We (Kat and Katy) love middles. But not everyone does. So we got together to write about why we love them and what we think makes them shine. As well as some advice for how to keep your middles interesting!
What is the middle of a story?
It should be easy to identify the middle of a story because it should be your Act II (based on the Three-Act Structure). According to Save the Cat, which provides one of the most popular break-downs of the Three-Act Structure, Act II or the middle of the story is often the B Story. The B Story is when the main character enters their new reality after they decide to go on their journey (whether externally or internally) in order to respond to the main conflict. It’s where they do all the heavy lifting in order to get the tools to become the character they’re meant to be by the end.
According to Save the Cat, the middle is where the “Fun and Games” takes place. This might sound like an excuse to write a lot of training montages and goofy adventures, but it’s a very integral and important part of the greater character story arc. It’s where the character goes on the journey (whether they’re aware of it or not) to figuring out what they need to succeed in the end.
What we love about middles
Middles are the meat of the story. It’s the main journey and where we see the growth starting to take place. Middles are where the character knows that main source of the tension, so there’s that motivation to take action. It’s also where the character starts to develop their emotions for their journey and the people around them. It’s a great source of angst and desire in the characters. If there’s a romance it’s where the character starts to realize their feelings (or deny them). And the middle also lets us get to know the characters on a deeper level because their struggle to become who they’re meant to be reveals both their strengths and weaknesses.
Avoiding the “floundering pace” problem
One of the hardest parts about writing middles is when the pace starts to “flounder” and the plot seems to “meander.” This can happen because this is the place where the training montage happens. Or sneaking around. Or the planning for the heist. And these moments can sometimes feel repetitive or directionless.
Therefore, we always need to be aware of the moments where we’re losing the heart of the story. And one way to make sure that doesn’t happen is to make sure the focus on the character arc is always present. Even if the main conflict isn’t front and center because the main character is focused on learning to fight, then at least show that they’re still developing as a person and character through this process.
The middle of a book requires two crucial ingredients to keep readers engaged and interested: tension and escalation. These two things go hand-in-hand–in order to maintain tension in the middle of a book, you need to escalate! Whatever conflict you’ve set up in the beginning of your story really starts to take shape in the middle. Mysteries start to deepen. Romantic relationships heat up. Conflicts become more thorny and emotionally fraught. It’s called “rising action” for a reason. So make sure you’re always including a build up of tension in your middle!
Most issues with a “mushy middle” can be diagnosed with a single issue: passive or inactive characters. If you’re finding that in order to keep your plot moving, you keep having to introduce new things to happen to your character, that’s your first problem. Rather, you should be pushing your character to make choices throughout the middle of the book, and then build off the consequences of those choices. In other things: let things go wrong, and let your character be the cause of them. Yes, it is perfectly fine to introduce external conflict, but it is how your character responds to these external conflicts that drives the story!
Another issue I see is when writers “save” all their twists and clever plot complications for the end. On the outset, this kind of makes sense–you want the end of your book to be as exciting as possible. But by introducing complications and twists in the middle of the book, the end can then naturally act as the place where those complications and twists all come to a head. If you are struggling with a lack-luster middle, a simple fix might be taking a big reveal from the end of the book and moving it to the middle. What effect does this have on your character and the choices they’re forced to make? What new complications can you build out of this reveal? Don’t be afraid to take a hard turn in the middle of your book–sometimes, that’s exactly what you need!
Similar to that idea, many writers will plot their book from beginning to end thinking they must set up a conflict or mystery in the beginning that can’t be resolved until the end. But some of the most brilliantly plotted stories don’t do this at all–instead, they set up a conflict in the beginning that then gets resolved in the middle in such a way that it creates an even larger conflict. One example of this that comes to mind is the brilliantly written movie Knives Out (spoilers ahead, so PLEASE go watch it if you haven’t and then come back here).
The very opening scene of the movie sets up the following question: who killed Harlan Thromby. The first act of the movie is built entirely around this mystery–but by the time the first act ends, we already find out the answer of who killed him! And that answer escalates the building tension of the movie and sets off the next events of the story. In the end, it’s not about who killed him but more about how they will or won’t get away with it!
TL;DR make sure your characters have agency and are active during the middle of the book. Experiment with pulling forward some twists to occur in the middle of the book. Imagine how reactions to these twists can make more twists for the end! And have fun! ACT II is called “Fun and Games” by some for a reason!