Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Slogging Through the Middle

The scene has been set. The main characters introduced. There’s trouble in paradise, enough to build the intrigue. Enough to tell you something big is coming. Now, you just have to get there.

Writing the middle of a story can be tricky. There are four major elements I try to keep in mind during this section: tension, action, pacing, and relevance. The first three are fairly straightforward. Tension, to me, is putting the pressure on. Keeping your hero apprehensive rather than relaxed. Forcing her to act or react, and contemplate her decisions. The action increases here. Conflicts keep coming – some physical, some psychological. Moral dilemmas arise and mistakes are made, but your hero must keep pushing on, because if she slows down xyz will happen. The cops will catch her. She’ll be infected by zombieitis. Her best friend will be eaten by polar bears. The mounting pressure forces her to adapt and make changes, to shed her old skin in order to survive, so that when faced with the final showdown, she’ll be ready.

Now, just because I try to keep these things in mind doesn’t mean I always succeed. Hence my fourth element, relevance.

Typically when I start a story I have a pretty solid beginning, a few ideas for some cool scenes in the middle, and know how I want it to end. But once I get past the intro I find myself wandering. Adding too much background. Creating conflicts to challenge my characters that don’t necessarily add to the story. In the beginning these conflicts seem to fit the theme at least, but inevitably, somewhere along the line I’ll have the bright idea to take my hero down a totally different path. Maybe it’s a road trip off the grid. Maybe it’s the random introduction of vampires. Maybe I just blow a bunch of stuff up. It always makes sense at the time.

This is why ARTICLE 5 was over 500 pages when I first sent it to my agent. And even after three rounds of revisions with her, it’s why my editor later said, “We need to cut these 50 pages.” Fifty. Pages. I heard the term “tightening up” a lot during that time. Like I was putting ARTICLE 5 through boot camp. It turns out this is exactly what I was doing.

I hear a lot of writers struggle with the middle section because they get bored, or slow down. My problem is the opposite. I love the middle section. I love it too much. I write myself right down Tangent Road, and then end up pulling my hair out because I can’t find my way back to the end. This is why relevance is such an important concept for me to consider. I’ve recently started expanding my outlines, and this helps, but for those random sparks of “brilliance” that occur midstride I try to remember to ask myself one question: how does this scene relate to the story? If it takes more than a minute to respond, or if the answer involves something along the lines of “because it would be awesome,” it usually needs to be cut. It’s not a perfect system, but hey, I’m still learning.

Kristen Simmons is the author of ARTICLE 5, the first installment of a dystopian trilogy, which will be published by Tor Teen in February 2012. Learn more about her at her here, on goodreads, or on facebook.


  1. Ha! I love this. Cut the things that only exist because it would be awesome! Check. :P Also, I would so read a book about a girl defending her best friend against polar bears. Just saying.

  2. Oh I love this because I totally understand. It's sooo easy to wander through the fields of potential in the middle.

  3. Jess and Jodi - perhaps we should co-author a story that has no end in sight, featuring every awesome scenerio we can think of. I'm in. Let's do it. At least three of us will love it.

  4. haha, oh my gosh I love that picture!

  5. I asked myself "Would it be awesome for the story?" And usually the answer was yes. I have the tendency to ONLY include what is necessary and therefore my first drafts are super short. I have to add description in a second pass.

  6. I am in awe of you (yet again) Lenore!

  7. I think that's the greatest picture I've ever seen.