Plotting a Novel: Part 5 - Avoiding the Messy Middle

Throughout 2023 writing instructor and pre-published author Tracey Kathryn (T.K.) Sheffield and I will be offering a blog series on plotting from the beginning developmental stage through the messy middle and all the way to the end, including editing advice on how to fix plot problems in a completed manuscript.

In Part 1, Tracey lists wonderful resources that are great for those that are new to writing or looking for a new approach to plotting in: "Plotting a Novel: Resources for Those Just Starting Out."

In Part 2, Tracey discusses how to use plotlines, tropes, and conflict to test your story ideas: "Testing Novel Ideas

In Part 3, Tracey and I discuss the virtues of outlining your novel vs. pantsing (aka: writing by the seat of your pants.) Watch the video here.

In Part 4, I write about the difference between the hook and the inciting incident

Now, as we approach the middle of the year—can you believe 2023 is almost half over?!—it’s appropriate to write about the middle of a novel. Thanks to Tracey for her great tips below!

Happy May, Writers!

So this month, I’m offering methods to avoid the dreaded middle of a story. We’ll discuss why stories lag in the middle and two ways of fixing the problem including the mirror moment and using short scenes.

Also, I highlight a bookstore of the month and offer an updated event calendar. Enjoy!

Why Do Middles Get Messy?

The inciting incident has occurred. The main character has made a decision to fight, fall in love, or discover who committed a crime. A subplot has been introduced. Supporting characters have appeared. Now what? (This is the point where Shakespeare would add a fairy or a ghost, I suspect. Or a character would slay a dragon or start a war. Anything to rocket the play in a new direction.)

Starting at a blank page at about twenty-five percent of your novel and asking “now what?” is a common problem. Issues with middles include:

•   Too many characters

•   Too many plot lines

•   Flipflopping POV

•   Lack of set up or opening elements

•   Overwhelming research, superfluous details, rabbit trails, or info dumps

Save the Cat” plot structure says the middle section is where fun and games begin. I loved that description when I first heard it; it made sense because my characters do experience fun and games. From a party called The Cheese Ball, to a Devil’s and Angel’s bake-off, and to a rubber duck race, I use parties and oddball social events in my books to move the plot forward.

Another way to describe the middle are peaks and valleys. Writers can send characters on a rollercoaster ride to that dark moment. (The moment when the main character is threatened or believes all is lost.) Increasing pace and tension—like being on a rollercoaster—toward that goal helps avoid a saggy or slow middle.

The Mirror or Lightbulb Moment

In the book Write Your Novel From the Middle, James Scott Bell says the “mirror moment” is where the main character studies his or her soul. It’s where he or she stares into an abyss (it could be a mirror, a pond, or a reflection somewhere) and sees—what? Whatever the story is about, that’s what. It’s where a lightbulb goes on for the main character. Or, conversely, it’s where a light goes out. Save the Cat describes it as the Dark Night of the Soul. The character could believe all is well and truly lost.

The writer must understand this moment— and use it to define the pace of the novel’s middle. After the moment, a climax arrives in the form of a chase, a reveal, or dramatic solution to a problem. It works like a pivot point. It’s a different method to write a novel other than linear, but that’s okay. Whatever works to get the story on the page and avoid feeling overwhelmed by slogging through a messy middle.

Write Short Scenes from a Macro POV

To move through the middle, write short scenes. Rather than be overwhelmed by a myriad of actions, reactions, characters, and subplots, write staccato sections of dialogue, scenes, and key plot points. It’s a stream-of-conscious strategy. I call it the Pole Bending method. There’s a class in Western Performance horse shows where horses weave through a series of poles. In dog agility, it’s called Pole Weaving. I do it in the middle of a novel. I weave through a series of scenes, looking at them from a macro level. I leave out descriptions of setting, weather, time of day, or anything else that slows the main narrative.

Once I see the big picture, I go back and write details.

After that, I lengthen or shorten for pace. As Lee Child says, make the slow sections fast, make the fast sections slow. Dramatic or tense events should be given details and attention. Slow scenes or less tense scenes should be written with a light hand. In other words, weave your way with appropriate pace through the fun and games to arrive at the main character’s dark moment and then quickly move to the climax.

Understanding why middles get messy, and then using the mirror moment and writing scenes first from a Macro POV, will help avoid the sagging middle.

Bookstore of the Month: Lake City Books, Madison

Seeking a new or used book—or are you feeling blue? Check out the new Lake City Books in Madison. Its owner, Emily Balsley, says she loves the color blue, Madison lakes, and the city itself. According to a profile in Madison Magazine, it was Balsley’s dream to open a book store. Lake City Books opened in April 2023 and is located off the square. It offers new and used books, candles, and gifts.

Upcoming Conferences: Dates Announced

I acquired a literary agent in part by attending conferences. I wrote about it on the Valerie Biel blog here.

Writers can’t exist in a vacuum. Like actors, we need feedback and guidance for our creative endeavors. If travel is a problem, consider one of the many excellent online opportunities.

Some dates are not finalized for 2023 and are subject to change. Check the sites for more information.

May 30-June 3, 2023: Thrillerfest, NYC

Sat., June 24: Hedberg Book Fest, Janesville

June 20-25: Minnesota Northwoods Writer’s Conference, Bemidji, Minn.

July 19-22: Midwest Writer’s Workshop, Muncie, Indiana, and online

Aug. 24-27 American Christian Fiction Writers Association Conference

Aug. 30-Sept. 3: Bouchercon, San Diego, Calif.

Sept. 19-22 Washington Island Literary Festival, Door County

September 28-Oct 1: Central Wisconsin Book Festival, Wausau, Wisconsin Rapids, Stevens Point

Oct. 6-7: Wisconsin Writer’s Association Fall Conference, Waukesha

October 2023: Door County Writer and Book Fair, Fish Creek

October 2024: Fox Cities Book Festival, Fox Cities area, HIATUS to 2024

October 2023: Wisconsin Book Festival, Madison

November 3-4: Southeast Wisconsin Festival of Books, Waukesha

November 2023: Great Lakes Writers Festival, Sheboygan

If you have recommendations about writing resources, conferences, or sources for gift ideas, please tell us in the comments.

In June, Valerie and I will discuss how to end a novel.

Happy summer, writers. ~ Tracey

T.K. Sheffield, MA

Pre-published author, The Seymour Agency

“I write books for readers who want to laugh and escape.”

Coming in October: The Backyard Model Cozy Mysteries: A retired fashion model uses her skill at spotting posers to solve murders in her touristy Wisconsin town.

Follow me on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for writing tips, author news, and to share my Wisconsin backyard.

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