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How to Overcome a Muddling Middle | NINC



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It is a truth universally acknowledged that stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. For some authors, the beginning of the story gives them trouble as they grapple with whether to start a book in medias res (“in the midst of things”), when the reader and character are plunged into a crucial situation, or by conveying the protagonist’s everyday world so the reader bonds with that character until the inciting incident elicits the ultimate story question. In the September 2023 edition of Nink, Harper St. George examined what questions an author may ask to find the start of their story.

For some authors, the middle may become a quagmire with a number of intriguing paths. The second act of the book is where I find myself stuck in quicksand as story paths lead to dead ends that do not forward the story question, raise character stakes, or increase tension. Just as St. George asked how to find the exact place to start her story, I found myself asking other authors how to make the middle of my book more suspenseful with heightened tension. I sought to discover new ways an author can avoid the muddling middle so the story continues toward the inescapable ending where it seems as though there is no way for the protagonist to achieve his goal before he ends up successfully navigating the change that propelled him into the new story world.

Where does the beginning end and the middle start?
Often, the beginning of the story ends at the point of no return where the protagonist is forced into action to face a challenge or overcome an obstacle. In The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell, the middle is marked with action that takes place after the call to adventure.

Others mark the middle by using turning points where the protagonist faces obstacles that change his plans from his comfortable world and propels him to a new situation where conflicts and complications become more and more difficult as the character approaches the midpoint.

The middle is usually the part of the story where the action becomes more intense and the stakes become more crucial to survival.

Ways to overcome the muddling middle
The second act of a novel is ripe for possibility as the author has an opportunity to increase tension, layer in character development, and raise the stakes to keep the reader turning pages. How does an author go about fashioning scenes that accomplish these objectives? Keeping your character actively working toward the goal presented by the story question allows that character to act and react to the events occurring around them. Your protagonist responds to events that have already happened and reacts by deciding what to do next. Action provides the building blocks for scenes with the resulting reaction setting up the sequel where the character decides what to do next. Through new obstacles, the character continually assesses, acts, and then reacts to the previous scenes, setting into motion a chain of incidents that propel him toward the inevitable climax.

The word count of your story may impact whether you utilize a subplot or parallel plot for a more layered and nuanced middle. Novellas and short novels have a tighter word count and often veer away from additional threads. Longer books may contain subplots, which should be relevant to the plot, or a parallel plot, which is independent of the main story question but eventually intersects with the main plot.

Christy LaShea shared how subplots or parallel plots can become your B Story. “The B story is the ‘booster rocket’ that helps smooth your transition from Act 1 to Act 2, where you deliver on the ‘promise of the premise.’”

Increasing tension
Many authors introduce a twist around a third of the way through the book, including secrets, a lie, or a red herring. While there are several ways to incorporate a twist, the consensus is that it is important to pay attention to the characters, actions, and reactions of a particular book rather than following a set formula.

Carol Newhouse shares, “Upending something in either the main plot or a subplot is often my choice. The revelation of a secret may work if it is a relatively minor secret; otherwise a big reveal is more fitting closer to the end.”

Cathy McDavid provided the following for a successful twist: “Something happens or is discovered that changes the character(s) from being reactive to proactive. Maybe a family secret is revealed. A clue is found. A huge and unexpected challenge appears.”

Pegg Thomas added, “How you up the stakes depends on what the story needs. One story might need a plot twist to up the stakes. Another might need movement along the journey. Another might need the introduction of danger. Always ask what the story needs, because each story is—or at least should be—unique and individual.”

The book’s genre may aid an author in deciding what obstacles the protagonist faces in the middle.

Historical romantic suspense author Jeanine Englert gave the following advice: “If you can kill a character off, do it. If not, add a twist or drop in a secret that makes your reader want more.”

Deena Alexander added, “When writing romantic suspense, I usually blow something up or some other heart-pounding scene, car chase, tornado, something big.”

Character development
In addition to adding external obstacles to the character journey, the middle is also a good place to introduce a new character or redirect their motivation.

“You can resurrect a character you introduced earlier to be something other than what the reader would presume that person to be,” Thomas said. “That’s always fun.”

McDavid makes the point that this is the time to have the protagonist switch from being reactive to proactive and said, “The middle is where the protagonist(s) go from being wanderers to warriors.”

In addition to resurrecting a character, an author might introduce a foil or ally to the protagonist. This gives the protagonist more reasons to ask why and question whether the goal that guided them at the beginning is still the goal she wants to attain.

Raising the stakes
Motivation is the driving impetus behind a protagonist’s actions, and the external obstacles and internal hesitation guide the book toward the ending as actions and reactions lead to scenes and sequels, the building blocks of the story. Each scene ultimately relates some new information about the story question, and raising the stakes keeps the reader flipping pages as it becomes seemingly more impossible for the protagonist to reach his objective. How can an author raise the stakes?

A ticking clock or deadline adds urgency to the protagonist’s narrative. Another way to raise the stakes is by introducing the possibility of failure, which could lead to physical harm or death, psychological harm, or professional calamity. Whether the threat is actual physical death, as in the case of suspense or thrillers, the important aspect is whether the stakes matter to the character. Having the character act in a way that is consistent with their core identity established in the beginning keeps the reader turning pages to see how the writer will create a satisfying ending amid crisis and mayhem. Inaction or indecision stalls the protagonist and halts forward momentum.

Another way to create tension in the middle is to end a chapter on a cliffhanger and switch to a different character’s point of view in the next scene, such as a character related to the subplot or parallel plot or, in the case of the romance genre, the dual protagonist.

Once the inciting incident occurs and the protagonist is thrust into the second act, the middle provides an author with a chance to send the protagonist on a layered, nuanced emotional journey that will keep the reader turning pages by:

  1. Increasing tension through the use of twists, secrets, lies, red herrings, or a personal and emotional ordeal that allows for the protagonist to make forward progress on their character arcs.
  2. Introducing, redirecting, or killing off characters.
  3. Raising the stakes through urgency, a chase, or a threat.
  4. Fashioning a middle that is unique to the characters, who continually act and react in such a way as to keep the reader guessing about what will happen next, while remaining conscious of the needs of this particular story.

When you’re writing your second act, think of new directions, ask why, and then ask why again until you reach the core motivation that will guide your protagonist’s actions until they come upon an epiphany, which might result in a discovery or impending sacrifice or the “all is lost” moment, at the beginning of the third and final act.


Tanya Agler, who writes sweet contemporary romance, is the author of nine Harlequin Heartwarming novels, including The Rodeo Stars of Violet Ridge series, and has participated in two indie anthologies set in Christmas Town. A graduate of the University of Georgia with degrees in journalism and law, she lives in metro Atlanta with her husband, four children, and two dogs.

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