Toning The Muffin-Top: The Flabby Midsection of Your Novel

CrossfitThe middle is the hardest part. Well, usually it’s the softest, doughiest part. But with some sweat and hard work, it can be the hardest, tightest part of your whole novel.

As authors, we often focus most of our attention on the first page, inciting incident, the climax, and the conclusion. And we miss the meat of the story: the middle.

This is the first of a 2-part series. Or a dilogy (Yes, it’s kind of a word. Not in Webster’s, but so what). Next Monday you can look forward to a post on structuring the middle.

I hate structure, so it will be an interesting article.

But for now…

 

Tension

Don’t worry, not the kind of tension you feel when your grandpa visits your work two weeks after you told your boss you couldn’t come in because you had to go to your grandpa’s funeral. Super last minute. Need the weekend off, okay? Thanks.

Not that kind of tension.

This kind of tension is like when you get a flat tire at midnight. So you get the spare, but naturally, that’s flat too. Then it starts raining. Then your ex’s new boyfriend drives by and offers you a ride. Then you start crying in front of him, so he awkwardly leaves. And then you get bitten by a snake. And then you have to suck the venom out. But then you jump at the thunder and accidentally swallow. You look up online if that will kill you, but your phone got water damage from the rain. And you fall asleep in the backseat, waking up God-knows-when without a spleen.

And all you can say to yourself is, “Well that escalated quickly.”

Shadows

Mondays, am I right?

Anyone?

The tension escalated with every sentence of that hyper-realistic scenario. The biggest mistake you can make in the middle of your novel is to stop escalating the tension.

Don’t stop after your character gets a flat tire. Make their situation far worse than that. Don’t stop after your main character’s dream girl falls in love with someone else, make it far worse than that. Don’t only have the hero miss their train, make it far worse than that.

Take it twenty steps further. When I’m on the edge of my seat, push a little further until I’m teetering.

Oscar Wilde Quote

 

But, I Need to Develop my Character in the Middle of the Novel

In the middle of the book, it’s easy to focus on character development, diving into backstory, or introducing another character (oftentimes too many characters are introduced in the middle).

But, unless any of those things heightens tension, don’t do it. When looking over a chapter, ask yourself, “Does the tension escalate throughout the chapter?”

If not, delete the chapter or rewrite it until it’s follows that principle. Because as is, the chapter is filler, fluff, bullshit, words without meaning… choose whichever description offends you most.

And then use that anger to write a better chapter.

 

Before You Stone Me to Death…

Don’t confuse “tension” for “dangerous situations.” You need to create inner and outer tension. You need a balance.

If your genre is drama or romance, then I want to see emotional and relational carnage, not spleenless supporting characters with snake venom in his stomach. This principle remains true for every genre of storytelling. Without tension, you’re just spewing letters; you’re not telling a story.

 

Raise the StakesMountain

At the climax, when your main character will either succeed or fail, the stakes have to be high. Probably higher than where you currently have them. If you can make the situation worse for your character in the chance that they don’t succeed, do it.

Chuck Wendig said,

“Sometimes a story needs fewer hills and more mountains. Angles instead of curves. Fangs instead of molars.”

 

Lower the Low Points

In every story, there’s a moment where all hope is lost. In that moment, make it much, much worse. Stopping when victory seems unlikely is lame.

Push on and make victory look impossible. And then push further until the audience is begging for a miracle.

 

The Countdown

This is one of the most common ways to escalate tension. In 48 hours the bomb is going to go off, your wife will give birth, or the asteroid is going to hit Earth.

Writer’s Digest contributor Steven James said,

“Countdowns and deadlines can be helpful, but can work against you if they don’t feed the story’s escalation. For example, having every chapter of your book start one hour closer to the climax is a gimmick that gets old after a while because it’s repetitious and predictable—two things that kill escalation.”

Shorten the countdown’s timeline or have it start later in the book. Both options can remove the repetitiousness.

This section exists more of a warning about countdowns rather than me encouraging you to use them. They’re so popular, I had to mention them since I’ve seen them done poorly so many times.

Do whatever you want. Just don’t suck at it. Okay? Great.

 

If You Liked This Post…

You can get my weekly blog posts delivered by hand to your digital inbox. (It’s called technology, don’t worry about it). On the top of the page, tell me where to send next week’s blog post about structuring your novel’s muffin-top.

 

Question of the day: What makes your novel’s middle sag?

11 Comments

  1. Thanks for the info. Of course now I have to go and rewrite the middle but thanks, really.

    • bdschmitt

      June 8, 2015 at 5:53 pm

      Re-writing is my favorite part of the writing process. Stressful, but it’s delightful to see things fall into place, isn’t it?

      • During the first round of editing on my novel, I cut a scene that had been with the story from the beginning because it no longer made sense. It took me ten minutes to actually delete it, because it had previously been a favorite moment. As I’m reading through on my second round of editing, I’m so happy I re-wrote that single scene because it makes everything so much better tension wise. I’m learning that it’s best not to be too attached to any single part of what you write. 🙂

        • bdschmitt

          June 9, 2015 at 12:14 pm

          That reminds me of the book Story by Robert McKee. If you haven’t already, you need to read it. (Or get the Audiobook as I did – it’s great).

          He advises to write each scene on a notecard. After you’ve written your whole story, you still don’t have any dialogue or narration. Just a frame. Then he says that’s where you edit the most. You’re not yet attached to any specific line, scene, or emotion – it’s all in the effort of supporting the tension and story.

          It was a unique perspective I am implementing in the novel I’m writing now, because far too often I’ve been too attached to a scene or line.

          • That’s an interesting way of writing, I’ll have to try that at some point and see how it goes. Cause seriously, it took me ten minutes to delete that one scene. I kept staring at the highlighted text, my finger hovering over the delete button, but couldn’t do it. I almost had someone else do it. haha.

            • bdschmitt

              June 9, 2015 at 12:32 pm

              Also, the nice thing is that it’s easy to rearrange the scenes with that setup. And, I can empathize with that emotional trauma, having to murder your own creation.

  2. I’ve been reading this blog for much of the afternoon and I love it! Just wanted to let you know how perfect it is.

    • bdschmitt

      June 8, 2015 at 5:55 pm

      Thank you for your kind words, Alex. I’m glad you find this useful, and hope to have you back next week!

      • Great post, Ben (and thanks for the shout-out!) I enjoyed your style. Am sharing this, I’m sure Now Novel’s writer community will find it useful.
        Jordan at Now Novel

        • bdschmitt

          June 10, 2015 at 8:07 am

          I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jordan! I’m a fan of Now Novel as well, so I hope the community enjoys this as well =)

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