How to Plan the (“Messy”) Middle of your Novel

Writers find the middle of novels intimidating to plot. 

This is where first drafts fail: most people can usually sketch out a few opening chapters, but then slowly the story starts to meander or run adrift. 

This course will cover this big topic -- how to write the middle of your book -- in much more detail later. However, as a preview of those later sections, I wanted to highlight, quickly, how the character-first approach helps you think about the middle of your story.

To re-cap: we have been thinking of a main character who has goals and perspectives all of their own, and who begins the book not aware of the "real" plot.

The "beginning" of the book ends with the main character becoming aware, in the haziest possible way, of this real plot, and investigating it in a reluctant, hesitant, skeptical, or mercenary way. After all, the character still wants what she wanted at the start. That's still her focus. Only she feels like she has to check out or indulge or take a detour into this other concern or problem, this thing that will eventually turn out to be the "real story."

The middle of the book depicts, in a series of stages, the character learning about this real plot and coming to care about it. But this process still takes a long time! The drama of the middle comes because the protagonist consistently underestimates and misunderstands what is really at stake. They don't get it! For a really long time! 

In most stories, there is also an emotional, internal journey: the protagonist spends the middle failing to commit to this "real plot," and also often failing to grasp what this story means to them, as an individual.

Can you Delay It?

The reader should never be in doubt what the character sees, feels, or thinks. However, good fiction tends to hold back the full nature of the story from that character, and thus the reader, for as long as possible. 

One simple approach to the middle of your novel is to imagine it in two stages:

1st half: the protagonist is a newcomer to the mystery of the story. They have seen enough to care what happens, but they wander / blunder / rush into the new world they've found without much time to think.

2nd half: the protagonist now grasps a large portion of what is going on. But they are still underestimating the challenge they face, whether to their own self of self, or how incompatible their two big goals are, or the power of the villain. They think they get it. But they don't.

The middle generally ends when the protagonist has, at last, got it -- they finally do understand what is at stake -- but it's too late. They've let the villain get the upper hand, or they've alienated the person they most care about, or they've failed to take action when they had the chance, or they've not examined the personal sacrifice needed.

Sometimes they simply see that their original goal and this "real plot" are incompatible: to get one, they have to lose the other forever.

Now everything seems lost. In some stories, the protagonist heads for "a dark night of the soul" or a (temporary) loss of power.

That's the end of the middle.

coming later in this course: the four stages of your story

The character-first approach helps you navigate this middle by breaking the character's journey down into different stages (four, in fact). In other words: by designing the middle around your character's stage by stage realisation of the real plot, we make it easy for the reader to feel and enjoy the story. 

We also make it easier for you, the writer, to keep track of your (previously messy) middle and tell a great story.

Your next prompt: keep the mystery going!

One feature of highly successful fiction: the reader, and the protagonist, is kept in the dark for a lot longer than you might think. In contrast, many of the writers I work try to explain what is really going on far too quickly. 

Now, just to be clear, the philosophy of this course is that the reader should always know what the main character thinks and feels. On a sentence by sentence, page by page level, it should NEVER be mysterious what the main character believes is going on. If the main character is going to buy strawberries, the reader should have no confusion at all why the character has left the house. If a murder has been committed, the reader should always understand what the main character grasps about the murder, and who they currently think is the most likely suspect.

But that does not mean the main character needs to understand the full scope of the story, especially not in the first half of the book. The main character might take the entire novel to figure that out. Your reader probably needs hints, and clues, and vague warnings. But they do not need the facts laid out until much, much later in the tale.

Here is a prompt to help you try this out. It asks you to imagine a point, 25% of the way through your novel (in other words, around page 50 - 80), where the protagonist has figured out that SOMETHING is going on, and that it seems like a big deal, but they still don't really perceive what is really going on. They know there is a problem, or an opportunity, and they are taking action on it, but they do not get what it means (for their own emotional development, for the people around them, for the world itself...).

link to the next prompt: the what but not the who
  • Tannis Laidlaw says:

    This lesson has clarified my thinking nicely!

  • Graham Bird says:

    This is so helpful , insightful and brilliant!

  • hailey.chapman.elliott says:

    Amazing! This really unblocked a block for me

  • violetjames51 says:

    This is so amazing. I always rush the story and tell too much, now I can see the reveal through Sophie’s eyes and though she sees the darkness of secrets, she doesn’t know what it is.

    • webb.cynthia says:

      I do the same thing — rush through the story!

  • Very helpful. I started a new project for NaNoWriMo and after 2 weeks got stuck and put it aside. Just module one has given me ideas as to how I can get back to it. Excited to go through the whole course.

  • This was an incredibly helpful exercise and video, Daniel. Thank you.

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