…
If you liked this, then How To Test Drive Your Story Ideas and On Fiction Genres and the Elements That Power Them might just be for you! All free, no strings attached. Okay, one string—it’ll be great if you could tell your friends about this letter!