A lot of writers are good at beginnings–starting off with a bang. Then there are plenty of writers who are masters of endings, knowing how to tie things up in a way that is both dramatic and satisfying. I rarely come across anyone who favors the middle section of a story.
In my experience, this is the point where I usually tend to stall out. Not only is it the largest part of the story, rather than having one (or two) big dramatic events, you have to string together a series of events with tension running through the whole thing. A lot of writing instructors refer to the middle as the ‘try/fail’ cycle, a series of conflicts and obstacles that your protagonists must somehow overcome. The nature of these conflicts will determine the level of tension, provide character growth, and propel the story to its eventual end.
Here are a few ideas, drawing examples from Tolkien’s work:
Protagonist must do XYZ, but:
* the task is too difficult, and he fails, forcing him to regroup
* the protagonist goes to a more capable character for help.
Even if your character has already met and joined with his Gandalf, the two might come up against a problem that requires them to seek the aid of another. When trying to figure out how to keep your protagonist from his objective, consider the following:
* geographical barriers (distance, mountains, fortresses – example: the journey to mordor)
* magical barriers (shields, locks, magical dead areas – ex: the west gate of moria)
* hostile force (armies, assassins – ex: the nazgul)
* mental/emotional barriers (fatigue, being tricked, insanity, confusion, doubt – ex: the mental effect of the ring on frodo and those around him)
* entrapment (prison, abduction, magical glamours, blackmail, disorientation – ex: bilbo lost in gollum’s lair). I wrote a post on the subject of “break outs” a while back.
Make a list of all of the ways you can hurt, hinder, and generally screw with your characters. Derail them with kidnappings, theft of important items, injury, or even death, if you’re brave.
In my favorite stories, the protagonists always find their way around (or through) obstacles by a hairsbreadth, just barely able to continue on the path to their objective. They may have to re-evaluate their goals and find a new strategy. They either escape through their own ingenuity, or the aid of an ally, but rarely by chance alone. Coincidence is a weak support on which to hang a character’s success. Even if the coincidence comes across as believable, it’s not particularly satisfying.
So, if you find yourself stuck in the middle, try out this sentence: “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”