This article that I wrote originally appeared on Suite101.
Avoid the Sagging Middle
Tips to Write a Dynamic Center Segment of a Novel
Here are a few principles to help a writer avoid a stagnant or slow-paced middle section of a novel.
The focus of the middle of the novel is to push your character to the climax. If writers can keep that point in mind, it will help them craft the events of the middle section to be more driven and purposeful. Here are a few principles to write by.
Strive For Constant Change
Obstacles force the character to adjust his plans toward his external goal.
Faced with each obstacle, the character has to decide what to do next. He makes adjustments, still with that external goal in sight.
Then, another obstacle. More adjustment, more decisions. More striving toward his external goal, but via a different path.
Then another obstacle.
This is the ideal pattern for the middle portion of the book. It provides constant change for the character, which also keeps the reader reading.
Give the Character More Information In Small Pieces
With each obstacle, impart more information to the character. This keeps the reader reading because he wants to know more, he wants to find out what's happening along with the character.
The best part is that each piece of information itself causes change within the character—maybe altering perceptions, attitudes, or beliefs. This constant internal change in the character as the story goes along also helps the middle section flow smoothly, with a good reading pace.
Focus on the Character's External Goal
Everything you include in the novel should relate to the character's external goal. It might be better to leave out anything that doesn't affect her goal. You may think of intriguing tangential paths to lead the characters down, but if those paths don't lead back to the main story and external goal, consider leaving them out and putting them in a different novel.
This isn't a hard and fast rule, but one thing you definitely want to avoid is any scene where the only purpose of the scene is to show character development. Combine character development with other things that have to do with the plot of the story, so that the scene accomplishes several things at once.
There also may be scenes you don't want to write, but if the events have a major impact on the characters, don't have them happen offstage—bring your reader along for the emotional ride.
Don't Be Repetitious
Each scene should add something different and new to the story. The same two characters rehashing the same old argument is boring.
Include new information. New elements. The unexpected. New twists.
The purpose your middle is to build toward the climax. Don't let your characters hike around and around the mountain. Make them climb. Make them work hard. Build the tension and conflict toward that climactic moment.