Ask Esther: What are some tactics to address the dreaded, potentially flat, middle section of a manuscript?
Q: What are some tactics to address the dreaded, potentially flat, middle section of a manuscript?
A: There are countless ways for stories to fall short after a strong beginning. We aim for a sweet spot that drives the reader toward mystery, yet away from uncertainty, compelling her to continue. But how do we ensure the action is happening at the right time, in the right order, and quickly enough?
To wrap your mind around the universe of your story, it’s helpful to create an outline, and if you know the level of momentum you’d like to sustain, you can identify where your story requires restructuring or editorial tightening. To improve the middle section, you may want to rethink how you approach the book’s ending. Could you deliver vital pieces of information to the reader earlier? Could you condense the second half by pulling the end closer to the middle, around the 75% mark?
Beyond plot structure, creating a strong narrative arc driven by character development requires taking a look at how your characters relate to their circumstances and to one another as the book progresses. Does your main character have a particular motivation that will propel the rising action in the second half, or do outside forces push the plot forward? Pay attention to where you characters’ thoughts and actions create an interesting dissonance. Use the space in your earlier scenes to plant these details artfully so they suggest the motivations for your character’s future decisions, strengthening the thread that holds the book together.
Watch how time passes from one scene to the next and identify places where time drags unnecessarily. You may find scenes that could be removed to push the story along. (On the other hand, your reader may want the occasional break in tension, so brief pauses or plateaus can be okay.) Even if the structure of your story doesn’t follow linear time, the way you reveal information to the reader can be a sustained pattern of cause and effect that adds another dimension to your narrative.
Above all, if you read as many stories as possible and take the deliberate step of articulating where things go wrong, you’ll build an internal sense of how to avoid similar choices in your own writing. There’s no denying the difficulty of providing the reader a steady drip of “Mystery” in one arm and “Discovery” in the other. But just like any art, the skill comes with practice. It’s a delicate magic that requires endless experimentation—returning and returning and returning to the page with new eyes.
Esther Porter earned her English degree at the University of Minnesota and has published eight children's books, including Peeking Under the City from Capstone Press. She spent several years working for Coffee House Press, and was a founding editor at Revolver, an arts and culture magazine based in Minneapolis. Esther now offers editorial services through the Loft’s Manuscript Critique and Coaching Program.