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I see a pattern among my readers, specifically where they tend to stop reading - it is about 2/3 through the story, during "Act 2." A few readers push through to the end and say they are glad they did. One wanted the end longer (which may be saying a similar thing; she liked the end better, but thought it felt too rushed.). There may be a pacing problem, it's not clear. The ending sounds correct as is, to me, and the problem seems to be the middle.

I'm wondering how to liven up that slow spot in the middle. No one seems to know why they lose interest. I am guessing the pacing is just too slow, or the tension is not high enough.

Here are a few ideas about how to fix this - but so far, implementing these has not solved the problem, These ideas, in no particular order:

  1. shorten and tighten the areas where people are getting bogged down.

  2. remove anything they do not need (variation of #1).

  3. Improve flow between individual scenes

  4. "Increase tension"

  5. add in a plot twist?

  6. finish chapters in the middle on cliffhangers

The bolded items are ones that I have given some attention to already (although no one has read since I have started working on #3.). #s 5 and 6 would require more structural change and I haven't gone there yet.

Currently, more practiced beta readers are reading, and perhaps they'll have concrete suggestions - we'll see.

My question: How does one perk up the slow parts of a novel, particularly beyond the list above?

(i.e. what might my blind spots be. I am leery of adding a plot twist or cliffhangers, because the story arc is right. But maybe these tools are so powerful that I should reconsider.)


Added as edit: (this may be better as a new question, except it is not really a question.)

My story is 230 pages.

I've mapped the arcs of the 2 (alternating POV) protagonists. The girl has a classic 3-act structure (or at least can be shoehorned into it fairly painlessly. Act 1 is in the first 60 pages, Act 2 is pages 62 - 160, Act 3 is pages 161 - 230 (but climax is last ~20 pages I guess.)

The boy doesn't fit easily into this structure - He has a point of no return on page 4, another on page 12, another on page 25, and so on. And with this in mind, he resolves to leave on page 5, realizes there is no going back on page 13, decides that onwards really is better anyway on page 26, and so on. As far as the act 2/act 3 division, it is the same gradual thing.

He is basically running from his problems, and the further he gets the more he realizes it isn't 'working.' He has a clear emotional break on page 127 and so his act 3 arguably begins earlier than the girl's (she is actually a resolving force for him up to page 160.) But he doesn't know the form of his resolution until page ~180.

This is why the 'contract' nature of the story has been a challenge for him.

However - I think his journey is more 'real' to life. We don't just flip a switch and enter a new act. We find our way. So I don't want to sharpen the focus of those breaks unless I need to.

Since no one suggested that I do that, in particular, anyway, I'm not going to worry about it. The problems are around and preceding page 140, which is in act 2 for the most part since the boy isn't firmly into act 3 until page 180.

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    Sounds like you have a "sagging middle" More on that: theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/14/sagging-soggy-middles – BugFolk Jan 16 '18 at 18:23
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    Just out of curiosity, how are you getting this feedback from your readers and what is your sample size? – JPhi1618 Jan 16 '18 at 21:14
  • What did your readers say when you asked them why they quit reading? – Ken Mohnkern Jan 16 '18 at 21:20
  • @DPT, thats nice that they've taken some interest in your work. I wonder though if a) you can trust their feedback if they are close and a weary of being to critical, and b) if the outcome would be different if they read the book because they were initially interested in it rather than reading it because you asked them too? I'm not looking for an answer to those questions - just something to consider. – JPhi1618 Jan 16 '18 at 21:44
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    I can just tell you, that as a reader, the same happens to most books I read: they all start well, and often lose their "juice" halfway or at 2/3. It is a common problem, not just yours. – FraEnrico Jan 17 '18 at 12:51
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Giving specific editing advice is difficult without first reading the work in question, but here are some additional thoughts for you to consider...

  • When the middle of a story stalls, it is often the result of mistakes made in the earlier chapters. Have you set the hook properly? Is the reader completely engaged in the characters' goals? Does the reader care about and relate to at least some of the characters?
  • Looking closer at the middle section, are you telegraphing your early failures? Almost all stories lead characters through a series of early attempts to achieve their goal, with each attempt leading to escalating levels of failure. Are your character's early attempts believable and do they have a reasonable chance of success. If the reader looses respect for a character because their early attempts are ill planned and doomed from the start, they may become bored while reading through the long pages until the character learns what the reader already knew.
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    This is worth a lot of thought; I've struggled with the 'contract' idea of 'stating the problem' for one main character, because what he wants is the absence of what he has, which doesn't look like that bad of a life, and seems like it should be easy enough to walk away, but isn't. I'll take a look again. To the second bullet, there are early and progressive failures but I'm not clear if you're implying these should or shouldn't be telegraphed in the middle. They're over, best left behind, right? – DPT Jan 16 '18 at 17:53
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    By early failures, I'm referring to the main character's early attempts to escape the condition that he wants absent. Early failures should illuminate why walking away is not easy & the failures' results should clarify what is bad about his life. Early failures are not just backstory. They are a method of engaging the reader in the intricacies of the character's life & quest. They are never over until the reader is starving for the next attempt. As for telegraphing that an attempt will fail, that further disengages the reader. Every attempt should be reasonable & its failure surprising. – Henry Taylor Jan 16 '18 at 18:11
  • Aha, telegraphing that the next attempt will fail - no I don't I do that, and thank you. – DPT Jan 16 '18 at 18:14
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    @HenryTaylor: I also really hate hesitating characters. Characters who keep pondering whether to do something or not, whether they're worth it or not, ... when it comes back again and again it feels to me like the author is just trying to "stuff" the story. I don't mind a character having an existential crisis, or several, but the same one over and over feels like going in circles :x – Matthieu M. Jan 17 '18 at 13:59
  • Thanks @MatthieuM. I'll try to firm up my boy hero's decision making. – DPT Jan 17 '18 at 16:17
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+1 Henry, those are possible problems.

It is hard to diagnose, but you've told us the problem: The reader has stopped caring how the story turns out. Even if the ending is great.

Which likely means you are forcing them to read through something they don't want to read and just don't care about.

I would guess if they stop reading 2/3 of the way through, the problem begins well before that, perhaps 1/2 way through. Because it takes time for a reader to build up enough boredom to quit reading.

In the normal Act structure, that halfway point should be the inflection point of the problem's resolution, when the hero has an idea or learns something that is the KEY, even if they do not realize it at the time, to winning the day (whatever that means).

So perhaps that happens too late, in your book, or is there but not dramatized well. Once the key is discovered, it should start a building cascade toward the third act, of puzzles resolved, more successes than failures, etc. As part of this, major new problems should not be introduced; any new problems should be a result of solving bigger problems: The only way we could save the little girl was to let her abductor escape: We saved the girl but now we have an criminal on the loose! Introducing bigger problems can make the reader feel the key has not been discovered.

So that could be a problem: A key exists, but nothing good is happening between 1/2 and 2/3, or the resolution snowball has not clearly begun, so the reader is not excited about the key being found and 'wins' or progress building up.

Finally, as a 'Kill My Darlings' experiment, I would question how much I would have to write to make a clean transition if I just cut everything in my book from the halfway mark (or wherever the 'key' is found) to the 2/3 mark. They can't get bored if the pages aren't there!

  • Fake killing my villain (@bugfolk) also sets up a complication later, which contributes to your cascade here. Trimming the fat ... happens in each revision, (and this is almost second nature due to academician in me). Still, one or two scenes can probably still be chopped and make room for the fake killing. – DPT Jan 16 '18 at 19:32
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    I would not have thought of a fake climax; but I can see how it could work. The reader has to know the villain can't really be dead, with half a book to go, but then the characters can think they are done. So the reader is waiting for the reveal, an ambush of some sort (might even kill somebody the reader cares about, you might think of picking some sacrificial lamb, or adding one to the mix earlier on). The open question of "where the hell is the villain and what is he doing?!?!" might really pull readers through to your ending, which you say is fine. – Amadeus Jan 16 '18 at 20:39
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+1 for both answers relating to the rising action/ early failures/ raising stakes/ and cutting out sections that don't help the pace.

In addition, try looking into your character's motivations. Are they reacting properly to the situation? If not, is the reader given an idea why? Are they acting out of character to get the plot moving? Are they learning from their mistakes or repeating the same ones over?

Do we know enough of their internal dialogue to care about them? You mention having a character that leaves a life that appears good on the surface. Are the reasons for the character leaving clear enough? Do we see enough of the emotional struggle? The stakes?

That said, you may want to look into writing articles about "Sagging Middles".

Seems to be a common concern. (warning: Terrible Minds, language alert.)

  • Dude. That is brilliant. Solution #3 at the link just whacked me over the head. I can easily substitute in a fake climax into the middle. Our villain should be fake-killed in the middle. And there are 22 more solutions to go, at the link. – DPT Jan 16 '18 at 19:21
  • The Terrible Minds article is excellent; about 20 more ideas than I could think up! – Amadeus Jan 16 '18 at 20:29
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For me as a reader (or a viewer), when my interest flags, it's because there are no longer any emotional stakes that I care about. Lots of action might be happening, but it's all the same to me how it turns out. Conversely, you can have a long, compelling stretch without any real action or plot development, as long as the emotional interest is there.

My guess is that this section of the book is doing a lot of plot work, but not much else. It might also be things that are interesting to you, but not to the reader. I actually had a very similar problem recently with my non-fiction manuscript. The beginning and end were compelling, but the middle flagged, even though many of the things I was most interested in talking about were only in the middle section. The problem was that they didn't fit into the overall arc of the book. Eventually I made the tough decision to cut the middle section entirely, and save it for a different book. I'd suggest the same for you. Just drop the entire slow section, and chalk it up to "world-building." If you do need to replace it with something, try doing something completely different --like spending several chapters on a single crucial hour of time that takes place right before the final climax (just as an example).

For a good look at how compressed good storytelling can be, try reading short short stories and also listening to story-songs (country music is especially good for this). For instance, check how much plot is contained in the following tiny packages, and how long a span of time can be elided between one paragraph and the next (or one verse and the next).

100% Perfect Girl - Murakami
Fast Car - Tracy Chapman
Long Time Gone - Darrell Scott

  • I +1'd this, but wanted to also thank you for the feedback. You and @Amadeus have both suggested chainsawing the middle. I suppose one problem is that earlier reads asked for more info about x,y, and z ... (example, tell us more about the tribe of people that did blah-dy-blah) and so now there is a conversation about that, which may feel useless to people who don't care about the tribe. I'll be back to square 1 though, if I simply cut it. But I can try to shorten more and jazz up with something. I dunno. Explosions. Sex, Drugs. Murders most foul. Maybe that's what makes good literature, lol. – DPT Jan 17 '18 at 16:12
  • @DPT - Thanks! I think sometimes we go overboard with "show not tell." In my mind it's OK to sometimes give a couple lines on life in the tribe rather than a couple of chapters dramatizing it. A lot of great books would be a lot less rich if they had to dramatize everything they tell you. Check my examples, they all do a lot of telling. // Also, I do have to say, I think you've missed my whole point if you're trying to jazz up with explosions. If it's not the action that's exciting, it's the real emotional stakes. It's just another ship sinking if you don't care about anyone on board. – Chris Sunami Jan 17 '18 at 16:26
  • Just a quick follow up on my earlier comment. I notice you said your readers asked you to "tell us more about the tribe..." NOT "show us more about the tribe..." – Chris Sunami Jan 17 '18 at 16:33
  • Right-o! No, wasn't trying to suggest you suggested explosions. I saw your answer as suggesting to shorten. (My explosions comment was my mind wandering to other ideas throughout this discussion.) I've separately been making my boy more likable with 'pet the cat,' earlier, tying into the suggestions that the real problem is prior to 2/3. He now makes a sacrifice for someone else's feelings around 1/4 - It's a small thing, but may ultimately contribute to the emotional stakes, which you call out directly. writershelpingwriters.net/2017/11/… – DPT Jan 17 '18 at 17:56
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Why do you ask us? We haven't read your story. Ask your readers.

The whole point of beta readers is that you can ask them why they stopped reading or what made them stop. If they just tell you that they stopped their feedback is incomplete and useless.

So contact your beta readers and ask them this specific question. If your beta readers lack the ability to self-reflect their reading experience (and "do not know why they lost interest") find other, better beta readers.

  • Might have been covered by "No one seems to know why they lose interest." in the original post. Might also be worth editing this answer - it's a bit "in your face" at the moment. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Jan 17 '18 at 8:23
  • @ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Addressed your first objection in an edit to my answer. Ignored your second objection. – Frogson Jan 17 '18 at 9:35
  • Not an objection - just a thought about getting the point across. You're free to adopt whatever style you like. – ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere Jan 17 '18 at 9:44
  • In addition to @ItWasLikeThatWhenIGotHere 's comment, I asked you primarily because you are writers, and my current readers are not. Hope that helps. – DPT Jan 17 '18 at 16:05
  • Also, I assume you are a writer, and that you have a writing cohort of writer friends. New writers simply don't. We have the internet. We have writing groups, but many of these people are not interested or experienced enough to offer great insight. (very few are published; none AFAIK traditionally) I hope this also helps to answer your question. – DPT Jan 17 '18 at 16:15
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When a reader says "I'm reading (CHAPTER X), and I'm not interested", the first step to solving that is to ask:
Wait a moment, what in (CHAPTER X) should be interesting?

This is a crucial question -- and remember, it's not enough to answer, "Well, it's important for (CHAPTER X+3)." The reader isn't reading (X+3); they're bored right now.

The reason middles so often sag is because the story has invested all its energy setting up the book's ultimate stakes. And then, it's much harder for there to be any smaller stakes along the way; stakes for one scene, stakes for one chapter. It feels like nothing's happening because, well, you've made clear what things are important to the story, and none of what's going on at this point feels important.

So here's you're first step: Go through your middle chapters. For each one, describe why, on the first page of the chapter, the reader should be eager to read the rest of it, based only on what he's read so far.

The results of this exercise should be illuminating. Maybe you'll find that some chapters seem not to have stakes, or an initial hook. Maybe you'll find that the stakes seem the same every single chapter. Maybe you'll find that you've given hooks, but that they feel minor and veering away from the "important stuff". Each of these has different solutions, of course, but this is how you can diagnose what the problem is :)

And do remember that "keeping reader interest" isn't all about being fast-paced and having a twisty plot. A lot of times, it's about helping readers care what happens to the characters. It's about being personal, intimate, bringing your world to life. "Having good stakes" doesn't mean having a million dollars stolen, or a nuclear bomb drop on New York; it can mean having your dad's goofy Dilbert clock stolen, or realizing your best friend is creeped out by you being gay. But that's already dependent on your story :)

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    This focuses us back in again to emotional stakes. thank you. An independent issue is how much does not translate from my brain to page to brain of reader. Pages I know are crucial are glossed over, and they think nothing is happening when there is plenty happening. This raises a new possibility - Just make it clearer what is happening. – DPT Jan 18 '18 at 2:40
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    Comment 2 of 2: Don't cut pages, make certain instead that the oomph is communicated. Example: One character says he doesn't like farms because of the dirt. I know this hints at his OCD and other quirks. My readers just think, "Why is he a farmer if he doesn't like dirt?" I need to be clear that they are on a fun ride, that the words have purpose. That him commenting on dirt is a character trait and they can get in his mind if they want. – DPT Jan 18 '18 at 2:46
  • Exactly :D And also: remember that this chapter is achieving a purpose for the writer isn't the same as this chapter is achieving a purpose for the reader. Even if the reader gets that you're hinting at OCD or quirks, that doesn't mean they care that the character has OCD or quirks. It needs to accomplish something for them -- to be a fun, unusual voice ("Haha, quirky!"), or to raise an intriguing question they want to see answered ("So odd that he doesn't like dirt but he's a farmer -- I want to learn why"), etc.. So, you need to know what the reader's hook is :) – Standback Jan 18 '18 at 10:15

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