Pegging the Mid-Book Slump: Casting Ahead

The last post covered one means of addressing a sagging middle of the novel: returning to the opening section and charting the best plot advances there as a way to continue progress on those strengths. The other way is to look forward. You know what happens in the climax sequence. You can set up the scenes in the middle as ways to make the climax pay off even more than it does now.

As with the opening 150 pages, draw up a chart that provides a quick synopsis of each scene in the climax. A good climax runs anywhere from 50 to 100 pages. Pay special attention to what happens to each of your major characters—do you have a handful? That will tell you which elements need to be bolstered the most.

Now return to the halfway point and summarize the scenes between that and the climax sequence. Check the list you’ve just created with the list for the climax. Are events moving forward with the same urgency? If not, you should be doing two things. First, use where the book ends up as a guide for cutting excess scenes in the middle. For example, if the hero meets a fascinating curandero in a canyon prior to making the dash with his family over the U.S. border, you have to ask yourself: is it worth spending 20 pages on Mexican shaman lore?

Better yet, go back and forth between the middle and ending sequences, and think through how to connect the scenes. Using the same example, you might use the idea of family as a plot element. What would happen if the hero’s older brother was killed just before the climax sequence started? That would inflame the reader’s resentment of the cruel border agents at the very point they will try to do their worst to the family.

Another point to look for is a character who ends up playing a dramatic role in the climax. Has she been important the entire book, or does she come out of nowhere to carry a dramatic burden? If the latter, you can insert scenes into the sagging middle that show how dynamic she is—i.e., worthy of carrying such a burden.

Exercise: You can further refine the linkage between the two sections. Concentrate on only one character per list. Pick out the ones that really matter in the climax and work backward. Are they maintaining a constant presence during this penultimate period, or do they drop out of the book for a while? On the converse side, are you spending a lot of time with a character in the sagging middle who ends up playing a minor role in the end? You will know because you have the evidence right at your fingertips.

“Slump? I ain't in no slump... I just ain't hitting.”
—Yogi Berra

Copyright @ 2108, John Paine


Pegging the Mid-Book Slump: Going Back

Many books get off to a compelling start, and many end with a stirring climax sequence. Yet in the middle of the book—roughly the stretch between the halfway and three-quarters points—a number of them lose their forward momentum. Relationships start to feel stuck in neutral. The plot obstacles start to lose their freshness. Everyone seems to be going in circles—yep, I knew that character was going to do that.

Several factors can lead to the middle-book sag. An author can become so involved in the thrumming vibe between two characters that she doesn’t realize they have trod over similar ground earlier. Another author may delight in further exploits for his hero to conquer, not realizing that they don’t lead him any closer to his goal. The result is a series of scenes that move the plot markers forward incrementally. As a whole, the book grinds down to that halting speed.

How can this stifling period be avoided? The best way is to pull your head up, out of the present proceedings. You need to make executive decisions. Forget about what you’re planning to write next. Instead, take a long view of what you’ve accomplished. Go back to the beginning of the book and review all of the scenes up to page 150, say. Write down in a chart what forward progress was made in each scene. It’s not so onerous: a list of 20 chapters will yield a list maybe a page and a half long. 

What you’re looking for is progress. How decisively have you moved forward from one scene to the next? Let’s take the example of a romance. What steps have your lovers taken from first sight to first sex? What have you done since that dramatic apex? If all they’re doing is having more creative sex, that’s the problem. Instead, you should be looking for new plot obstacles—a former spouse who promises to reform or a serious blow to fidelity between the two lovers. 

If a book features a hero’s journey, you probably started with lesser villains, and now you’ve gone up the ranks until your hero has no one left to fight . . . except the arch villain. So go ahead. Make the villain known, and then have him continue to commit evil deeds, cackling and swinging his cape.
What you want are plot ideas that make the same bold progress you were making early on. You may have to go back in the book to stitch in setup material for those new steps. And that’s fine, because your problem, underlying that sag, is that your plot wasn’t big enough in the first place.

Exercise: When reviewing the first half, keep an eye out for characters that you enjoyed writing about. It shows that you really connected with them. So who should get a bigger role? The one you already like. See if you can devise ways to expand her role.

“Words are a commodity in which there is never any slump.” 
—Christopher Morley

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


How to Go from Tell to Show

The show, don’t tell dictum espoused by every writing coach you will ever meet sounds simple in theory but more difficult to apply in practice. You are supposed to put into action the comments the author makes about a character’s qualities. Yet it seems that if you were to put on display every observation you make about the different characters, the novel could be 1,000 pages long.

The key is artful positioning. You construct scenes in such a way that the qualities you want to emphasize are built into the activity being covered. Let’s take an example: “He was blessed with many of his father’s qualities, but in one respect he was different. He was far more driven.”

First, isolate the qualities: similarity and more driven. How do you show a father and son are alike? You show them engaged in an activity together. The son might admire his father’s natural talent with multiplying numbers in his head, and he comments on it. The father replies, “Oh, I’m quick, but don’t forget all the numbers you handle every day.” A natural exchange that takes a few sentences. To add the second quality, the son might wonder idly why, given how brilliant he is, his father was content to remain a backroom actuary. The son is a stockbroker at a hard-charging Wall Street firm. You have taken comments and made them into facts.

Such examples could be spooled out in countless directions. That’s because a quality a person possesses is usually a common human trait. So you can apply a specific use for it and place it in a context in which it is realized.

Let’s try another one: “Her husband’s workaholism was an oppressive burden. To compensate she was always redecorating or volunteering for another committee.” How do you put this in action? Workaholism implies absence, either coming home late at night or arriving late at a social function. So that determines the timing of the scene. I would vote for the function as the setting, because if it is a charity event she is hosting, she’d be on edge anyway, and she’d be likely to castigate him—“You always have some meeting that runs late!” Now that dry telling has become an interesting show. What’s the work-weary husband going to say to that?

Exercise: Review the manuscript for comments on a character’s qualities. When you find one that can’t be put into action—say, a comment on how a flighty sister has, over the years, disappointed her old sister—place it within a conversation they’re having. The sister talks about the latest flighty thing she’s done, and the older sister has that comment as a thought before she responds.

“It is our choices . . . that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
—J. K. Rowling

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.