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Middles – Part 5: Cramped Middles

You can read the rest of this series here:

Part 1: Mushy Middle Syndrome
Part 2: Propel Yourself into the Middle
Part 3: The Meandering Middle
Part 4: The Wispy Middle

Have you ever watched one of those videos where a bunch of goofs cram themselves into a phone booth or some other tiny space just to see how many people they can get in there? And then when they start coming out, you sort of keep wondering, “how many are there?” I confess, I feel a little like that with my family. We have four kids, so when we open the minivan and they all come piling out, I wonder if people will think we’re a clown car.

This can also be a problem with story middles—too many things, not enough space. It’s as if the author just throws a mishmash of unbelievable events into a middle without much of a thread to hold them together. The story feels cramped and unbelievable after a while, and it leads to Book-Meet-Wall Syndrome.

Don’t confuse this problem with something that’s action-packed. Jim Butcher’s Furies of Calderon starts with action and doesn’t let up till the last page. So what’s the difference between cramped and action-packed?

Plot. Again. Are you tired of me saying it yet?

I tend to think that cramped middles suffer from lack of plot just as much as meandering or wispy middles. Even if there is a good, solid plot in the cramped middle, the author buries it under too much other stuff. This problem could also be a symptom of a new author who’s not comfortable with raising tension in increments, or a new author who just wants to try out every plot device and situation out there. (I’m not slamming on anyone here, I promise—I’ve made almost every single mistake I write about!)

How do you fix a cramped middle? Or keep a cramped middle from happening?

Revisit your intervals.

I keep going back to this—not because I like repeating myself, but because I think it’s a valuable way to look at story. Some cramped middles go from event to event to event with no drop off or rest period after the action. Look at your scenes and events. Can you move things around so that your story is paced better? Can you give your reader an emotional break? Also, remember that the high points of those intervals should have some kind of plot significance—a reversal of some kind. It doesn’t have to be big. In Ravenmarked, the first reversal is where Connor Mac Niall agrees to take extra time to teach his ward how to defend herself. All of a sudden, his journey with her will take a lot more time.

Eliminate some events or scenes.

Make a plot map and highlight the key events of your plot. Then, look at all of the other events. Do they add anything to the plot? If not, eliminate them. If you must, start with the climax and work backward. Figure out how the events progress naturally and then eliminate events that don’t contribute to the final climax.

Add tension.

Tension is different from an event or a single scene. Tension is a tightening, not a release. When you add tension, you put little clues in each scene to show what’s coming in the future. Maybe the tension comes through in a conversation or a discovery by a main character. Maybe it’s sexual tension between two characters. One of my favorite scenes in Ravenmarked is one where nothing happens between the two main characters. The tension in the scene is palpable—it’s clear they want to sleep together, but they don’t. You can do that with any kind of event—tighten it, but then avoid the event or save it for later.

Move some scenes to a subplot.

This suggestion requires that you have a subplot or two, and it probably works better for bigger, epic works, but I’ve had to do it. One of my subplots in Bloodbonded, my current WIP, was feeling very cramped. I took a key event from it and moved it to another subplot and had another character experience it, and suddenly, both subplots worked better. The original one could breathe better, and the other one was less wispy.

Back to my example of Furies of Calderon. There are some things about that book I didn’t like, but I thought Butcher was masterful in the way he kept his eye on the main plot and the threads that held it together. All of the subplots worked to propel the main plot along, and all of the various viewpoints allowed him to give the reader some rest periods, some sense of rising tension, and some pure action along the way. He would leave me hanging with a suspenseful chapter ending and then cut to a quieter scene where I could catch my breath and find out what other characters were doing. That’s ideal, I think.

With all of these various middle problems, I think a very good step is to have a beta reader or critique partner evaluate your work. You don’t have to farm your work out to a dozen people in a writer’s group or workshop—just one or two trusted writing partners is enough. Often, we already know what the problems are in our works—we just need someone else to help us put names and definitions on the problems. A critique partner you trust can be invaluable in this arena. If you suspect you have a meandering, wispy, or cramped middle, ask your reader to evaluate your manuscript for that specific issue.

Next month, I’ll be talking about adding subplots to your story, and then we’ll wrap it all up with a good look at the climax and denouement.

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