I’ve ‘completed’ three novels – a thriller, a coming-of-age story, and a mystery. I’ve had expert readers for all three including Sue Grafton who read two of them. All the expert readers have the same reaction. Sue’s, at the halfway point, was ‘We need to find you a good agent.’ By the time she reached the end, it was, ‘Hmmm. Back to the drawing board.’

To be more explicit, the comments tend to be: excellent writing and excellent start, but then, as the story draws to a close, the structure and plot begin to shake. There is a set of problems here I struggle with. I’ll ask about the two obvious ones:

How can I develop a lightweight structure from the beginning of a project that I can write to?

How can I revise effectively after writing myself into a corner?

Are there tools you use, like spreadsheets, outlines, note cards?

  • 3
    A thought: Have you let someone who did know your work read only the "bad" second half? Is it bad as such or "just" bad compared to the excellent first half? And what is still good about the second? Nothing? It's an unmitigated disaster? I'm really just afraid that, trying to fix the bad bits, you may destroy your good qualities, your "spark". Sep 21, 2011 at 16:52

4 Answers 4


To save repetition:

Write to the finish, or edit as you go?

(TLDR: Writing a novel is like building a bridge across a chasm alone. After halfway getting to the other side will always require compromise. Only when you have a whole, functioning bridge can you really go back and make it less lopsided.)

If you've chewed all that over I think what is fundamental is that what you describe definitely seems to indicate some sort of lopsidedness and you have to remember that this is natural. Weirdly I think that the quality of writing in any given work tends to go up even as the available story options go down as you will obviously be a better craftsman 50000 words later. Without being able to see the work you've done I couldn't possibly tell you why it is your stuff goes flat towards the end, and if you're paying people to read it surely they should offer some concrete advice, shouldn't they?

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    Lots of concrete. Several efforts to rewrite. I think the problem is less flatness than jumbling. As if I've left one side of the chasm on six-lane freeway and try to bring all the traffic in on a footbridge.
    – mitatur
    Sep 20, 2011 at 19:38
  • Apparently I am a "discovery" writer, if that is what I think it is. So probably I am not the greatest person to look at this.
    – One Monkey
    Sep 21, 2011 at 6:52
  • I would love to know how a discovery writer gets to the end of something over 50,000 words and can then read the first page and say, 'Yep, that's going where I ended up.'
    – mitatur
    Sep 22, 2011 at 19:18
  • You'd probably have to ask someone else I went and asked what one was and I had misdefined it by context. I am more a "partial" discovery writer. I kind of know what should be happening but am often surprised by how it ends up coming to pass.
    – One Monkey
    Sep 25, 2011 at 16:52
  • @mitatur...regarding "Yep, that's going where I ended up." Based on this description of discovery writers, I see no reason why the discovery portion has to take place in the work itself, or even on paper in complete sentences. Why can't the discovering happen in other contexts, such as free association notes, or a simple one-page character treatment? The work itself occurs when the writer unites the existing characters with a particular conflict and allows their choices define the details, right? Or do I have this wrong..
    – elrobis
    May 25, 2017 at 18:01

I have a hunch: The endings are not satisfying. When that's true, there's nothing for the second half of the novel to build toward.

If that's true, then perhaps the problem is not structure per se, but the ending. And if that's true, there's a good chance that the beginning somehow doesn't lend itself to a satisfying ending.

In my experience, three things make for a satisfying ending: A strong external conflict, a strong internal conflict, and an inextricable relationship between the two. The internal conflict makes the external conflict especially relevant and difficult for this character. The external conflict exacerbates the internal one, or the internal conflict makes the external one irresolvable.

So: Look to the beginning. Is there a strong external conflict? Does the main character have a strong internal conflict? Are the internal and external conflicts inextricably related?

Then look to the ending: Does the ending resolve both the external and internal conflicts, in a way that gives strong meaning to the interplay between internal and external conflicts?

  • I think you're right with your hunch. While I feel when I start that these foundations are in place, I think they become less convincing to me as they unroll in the narrative.
    – mitatur
    Sep 20, 2011 at 19:51
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    I have tremendous trouble with endings myself. I "ended" my first novel by having the Spanish Inquisition arrive. Unexpectedly, of course. I can easily come up with a fun external conflict. Internal ones are more trouble for me. Sep 20, 2011 at 20:39
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    It's true; nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Sep 21, 2011 at 15:12
  • One of my favorite all-time bad endings was Wally Lamb's 'This Much I Know Is True.' It comes in at 900 some pages and is about a hapless guy doing hapless things. In the last five pages he discovers he's an American Indian and gets wealthy from the local casino, and his girlfriend comes back to him. (I made it to the end on a promise to a friend to read the best book she'd ever read... The friendship, oddly enough, had a hapless ending.)
    – mitatur
    Sep 22, 2011 at 19:17
  • Hah, for a place holder ending in my current work I used: Come to the dark side, princess. Never! Witch. We have cookies. N... what kind?
    – Stephan F-
    Oct 4, 2011 at 21:00

I think having an outline solves all three questions you pose. In reverse order:

If you are not a "discovery writer," then YES, you need an outline. In fact, you should be getting a beta or two to look over your outline and bat that around for a while before even writing anything. You may have a few vague points ("John and Gertrude meet and discuss Oscar's problem" or "shootout at the warehouse") but the main lines of your plot should be there. You can put in notes like "by the end of this scene, Robin and Chris have made up" without knowing exactly how it happens.

Effective revision: depending on the severity of the problem, you may have to back up to the halfway point, or potentially start over. Think of your story as a braided rope which has started to kink somewhere. You have to unbraid the rope to find the blockage. I think having an outline will help with this. If you don't have an outline already, try reverse-engineering one from your existing story, and that may reveal where it went pear-shaped. It will also be easier to move the pieces around in outline form than in paragraphs, scenes, or chapters.

The thorough, beta-tested outline IS your "lightweight structure." As long as the major parts hold up, you can embroider around the bones and allow a certain amount of discovery in the writing. If you know the final destination, there are many ways to get there.

  • Yes, the kinked rope is how it feels. And I've unbraided them and rewritten, sometimes from scratch. But the light and energy is wicked away and the stories get burdened with complexities. I like to write as if I am a discovery writer, but structures remain a hard skill for me.
    – mitatur
    Sep 20, 2011 at 19:44
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    If you feel that complexity is a burden, don't write complex stories. Don't write novels; write novellas or short stories. Conversely, you could try to define what is "light" and "energetic" about the first half of each book, and talk with a beta about why those qualities are missing from the back end. Sep 20, 2011 at 21:04
  • @mit: one caveat: whatever you do, watch what your readers say about the first half. The good half, at this point in time. Beware of damaging this in an effort to improve the second half. If you notice it suffering, rethink before committing to a different approach to much. Maybe follow Lauren's suggestion of writing shorter pieces. Maybe going some total other route. I just dread the thought that from "Hey, you're good, let's get you an agent!"/"Meh" you could go to "The books okay, I guess". From "One half great, the other not so much" to full-on mediocrity. Sep 21, 2011 at 16:48
  • @LaurenIpsum - How to answer without an essay... or a novel. Simplest response: I write what's in the meat. I've tried many forms and what my body and brain do is write novels. They creep up on me, filter through my life, and pretty soon I feel I have no choice but to let them out. But, maybe there is something to the idea of unpacking the tail end of the books to discover what breaks.
    – mitatur
    Sep 22, 2011 at 19:22
  • @JürgenA.Erhard. That is the problem. In an effort to save the stories, I tend to do reconstructive surgery on the front end of the book. The question I'm asking myself at this moment is... What are those happy readers expecting at the half-way point? Maybe I could try delivering on the implicit promises I've already made in the stories.
    – mitatur
    Sep 22, 2011 at 19:25

The best tool would be a mind mapping tool. Your can use it to visualize your ideas or organize the plot of the novel. Its very easy to manipulate the ideas and relations you want to create once everything is down and visible. There are many mind mapping software available. Including Mindjet Mindmanager and ThinkBuzan's Imindmap. I use the mind mapping tool that comes with Xiosis Scribe word processor. All of these are fully commercial alternatives but there are also those that are free for personal use like XMind and also an entirely open source alternative FreeMind.

  • Please don't edit my answers to say things I didn't say. If you want to add something to it add it as a comment. Thank you
    – Adeem
    Oct 1, 2011 at 12:39
  • 1
    the terms of use of the StackExchange sites specifically allow editing (a cc-wiki license that requires attribution) . By posting here you agree. You cannot post here without agreeing. Most think it makes the community better. You'll notice that edits are kept track of so those who are interested can see who added, deleted, or changed what text.
    – justkt
    Oct 2, 2011 at 3:24

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