September 6 – 11: How do you keep the middle of a novel compelling?

As writers and readers, we love a beginning that hooks us, and a twisting ending that won’t let us go. But what about the often overlooked Act II? How do you keep it equally compelling?

Help kick off the fall Thriller Roundtable season by joining Jim Duncan, Steven James, Todd Ritter, and Kathleen George for a fresh new Thriller Roundtable discussion!


Living and working away in the state of Ohio, Jim Duncan is a writer of dark, urban-fantasy-suspense. His first novel, DEADWORLD, published by Kensington, will be out in April, 2011.

Steven James is the award-winning, national bestselling author of four critically acclaimed thrillers: The Pawn, The Rook, The Knight and The Bishop. He has a Master’s Degree in Storytelling and has taught writing and creative communication throughout the world since 1999. When he’s not writing and speaking he’s playing basketball, rock climbing or eating pepperoni pizza with his three daughters.

Todd Ritter’s first mystery, DEATH NOTICE was published in 2010 by St. Martin’s/Minotaur. The follow-up, BAD MOON, will be released next month. He is a journalist and editor based in New Jersey but born and raised in Pennsylvania. He can frequently be found posting YouTube videos of baby animals on Twitter.

Kathleen George lives in Pittsburgh where she is a professor of theatre at the University of Pittsburgh. Her latest novel THE ODDS was nominated for an Edgar® award for best novel of the year by the Mystery Writers of America. She is also the author of the acclaimed novels TAKEN, FALLEN, and AFTERIMAGE, the short story collection THE MAN IN THE BUICK, scholarly theatrical books and articles, and many short stories.Coming soon in 2011 are HIDEOUT, another novel in the Richard Christie series, and Pittsburgh Noir, an edited collection of short fiction set in Pittsburgh.


Latest posts by ITW (see all)
  1. Welcome back, thriller lovers. Hope everyone had a great summer and is ready to dive into this week’s topic — the dreaded saggy middle. It’s something every writer deals with: How to keep the plot afloat during the long stretch between tantalizing beginning and shocking, sizzling ending.

    A book’s midsection is where an author is most at risk of losing the reader. I’ve encountered many books where I was riveted in the beginning only to be bored during the middle. And sometimes when I put those books down, I didn’t pick them back up again. It wasn’t that I was necessarily bored with the book, although in some cases I was. Instead, I abandoned my reading because I got the sense that the author had lost his way.

    Which brings me to my first tip about making your book’s second act compelling: Outline.

    I know some writers don’t like it. I know they think it stifles creativity and kills spontaneity. Fair enough. But it works for me. Before I write a word of my book, I outline it from start to finish. Knowing how the book is going to end helps me place clues, explore plot points and develop the characters during the middle section. As a result, I don’t get as lost during the midway point as I would working without a net, so to speak.

    There are other ways to keep your midsection tight (think of them as sit-ups for your novel) and I’ll suggest more later this week. But first, I’m curious to hear what everyone else has to say. So start weighing in, folks. How do you make the second acts of your books compelling? Are there any good examples you’ve seen from fellow writers?

    1. I am so with you on this, Todd, about the outlining. Though I am not one to write 100 page detailed character studies and outlines before I begin my book, I ALWAYS know my characters, and I ALWAYS know where I am going with the story. I don’t always know how I’m going to get there, but that’s where creativity comes in. By planning ahead, when I get to the middle, my characters are deep into conflict with lots of unanswered questions, so that keeps the story going. And I, too, have to know my ending, because I revise as I go, and there’s nothing I would hate more than having to go back and restructure the entire book to accommodate a new ending. Thanks for the interesting post.

    2. You’re also a Plotter, too, Todd? I agree with you about outlining. Even though I am still a newbie writer, I have discovered that the outlining is the most intensive part of the process for me. Once the outline is done, I can tweak and enhance as necessary. I never worry about chasing rabbit trails or losing focus.

      Second Acts can actually be a high-point in the story, instead of “a saggy middle.” The reader gets to explore characters in more depth, ride plot twists, and enjoy how we writers get them to the Third Act.

      I LOVE a good middle – – oh, and six-packs, too. 😉

  2. Personally, I don’t think in terms of a story containing three acts. When I write my novels I have no intention of letting the number of acts determine the flow of the story, but precisely the opposite.

    That said, I have heard from people who try to follow a three-act structure that the second act can be a hard place to keep up the suspense and reader interest, and that it can become a place where the story lags.

    To solve this, first step back and remember that at the heart of a story is tension and at the heart of tension is unmet desire. So at its core a story is not about what a character does, but about what a character wants.

    When a story lags (no matter what act that’s happening in) it’s almost always because of missing tension (there’s no unmet desire on the part of the characters) or not enough escalation (there’s too much repetition). To fix this, focus on doing three things: (1) increase our empathy for the main character so we worry and identify more with him, (2) show us how deeply the character wants something but cannot get it, and escalate the story by making that objective even harder to get.

    And finally, I would say, if your second act is too long and boring, simply split it up or add another act.

  3. Great points, Steven. I especially like your advice about creating empathy for the main character. The middle portion of the book allows everyone to take a bit of a breather to explore character and setting — but not so much that it becomes tiresome.

    And your advice about making that objective even harder to get is spot on. It’s very effective to have that objective — unmasking the killer, finding the hidden treasure, locating the missing girl — come just within arm’s reach of the main character before snatching it away again.

  4. The notorious middle of the story. There have been many complaints about the middle made by authors over the years, most of which, I believe, revolve around the difficulties of keeping things interesting until the story reaches its climax. I’d say in general that if the author is losing interest in what the story is doing at any point, then the reader will be too. Steven is correct. There should always be tension of some kind, whether physical or emotional going on in the story. The plot and/or character should always be moving forward in some way.

    There are about as many ways to accomplish this as there are authors. Every writer has their own particular way of developing and writing their story. Personally, I am like Todd, in that I like to use outlines. I need to know where I’m going before I get there. I need the vision of the future or I feel like I’m spinning my wheels. For me, the middle of the story is not an entire act. It’s not the middle third of the story, but a single point in time. My middle is a single event that changes the direction of the story. So, the first half of the book is guided by this, giving it a purpose. In a way, this becomes a second beginning, setting the stage to guide the story toward its resolution.

    In my debut, Deadworld, the middle is an incident that is unexpected and completely alters the main characters world, changing how she thinks about both herself and the preceding events leading up to that point in time. I most good thrillers will have a moment in the story where the reader can definitively point to it and say, “This is where the story changed.” Perhaps it is a realization about the case or something that effects something central to the main character, but whatever it is, it is the lynchpin upon which the story swings. For me, it’s essential to my writing process. So, my one piece of advice, if I were going to give one to writers about the middle, is to give your story an actual midpoint. Create a defining moment for yourself and your readers for the story to swing upon.

    1. That’s a fantastic suggestion about creating a defining moment: Plant something during the middle of the book that just blows the plot wide open, a moment where everything the characters (and the reader) thought they knew turns out to be wrong.

  5. Okay guys, good stuff! To keep things interesting, I should probably weigh in on the outlining topic, since that’s come up several times. Put simply, I am not a fan.

    I write organically and find outlining to be counterproductive. Both approaches have shortcomings. For outliners it’s typically in the transitions from one scene to another. Since the authors know where they’re trying to go with the story there are sometimes jumps in logic when a character doesn’t act in a believable way. Usually, with organic writers everything moves believably from one scene to another, but their stories might lack the integrated climaxes outliners have since it’s easy for organic writers to follow rabbit trails.

    Outliners can learn from organic writers by asking the questions we constantly ask: “What would this character believably do in this situation? What would naturally happen?” And organic writers can learn to ask the questions (that I assume!) outliners ask: “What needs to happen to build to the climax? What scenes are essential to this story?”

    So, my two cents worth: I find that if I’m not surprised by my story my readers won’t be either. In all but one of my novels I haven’t known who the killer was until I was four or five months into the project. I can’t imagine knowing all of that at the beginning. It would drain so much of the fun out of writing for me. I’d be bored to tears spending months filling in the blanks. Thoughts?

  6. I will usually start with a story idea, and most times I know how I want it to end, but I have no idea what road the story will travel to reach my conclusion. I tend to let the story write itself; I’m just the conduit for it. In most of my writing, I don’t know what is going to happen next, until the words appear on my screen. I have never tried to use an outline.
    By the way, Steven, congrats on the Queen. I can’t wait to pick up my copy. I relate to Patrick Bowers, as my first wife died, leaving me a young daughter to raise, and your writing style actually brings out emotions as I read it and correlate to my own experiences. Good job on writing a very exciting series.

  7. I am an outliner who is open to organic changes, if that makes sense? I start out with a chapter by chapter breakdown of the entire manuscript. Under each chapter I paragraph a general direction of what occurs within the chapter. This gives me a starting point for every chapter I come up to. However, as I go about the writing process, I leave myself the freedom to make drastic changes at anytime to the outline that will benefit of the story.

    Before I write a single word, I play out the entire scene in my mind like a movie. This may be because my background includes writing comics and short film scripts. I keep the focus of my attention on the characters who are fleshed out over the course of the story. If the readers feel a connection with the characters, they will follow them anywhere.

    My underlining thought is always this: move the story forward. Whether its at the beginning, the middle, or at the end, I am continually pressing the story forward until the very last page. To repeat what has already been stated, in much better wording I may add, I work on maintaining tension from beginning to end.

    I am definitely an amateur novelist, so you may laugh at my writing process. I’m loving what you guys have said thus far!

  8. Wow, such great information here. Thanks, Steven for sharing this link on Facebook.

    “I find that if I’m not surprised by my story my readers won’t be either. In all but one of my novels I haven’t known who the killer was until I was four or five months into the project. I can’t imagine knowing all of that at the beginning. It would drain so much of the fun out of writing for me.” (Steven)

    I have to admit, I think I’m running into a problem with this right now in the thriller/suspense I’m writing. Wow, I was really enjoying where it was headed. I didn’t write an outline, but in my mind, I tried to figure out the entire storyline first before writing it. BIG MISTAKE. Now 35,000 words into it, I feel like I’m lost and just want to place it in my unfinished pile.

    I wrote the first two without an outline and I loved not knowing how the story was going to unfold. I think I thought too hard about the plot too early, now I’m trying to figure it out.

    The problem is, Tamara (protagonist) is screaming for me to come back to tell the rest of her story.

  9. It’s interesting to hear what works for some writers and what doesn’t. As far as outlining goes, I’m tempted to just wing it next time and see the results. They might not be pretty. For me, outlining works because I stay flexible. I’ll change things if I need to. In fact, with my first book, DEATH NOTICE, I changed the identity of the killer several drafts in.

    Going back to making the middle compelling, what does everyone think of this: Answering a major question/resolving a major plot midway, only to create another question/major plot. Think of it as the “Lost” school of plotting. That show always answered a question by creating about a dozen new ones. It got frustrating, to be sure, but it kept me watching.

  10. I think in terms of promises and payoff when I write. I really believe this sustains reader interest throughout the book.

    For example, if I have a character say, “I’m going to check the DNA results. I should have them in an hour. I’ll give you a call.” That’s a two-fold promise to the reader (1) that the person will contact his associate, (2) he will have some type of info on the DNA test–whether or not it was conclusive.

    So, during the beginning of I book I’m making a lot of promises about the characters, the struggles, the timeline, the villain, etc… Then, as the tension escalates toward the inevitable but unexpected ending, I fulfill those. And, just as Todd mentioned, each time you fulfill one promise (or as he refers to it, “answer a question”) you need to either inject a new one, or propel the story into a new direction with payoff (an answer) that the reader didn’t anticipate, but is satisfied by.

  11. Great advice. I thought that would be the best way to get the story going. That makes me remember promises I need to address in my book. Thanks for this thread!

  12. I don’t do much outlining. However, I did outline for a novel once, and it put me on track and took me farther into the novel than I would have if I did not have one. I finished the piece, albeit it was only 35K. Now I am working on another project without an outline. It’s going well right now, but I am only 5K in right now, so I shouldn’t be too positive. Some of the things that I write are better off using an outline and some are better off without one.

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVIII: Register Today!

One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!