Friday, February 1, 2019

Avoiding the Midbook Slump: Three Techniques to Keep Readers Reading

Marie, a blog reader, has been working on her storyboard and organizing her chapters, using the three act system that is so helpful for sorting out what belongs and what doesn't in early drafts and revisions.   She's concerned about the middle of her book, though.  
"Act I is comprised of chapters with progressive complications for my protagonist," she writes.  But in the beginning of Act II, Marie's protagonist begins recovering from her problems.  "These chapters are turning out to be much more tied up in a bow but I want to keep the reader interested until my protagonist gets smacked with a big problem at the climax of Act II.  How do I let my protagonist recover from problems at the beginning of Act II yet keep the reader wondering/questioning/guessing?"

Middles are, for many writers, the hardest to write, just because of this dilemma.  Whatever your genre, by midbook, the initial problem has been sorted out, at least somewhat, and your narrator (or reader, in nonfiction) is getting a handle on stuff.  

I love the W storyboard because it demands the middle be considered--it helps me avoid getting too comfortable with recovery from problems.

Keeping the middle active and interesting is not easy.  Slumpy middles usually occur in the good times of the story, when the protagonist rallies and makes some kind of decision after hitting a low point, and things get a little better.  

On the W storyboard, the character (or narrator in memoir) falls for a while after the story starts.  That's the Act I that Marie's talking about. Things get worse.  Then the character hits a low point and there's a kind of leveling out.  Some writers call this the "first turning point" of the story at the end of Act I.  Or point 2 on the storyboard, the bottom of the first leg of the W.  

Your Book Starts Here - Storyboarding for Writers
Your Book Starts Here - Storyboarding for Writers

This is where things can get a little dicey, in terms of tension.  As the character is "recovering from the problem" that the book started with, the pace naturally slows.  How do you keep the tension and suspense in that section when the trajectory is supposed to be bit more positive?

I struggle with this too!  My recent novel, Outlaws,lost 10,000 words in its midbook before it got accepted by an agent.  I heard over and over again as I submitted that it slowed too much midbook.  So I got ruthless.  I made a chart and listed all the midbook chapters, from the end of Act I to the middle of Act II (point 2 to 3 above on the W).  I forced myself to ask:  What happens in this chapter to grow the tension?  What new problem is introduced?

Where there wasn't any problem, I cut stuff.  A lot of stuff.  

I made sure the chapters ALL had something happening of consequence.  Even if good stuff was also happening, I introduced new problems.  If I couldn't think of any, the chapter/scene/section got moved out.

Gulp.  It hurt!  I'd spent ages on crafting those pages.  But I knew it was critical to the readability of my novel that I stay detached from all my efforts and only kept what served the book.

Sometimes, I couldn't delete a section, because it was pivotal to the story in another way than rising the tension.  So I worked with a few other techniques.  I'll list them below:

1.  Create a new twist at the end of the book, and work it backwards, planting clues that change and enliven the middle.  Such as . . . an enemy turns out to be a friend or vice versa.

2.  Introduce a new character or a mentor, maybe someone who brings in a different viewpoint and challenges the situation a little.

3.  When I couldn't think of new dramatic action to try, I made a list of 10 things that could happen tried out one of them in a freewrite.  For memoir, you can write the list then imagine the narrator facing these.  Sometimes it brings an idea of what did happen that you're forgetting (or feel loathe to include but should).

4.  Change locations!  (Think Eat, Pray, Love)

5.  And my favorite . . . scope out that interior monologue (thoughts, feelings, memories) and get people moving onstage.

If this idea inspires, terrifies, or intrigues you, it might be worth trying this week.  Find your midbook, even one middle chapter, and test out one of the ideas above.  See if it makes your middle less slumped and more on edge. 

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