Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.
Shakespeare wrote, “There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.” How true when it comes to writing. You might start your manuscript off with a bang and know that the conclusion is solid. But many a book has been undone by its sagging middle. Have you created a book that holds the reader on tenterhooks throughout? The middle of the book is treacherous territory because you have to create enough tension and interest to keep the reader engaged until the end.
An example of a book that failed to do that, in my opinion, is Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, which I wrote about on Monday. In the middle of the novel, the author made a move that stopped the novel’s pacing dead in its tracks. The scene is a gala event that all of the novel’s main characters will attend. The tension is running high at this point, and the reader realizes that the characters’ actions have brought them to a point of major conflict. So I entered the middle of the novel with anticipation.
But the author chose–for this one scene in the book–to move into the omniscient point of view. As a reader, that effectively disengaged me from everything that happened in the scene. Suddenly I’ve been transported from seeing events from either the point of view of the black hired help or from the point of view of one white woman to, in effect, standing on a balcony overlooking the room and watching each character fall apart in her own way. But I didn’t care! All the energy was drained from the scene by removing me from the moment.
Another novel that has, in my opinion, a flaw in the middle is The Madonnas of Leningrad. This story takes place in the Hermitage during the siege of Leningrad during WWII. The museum is being guarded by those who worked at the Hermitage, to save it from destruction. The workers are starving to death, as is everyone in Leningrad.
The protagonist is on the roof of the museum, reporting any fires started from German bombs. Suddenly the novel moves into magical realism, which we haven’t seen in the first portion of the book, nor will we see anywhere else, and a statue of a Greek god comes to life, rapes the protagonist and leaves her pregnant–a virtual madonna of Leningrad.
As a reader, I was unprepared for this pivotal scene because it seemed to have been dropped into the midst of the book as if from some other novel. Now, if the author had used magical realism earlier, this scene would have made sense. But standing apart from the rest of the novel, while certainly shining a spotlight on this important scene, turned out to be disruptive to the book’s flow. (I thought the book was masterful on so many levels that this misstep was especially disappointing.)
Why did these two authors, who wrote such strong books, make what I consider mistakes? I think it’s because they were working too hard to make sure the middle of their novels didn’t sag.
What can we learn from these middles?
- Realize that you make promises to the reader in the first part of your book about what to expect throughout. Keep your promises.
- If you plan a significant scene in the middle of your book (which is a good way to keep it from sagging), plant the seed for that scene rather than abruptly changing course.
- Keep in mind the importance of creating an arc in your book, even with nonfiction; so the reader has a sense of increasing conflict as the book unfolds.
Just for fun
What author published many of his books in serial format, monthly installments? (A good way to think about your book since each segment would need to leave the reader eager for more.)
The answers to yesterday’s questions: As many of you figured out, the first opening line was from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; the second was from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. (The Willer Cather guess was a good one.)
I’ve read many non-fiction books that pulled me in at the beginning but had me yawning by the middle — so much so, that I never got to the end. Thanks for the reminder to keep up the pace, energy, and voice throughout.
I bought these books because of their strong openings (your first post in this series). But I didn’t buy these authors’ subsequent books because of their saggy middles. [Literary middles, I mean]
who is, “charles dickens?”
janet – i loved this idea of looking at your book almost like serial installments. what an excellent way to keep the middle from sagging!
Teri D. Smith
There may be more than one answer to your monthly installment question, but I’m thinking of an 19th century British writer.
I won’t say it yet to give time for more brainstorming and responses.
Teri D. Smith
Whoops, I hit send before I intended to. I meant to add that you have incredible insight about working too hard to avoid sagging middles.
You’ve got me thinking!
James Andrew Wilson
I think that planning a significant scene in the middle of a book is vital. With my fiction, I try to view the first half as a bomb. Tick . . . tick . . . tick. And then I like to blow it up at the halfway marker. Suddenly everything is in pieces and you wonder how in the world the characters are going to make it through.
You keep reading to find out, and suddenly you discover that there is another bomb. A much bigger bomb. I set this one ticking as close to that half way marker as possible, and try to keep it going up until the very end.
I have also seen books that seem to sag in the middle. Either that or I’m reading and waiting for that Pow moment to happen–for something to spark, to go boom, to send me flying through the rest of the pages because I MUST see what happens. Sadly, I’ll often find myself closing the book half way because it seems like nothing has happened or will happen until the very end.
If other readers are like me, they don’t have the patience to wait for the bomb to go off until the last quarter of the book. In another age of fiction, I think this might have been okay. But we’re impatient these days. We want things to blow up quickly and then to blow up again. And then again. Boom, boom, boom. Give us the conflict and make it juicy!
Or maybe that’s just me.
Good discussion this week!
Serial author: Charles Dickens
I believe Dickens used a serial format. Also, many of Isaac Asimov’s most well-known works were first published in “Astounding” and later gathered into book form.
Janet, was it Charles Dickens who did this? (along with others?) Great Expectations and Tale of two Cities. I forget the name of the publication and wasn’t it done weekly? Well, one of them was weekly the another monthly.
One of the things that’s helping me with middles is learning about micro tension and character arcs and how impt it is for some even lesser characters to have a completed arc. I find I can spruce up a middle by allowing a lesser character room to grow, savign a significant scene for him/her to work out a problem and adding what donald maas calls micro-tension–a concept I think is awesome.
James Andrew Wilson
I noticed you wrote fireworks, not sparklers. 🙂
Thanks for your comments. James, I don’t know that I need bombs exploding through a novel I’m reading, but I certainly want fireworks, especially midway through to keep me enthusiastic about finding out what happens next.
I think Robert Louis Stevenson also wrote Treasure Island in installments–as an adventure series for boys.
What a great way to think about our book! If we are trying to keep the tension high with each chapter, then we would want to include a hook, major conflict, and read on prompt–something to keep the reader waiting for the next installment of our book!
I’m finding the middle of my book to be the hardest part to perfect. It’s hard to keep the tension up, but not give away the ending.
I thought C.S. Lewis did the serial thing with the Narnia books, too, didn’t he? Or am I remembering that wrong?
My first guess was Dickens also. Well, actually it was LM Montgomery and then I saw it was a man you wanted.
My problem with middles is that I’m jumping into the beginning, showing action, letting the reader get to know the character slowly, and then I get to the middle and find I have to do two things there. I have to fill in the backstory that now really needs to be told or nothing the character does makes any sense, and I have to foreshadow the end.
I bore myself because it’s all talk, talk, talk, explanation, set-up, talk, talk, talk. And when I’m bored my crit group is also bored. UGH.
I think the answer does lie in the micro-tension deal, but how to write it? And I’m pretty lousy at character arcs too. Maybe you could write about these in upcoming posts sometime, Janet.
On a happy note, I got Maass’ latest, The Fire in Fiction just today. I expect good things to come of it.
Brian T. Carroll
The leap to magical realism does sound like a gamble that lost, but one of the moves that makes Ian McEwan’s ATONEMENT zing throughout is that he changes genre twice, and pulls it off. One story that stands out for me as especially strong in the middle was PEACE LIKE A RIVER. Enger introduced some very memorable characters, both villains and romantic interests, midway. These came with new story lines, so that the middle of the book was also the beginning of many good things.
Yes, my middle sags. *sigh*
Oh, you’re talking about BOOKS! Good thing too; editing is cheaper and easier than liposuction.
I work through the middle of my books by imagining them scene by scene and forcing each scene to validate its inclusion. It has to move the story forward or develop the character or lay the groundwork for future developments. Preferably more than one. And it should pull the reader forward, by creating tension, awakening questions, or entertaining the reader in some way. After I finish the first draft, the first thing I do is go through the manuscript chopping entire paragraphs, scenes, or even chapters if they aren’t pulling their weight. Sometimes what looked like a good idea at the time I was writing it just doesn’t fit well into the finished product.