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.)