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…
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.”
Mondays, am I right?
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.
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 Stakes
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.
“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.
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.
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Question of the day: What makes your novel’s middle sag?