Here’s the problem. You came up with a really great premise for a story. You have a kick-ass opening that sets up an amazing world and fantastic characters. You might even know exactly how it’s going to end. You get right to work. But then you hit that section of your planning that just says ‘stuff happens’. You can’t figure out what stuff happens. Your story never gets finished.
It’s a common issue. The middle of a book is often the hardest part. You want to keep readers interested and attentive, or else they’re going to leave your book unread. There’s a lot of pressure there. But figuring out how to fill in the holes isn’t all that daunting of a task. And it can work for both plot-centric and character-centric stories. Here are two sample premises to walk us through the process.
Scenario A: The hero of a kingdom returns from war. In a celebratory parade, they publicly assassinate the king. A scullery maid overhears that the hero killed the king to stop him from betraying their neighboring kingdom and attacking them unprompted. The hero is put to death, and it’s up to the maid to stop the new king from finishing the job the old king started.
Scenario B: A 30 year old office worker is in a happy relationship, and feels like a proposal is coming up. She goes to a party, only to find that her boyfriend is making out with someone else. They break up, and she has to navigate the remains of her life.
Needs and wants
The first step in creating your middle is recognizing what your character needs and wants.
Often your character only has one need. This is the main plot you’re working with. It’s what you hope will be accomplished by the end of the book. This is something you can easily pull from your premise.
Your character can have as many wants as you want. But it might be easier to just pick one or two big wants that you can work with for the process. Your wants can also be born from your premise, but if you’re having trouble coming up with something, fill out a character sheet to get to know your main character (MC) a little bit more to find out what they want.
Sometimes your character is going to want what they need. In this instance, find a secondary want to use for this process. Sometimes, your character may not even know what it is they need or will want the opposite of it.
A- What the character needs: To stop the king
What the character wants: To stop the king/To be recognized as the new hero
B- What the character needs: To learn to be happy single
What the character wants: To get revenge on her ex
The majority of your main plot is going to come from blockades to what your characters want and need.
Need based blockades are going to deal with the main plot. It’s going to be anything that can possibly happen to prevent your character from getting what they want. It can be a physical blockade (such as being placed in jail) or an emotional one (such as learning new information that changes how a character feels about something/one). Most often, these blockades will be overcome.
Want based blockades are going to be personal, and often will tie into the main plot as well. They can be physical or emotional, just as the need blockades can be. Depending on what your character wants (and how it relates to what they need) a want based blockade can end positively or negatively.
Try to list as many blockades as you can. You don’t have to use all of them, and don’t worry about going too into detail for each one yet. Just think of anything that could prevent your character from getting what they need or want.
Here are a few sample ones from our scenarios.
A- Needs: Imprisoned, finds out that someone who did her wrong lives in the other kingdom, King gets suspicious and puts a watch on her
These blockades all prevent the MC from saving the kingdom. Being imprisoned and being put under watch are physical, where as finding the past abuser is emotional.
Wants: accidentally does something that makes people hate her, purposefully does something that makes people hate her
Both of these are emotional blockades, casting the MC in a negative light, taking her further from her heroic goals.
B- Needs: Mom asks when she’s getting married, Friend sets her up on a blind date (that goes well), she catches the bouquet at a wedding
These blockades crack away at the MC’s confidence that she can be alone. They are all emotional, in that they change something about the way she views her relationship status.
Wants: Sees the ex and his new date really happy together, tries to pull a prank that backfires, finds old pictures/letters from her ex
Seeing the ex with his new date and finding old letters are emotional blockades that lower her desire to revenge. The prank backfiring is a physical blockade that prevents her from accomplishing her goal.
Turn into scenes
Now that you know what’s going to stop your MC, it’s time to turn these blockades into scenes. There are three things to think of when making a scene.
1. How does this scene unfold?
A – Finds out that someone who did her wrong lives in the other kingdom: MC agrees to join an ambassador trip to the other kingdom for a week to see if she can learn more information about the situation. While she’s serving dinner, she sees someone that harmed her. She runs and hides in the kitchen.
B – Friend sets her up on a blind date: MC’s friend learns that she has broken up with her boyfriend. She suggests the MC goes out with her cousin, who she’s been trying to get her together with for years. The MC agrees to go, only to get her friend to shut up, but ends up having a really good time.
2. How does the scene move the plot forward or develop character? (It must do one, ideally both)
A – Alters Character Development: This scene will change the development of the character. By seeing the old abuser of her past, the MC has to overcome her own past and prejudices to save the rest of the kingdom.
B – Moves Plot Forward: This scene provides a large burst of pushback against the character’s needs. She needs to be happy alone, but she’s just had a really good date, and is rethinking getting back into the dating world.
3. Is this a positive (helping plot or development) or negative (harming plot or development) scene?
A – This scene is currently a positive, providing a growth moment for the character. But it can be a negative if the MC sees the guy and decides not to forgive and forget. This would create another blockade for the main plot, and could possibly create a mini-plot.
B – This scene is currently a negative, pushing against what the character needs and taking them further from that goal. It can, however, be a positive if you decide that the date goes awful instead, and reaffirms her desire to stay single.
A good plot will have a nice mix of positive and negative scenes, without going back and forth regularly. A sweet ending book will have more positive scenes, while a bitter ending book will have more negative scenes.
If you feel like your book has too many of one kind, look over them and see if you can find a way to twist it around to be the opposite.
Try to make scenes out of all your blockades. If you find yourself really struggling with one (i.e. you can’t think about it moves plot or develops character) it’s a good idea to put that one to the side, and keep it as a just-in-case backup.
Mini plots are different than side plots. In a marathon, mini plots are the legs of the race, where side plots are other runners keeping up with your main plot. To find where your story has a mini plot, look back over your blockades, and see which ones need follow-up scenes, or which ones could be drawn out to cover a few scenes instead.
A mini plot should be treated just like the main plot. The only difference is that your character is only going to have a want or a need, not both. To create them, think of what your character wants or needs, and then discover the blockades that stop them.
Instead of turning those blockades into scenes, create resources that will help the plots resolution. (note that the resolution does not have to be good for your character/can work against what they want or need).
A – The character gets imprisoned. Now the character has to get out. This is a need-based plot.
Need: Break out of prison
Blockades: Heavy duty/new locks, overlapping guard changes
Resources: Other prisoners, friends in the serving class
Resolution: MC gets the other prisoners to cause a distraction, while her friend slips in and steals the guard keys in the chaos
B – MC tries to pull a prank that backfires. This is a want-based plot.
Want: Fill her ex’s car with fish
Blockades: Woke up late and most of the fish at the market were sold. Box is too heavy to carry by herself and friend won’t help
Resources: Primal desire to get revenge, Determination to see her plan through (even though she knows it’s terrible)
Resolution: The MC is trying to lift the box up to spill it into the sunroof of the car. Instead it tips backwards and spills all over her. Also, her apartment smells like fish from storing them there all day.
Mini plots work best as one chapter, or possibly two. Any longer than that and your mini plot has turned into a side plot that has hijacked the whole story.
Now that you have all of your main scenes written out, it’s time to organize them.
Look over your scenes. Group them up. Do you have a lot of scenes that deal with animals? That’s one group. Have a bunch of issues dealing with bad days at the salon? There’s another. You’ll find that some scenes can fit in multiple piles, and others might be by themselves. Don’t throw these scenes out, you might discover that they make the perfect connecting scene.
Once you have your scenes grouped up, see what order you could put them in. Sometimes two scenes will be one after the other perfectly, and others might have some time pass between. At this stage, let that space exist. This is not the point A to B to C outline. This is just linking things together in a logical order.
A – Let’s see how the character from scenario A got imprisoned. We already have two scenes that involve her doing a bad thing. So, early on she accidentally does something that catches negative attention. This causes the King to put her under watch. Later, she does something on purpose that catches negative attention. This leads to her being jailed.
B – In scenario B, we have a lot of marriage related scenes. Let’s put them together. The MC gets a call from her mom right after she broke up with her ex. Unknowing of this, the mom asks if he proposed. Later, The MC’s friend sets her up on a blind date, and after it goes well, she says she can already hear wedding bells. Finally, at the wedding, the MC catches the bouquet. Her date from before is there, and they make eye contact. Her mom (who she brought as her last-minute +1) makes a comment about it.
Side plots are going to be long-running issues that aren’t about your MC or the main plot. They’ll often involve other recurring characters.
Side plots are necessary. They break up the main story and give your reader a bit of breathing space. They also often relate to the main plot in some way, doing behind-the-scenes work to slightly alter your MC’s perception of the world.
Each side plot should only have a handful of scenes in the book. Too many scenes will make it seem like a second full plot, and can cause your reader to lose interest in what’s really going on. Ideally, you have two side plots per novel. You can get away with one or three, but two is the sweet spot.
Take a look back over your scenes. Is there a running theme that could be a good side plot? Or perhaps there’s a character that keeps popping up? Maybe there’s a big event at the end that could need some planning. All of these are things to look out for while trying to find some side plots.
A – The MC has to have some friends for her to get out of jail in the end. Let’s say one of her friends was a maid that married a nobleman. They still find time to talk sometimes, but her friend is having trouble adjusting to her new life. People don’t want to see a maid as a noblewoman.
This causes tension with what the character wants. All this time the MC has hoped that she’ll be able to become the new great hero, but now she’s thinking people won’t want to see her like that.
B – We established that there’s a wedding, and a pushy friend. So let’s say the pushy friend is the one getting married (and why her cousin who the MC dated once is there). And let’s say that she and the MC are best friends. The MC is the bridesmaid, and has to deal with her friend’s wedding plans, listening about how great and wonderful marriage is going to be.
This causes a tension with what the character needs, pulling away at the MC’s idea that she can be happy alone.
Write down as many side plots as you can find. Then pick and choose based on which ones you think pair well with the character’s wants and needs.
Every book has an ending. But not every ending is the same. If you don’t already know how to wrap up your book, use what your characters want and need to figure it out. There are four basic endings you can give your MC, based on whether or not they got their wants and needs.
Sweet Ending – Gets what they want and what they need.
The character in scenario A manages to save the kingdom and goes down in history as the greatest hero of all time.
The character in scenario B gets revenge on her ex, and leaves the situation happy to never have to be with someone ever again. It’s not worth the drama.
Positive Bittersweet Ending- Gets what they need, but not what they want.
The character in scenario A saves the kingdom, but someone else takes all the credit for it/it’s not publicly known that it happened at all.
The character in scenario B learns to be happy alone, but she lets go of her revenge mission on her ex.
Negative Bittersweet Ending: Gets what they want, but not what they need.
The character in scenario A ends up becoming a hero, but by turning sour and helping the king destroy the kingdom.
The character in scenario B gets her revenge on her ex, but by doing so becomes an insecure and jealous person who can’t keep a relationship and is terrified of being alone.
Bitter Ending – Gets neither what they want nor what they need (and often the opposites happen).
The character in scenario A fails to save the kingdom, and in doing so ends up becoming a villain on the run forever.
The character in scenario B doesn’t manage to get revenge on her ex. However, not being able to do so makes her obsessed with him, until she becomes a crazy wreck that simply can’t live without him.
(If you keep hearing that rumor floating around that people are tired of happy endings, they’re really saying they’re tired of Sweet Endings. The fad these days is creating a positive bittersweet ending, one where the character accomplishes their goal, but gave something up along the way.)
With all your scenes written out, you should now be able to put them in an outline order. Fill in the spaces with your stand-alone and side-plot scenes as needed. Adn go back to your blockades if you’re running short.
If you don’t like working with outlines, put all of your blockades in a hat. When you reach the stuff happens section, pull one out and see how you can turn it into a scene and then write that. Do this block by block until you’ve finished your draft (then go back and reorder as needed).