1.11.2018

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

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