Daily Distraction: Keeping Up the Tension
Posted on January 9, 2014
Today, I had a very pleasant distraction. One of my students missed the previous session of the Writing for Young Adults course I teach in Amsterdam. I met her in a restaurant nearby to bring her up to speed. The subject of that session was ‘Keeping Up the Tension’ and it tackled what is often referred to as the sagging middle. That’s right, the sagging middle. It’s that huge part between a writer’s phenomenal, gripping beginning and the staggering, breathtaking end of his novel. In a 3-act structure that middle would approximately cover 50% of the book. A hefty part if your readers have to force themselves to keep their eyes open and not nod off.
Flesh out the middle is what writing books tell you, but if the fleshing out culminates in mere padding and fluffing up the story with words and meaningless events, you’re on the wrong track. I thing it’s good practice to work your way through that 50% by planning a major and shocking event in the middle of the book. Syd Field calls it the midpoint reversal, something that throws the entire story to the side and leaves the reader in shock, because he never saw it coming. With the midpoint reversal you make it harder for your protagonist to reach his goal. Floor your poor protagonist (I say ‘poor’ but I urge you to never feel sorry for your protagonist! You’re there to make his life miserable! – and baffle your readers along. After the midpoint reversal nothing is certain anymore, the ending of your story is suddenly unpredictable and your protagonist has to work himself into a sweat to find a way out. That will give you new momentum to drive your story forward to the end.
Frustration Building, is one of the writing exercises for this session. My students have to make a list of at least 10 obstacles that can disrupt their protagonists’ lives, obstacles that would make the protagonist to give up, dark secrets that could come out and ruin everything, inner goals clashing with outer goals, a sacrifice of an ally or a personal belief of the protagonist. They outline a scene with one of these obstacles and then explain the scene to their peers and what they try to accomplish with the obstacle, how it connects to the plot and the protagonist’s journey. That forces them to really think it through, because an obstacle can never be a random event. Everything that happens in your story has to serve the story.
What do you do to avoid your novel from sagging in the middle?