This is particularly the case with novels written without a clear plot in mind. You know how to start it all, you know the ending, even the climax is crystal clear, but what happens in the middle is a bit blurry. A long car drive, a long walk in the park, a never-ending conversation over dinner. It seems to go on a bit and at some point you breathe in relief that the climax is approaching and the ending will shortly follow.
There are some proven and tested ways to deal with saggy middles.
1. Call in backstory. One of the great ways to push your middle up a notch is by using the backstory. This is why a compelling backstory is so important in a thriller. You can rely on it to create a variation when your main story sags a little. So make sure you plan out a parallel plot for your backstory and the beginning, middle, climax and ending are not overlapping, but rather arranged in an alternating pattern, similar to a lattice. A twist in the protagonist’s personal life is a good example. Her mum was taken to hospital (Chekhov’s Rifle opportunity flags up here, make sure you mention her mum’s health problems earlier in the story, before they are needed) or she meets someone she falls for completely (make sure this would work with your audience).
2. Escalate the conflict even more. Increase the stakes by adding even more obstacles in the protagonist’s way. James Patterson is the master of all second-paragraph twists. If something unexpected happens and ups the stakes of the whole quest, this is great conflict escalation. On a smaller scale, think of mini-conflicts you could escalate: does your protagonist have any phobias? Make sure he or she overcomes the mother of all encounters with the biggest subject of their phobia. No reader is going to put your book down when, while opening a bag of rice, your protagonist, a well-known to readers arachnophobe, finds a scorpion inside. A living scorpion. No reader is going to put your book down when your protagonist, a long-time sufferer of asthma, drops her inhaler through the drain grid inside a smoky and dusty mine. In the same way, you can reveal a secret with devastating consequences for the protagonist, which he obviously overcomes in ways unexpected by the reader.
3. Keep alternating. What quite a few writers submitting manuscripts for assessment to our consultancy do is use a vast part of the middle of their book for ‘character development’. This sounds like a good excuse, except that characterisation should be done organically and throughout the book, not in a block at the start of your book or in the middle. Character development here often means bogging your protagonist down with endless inner monologue and moral dilemmas over completely everyday things (like recycling vs. dumping). While a good old inner conflict can’t do any harm, while revising, pay particular attention to whether action alternates with description and reflection just like in the rest of your book. If it doesn’t, make sure you see to it. Reflection scenes are scenes in which nothing happens. They are there to develop character, add depth to narrative and maybe create further suspense and conflict. Use reflection to delay suspense, but never to end it.
Example of bad usage of reflection
Hannah stopped breathing when she realised the revolver was pointing at her forehead.
This could be a good cliffhanger, but completely wasted if you start the next paragraph or chapter with:
Thinking about it now, while watching the clock on the Mayor’s Dome, from her seventeenth floor window, that was a close encounter. That revolver could have easily had six rounds instead of five.
Contrary to popular belief, saggy middles are only easy to spot in another author’s book, but not in our own. Just like bad writing in general. I once heard an editor saying, ‘If the author gets bored while rereading, imagine what a paying reader will be like.’ But this is the trap: the author never gets bored. The author knows the focus and the perspective and where the story will head and he or she also knows that there is a good reason why that fragment is in a particular place. In informal conversations about manuscripts, I’ve never seen a greater speed of reaction than a writer defending his or her own choices. It almost defies the laws of physics.
Find out more about how to improve pace, plot and narrative drive in my guide, Self-Editing Fiction That Sells.