How to keep tension through the middle.

In my last post I talked about how the book DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth hooked me in the first ten chapters by taking advantage of the Debate. And how she used that to tie the internal conflict to the external conflict. This made me care. It added believability and dimension to the main character.

It’s called high stakes. The main character had to make a decision that mattered. Blake Snyder refers to it as primal. The decision was about family and survival. A universal motivation that any reader can relate to. And so the dystopian part of the novel faded and I was just reading about a girl making tough choices and dealing with the consequences.  #win

But after Act I, the conflict didn’t stop. The debate didn’t stop. The debate turned into part of her character arc and growth over the course of the novel. In other words, the opening directly affected the entire novel. It wasn’t a gimmick.

But I loved how each chapter continued to have high stakes. New situations cropped up that might not have been part of the main storyline but made me turn the pages pretty fast. It’s called subplots that work. Almost every chapter created a new tense situation for the character to deal with. And those situations directly affected the emotional arc of the main character.

And the midpoint introduced a major plot twist/mystery.

Keeping tension through the middle:

  • Create an opening that directly affects the entire novel.
  • Make sure the main character’s motivations are primal.
  • If you can, continue the debate into Act II.
  • The main character should make tough choices and deal with the consequences.
  • Have a well-developed character arc.
  • Create subplots where the main character must make choices.
  • Create subplots that affect the main storyline.
  • Create a midpoint that changes the story. Reveal something big.

Yes I created this list based on a best-seller commercial book. But the successful character driven more literary books I’ve read and analyzed contain all these elements too, on a scale that fit the story.

This is what I love to read and write.

What do you love to read and write? Tell me. Study those books and create your own lists for what works and apply them to your writing.

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36 Responses to How to keep tension through the middle.

  1. anne gallagher May 25, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    This is why I think so many writers have trouble with their middles, the stakes arent’ high enough and then when they are, they don’t really deal with the choices they make. They just kind of flounder along until they get to the end.

    Great posts. I did read yesterday’s about the debate (great job) just didn’t get a chance to comment.

  2. mooderino May 25, 2011 at 10:53 am #

    Good points. i think a lot of people assume if they aren’t writing a commercial thriller than thses things don’t apply to them. As you say, it’s all about scale, what matters to them as characters.


    (started following you on twitter)

  3. christine danek May 25, 2011 at 11:15 am #

    I’m having trouble in the middle of my current WiP. One reason is because I’ve rushed it. I’m taking your list and printing it out to set next to my laptop.
    Thanks and I really have to get that book!!

  4. PK Hrezo May 25, 2011 at 12:44 pm #

    I just had to go back and add more tension into my WIP first chapter. As someone who steers away from tension, it’s hard for me to add it in to my writing right off the bat. Usually takes beta readers to point out there needs to be more. What can I say, I’m just too nice. lol

    • Laura May 25, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

      When the stakes are high from the beginning with lots of potential for scenes OR you have a fully imagined character – I think the middle is easier to get through. What do you all think?

  5. Angela Felsted May 25, 2011 at 12:48 pm #

    Great list, Laura. The only problem with having your subplots and minor characters tied into the main plot is that you need to find someway to stick them in your query without everything sounding confusing.

    Once I figure out how to do that, I’ll be set.

    • Laura May 25, 2011 at 1:05 pm #

      Angela – Subplots do not belong in a query. There’s no reason you can’t cover the premise of your story and stick to the main plot line. If you start getting into subplots, queries start getting confusing b/c you can’t explain all the connections in 200 words. I’ve learned that the hard way!

  6. Kelly Polark May 25, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    Yes! Great tips and my current wip definitely has tension looming!

  7. Susan Sipal May 25, 2011 at 1:56 pm #

    I love your check-list for the middle. The middle is such a wonderful time of exploration for characters and writers — but keeping that tension up is so important. And you’re right, making sure the stakes are high enough (to the characters involved) to carry through is what keeps the middle from sagging.

  8. Karen Strong May 25, 2011 at 2:13 pm #

    Totally agree with you about DIVERGENT Laura. This will be one book that I will probably break apart just to see all the moving parts. You can learn so much on the craft this way.

    I love reading books that up the stakes. High concept but still have some type of deep characterization.

    Having complications/problems in the middle can help you get through — ugh, middles are a beast!

  9. Susan Kaye Quinn May 25, 2011 at 2:20 pm #

    I love this kind of ever-increasing drama, and try to put it into my stories. A lot of it comes in the backbone of the first draft, but even as I’m drafting now, I’m making notes as to where I need to come back and amp up tension, deepen character, etc. etc. Oh, revisions, this is why I kinda like you too. 🙂

  10. Stina Lindenblatt May 25, 2011 at 2:36 pm #

    Between STC and your posts, Laura. My next outline is going to rock. 😀

    • Laura May 25, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

      I just hope the next time I go to outline I can incorporate all these elements too!

  11. Julie Musil May 25, 2011 at 2:54 pm #

    Can I repeat myself here? I just love the way you break down story for us. You analyze things I’d probably gloss over. Thank you!

  12. Lisa Green May 25, 2011 at 3:13 pm #

    Just lost a HUGE comment!! DOH BLOGGER!! But basically I sound like a long-winded parrot. “Great analysis! Analyzing for structure is important and helpful. More so than I realized in the beginning. 😀

  13. Lydia K May 25, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    I never stop learning from your blog posts. another great one!

  14. LynNerd May 25, 2011 at 7:13 pm #

    Laura, you are a master at analyzing novels. I’ll have to read Divergent and study it.

    I agree with you about how important the middle is and if you already have plenty of tension and problems the MC is dealing with, it does make it much easier to get through the middle. Thanks for another good post.

  15. Angela Ackerman May 25, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

    Again I am just loving these posts on structure. Between you and Stina, I am really coming to realize I freehand structure too much and need to understand the why behind the what.

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  16. Jill Kemerer May 25, 2011 at 8:44 pm #

    Okay, Laura, don’t make it hard on me or anything! I’m panicking at Change something big at the mid-point!

    Thanks for making me dig deeper!

  17. Lynda R Young May 25, 2011 at 10:27 pm #

    Keeping tension in the middle is always a difficult thing…but not if we stick to your suggestions. Great post.

  18. Sherrie Petersen May 26, 2011 at 1:33 am #

    I’m in the middle right now, and discovering all these tangents I could go off on. A list like this is a great reminder for which tangents I should actually follow 🙂

  19. shelley moore thomas May 26, 2011 at 2:00 am #

    I love to read books with beautiful language and images and new ways of saying things. I like to read books where the author breaks the rules and does things that aren’t supposed to work (or work anymore, like a 3rd person omniscient narrator) and be blown away by the wonder of it. I love to read books that make me think, “Yeah! THAT’s why I am a writer!”

    Love this post!


  20. Traci Kenworth May 26, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    Great blog!! This topic is so important. If you get a sagging middle, it’s hard to prop it back up again. But, thankfully, the work of editing helps us turn a critical eye on things, and sort out what needs junked, what needs saved, and how to fix that slump.

  21. Michele Shaw May 26, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    I’ve always thought middles were tough, but could never explain why in a way that truly captured the problem. Great post! You not only explained why, but ways to fix it, and/or keep it from happening!I love your blog.

  22. Stacy May 26, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Great post. The middle is the weakest part of my book, and this list gives me a great reference point when I start editing soon.

    Conflict and drama are key elements and keeping them going through the middle is essential.


  23. Heather Sunseri May 26, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    This is exactly what I’m debating right now. I want to reveal this REALLY big thing in the middle of my story, but I keep asking myself if I should reveal something else and save this REALLY big thing for the final door of no return leading to the climax. Thanks for making me think…

  24. Pam Torres May 26, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

    Great checklist! It’s all about timing, something I am still working on. I thought that writing a middle grade book would be less complicated but I was so wrong. In YA you have a lot more freedom to push the envelope but with MG you have to stay within some basic parameters. That can make it hard to wind up tension. At least it has been for me.
    Always appreciate your meaty posts.

  25. PW Creighton May 26, 2011 at 4:50 pm #

    Great post laura! Like I said in a recent post, if you think of a story as a roller coaster you know when to build the tension release it through some action and keep your audience on the rails.

  26. Shannon O'Donnell May 26, 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    I don’t know how you do it. You are truly a gifted analyst when it comes to things like this, Laura. Thanks for such brilliant tips! The middle is never easy for me. 🙂

  27. Amie Borst May 26, 2011 at 6:14 pm #

    fantastic list! thanks for sharing!

    i hope i didn’t miss your email – but i still need your mailing address so i can ship these earrings to you! amiegr8tstuff (at) aol (dot) com

  28. Kris May 26, 2011 at 8:35 pm #

    Ooh, you mean the middle needs to be interesting too? ::smacks forehead:: Just kidding. Seriously though, this is true. We spend a lot of time critiquing and rewriting the beginning chapters, and often forget that the middle (and end!) need to be just as compelling. Great post, L.

  29. Leslie Rose May 27, 2011 at 3:00 am #

    I love the use of the word “primal” as a driving force. I just hopped over from Jessica Love’s blog that was praising, you guessed it, DIVERGENT. Love your breakdown.

  30. Leigh Moore May 28, 2011 at 1:57 am #

    excellent post, Laura! The middle is my soft spot… Hey! Kind of like on my body!

    Sit-ups and debate. Got it~ 😀

  31. Marisa May 28, 2011 at 4:14 pm #

    So great, Laura! Now I want to read those books more than I did before (which was a lot!)

  32. Ghenet May 31, 2011 at 2:40 am #

    I’m in the middle of writing my WIP and I’ve been thinking of how I can raise the stakes and add more tension. These are great tips! I just got DIVERGENT on my Kindle and I’m really excited to read it.


  1. How to create a page turner in your opening chapters. – Laura Pauling - August 15, 2011

    […] Read part 2 – How to keep tension through the middle. […]

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