Some of the writing groups I belong to have recently brought up the question of how to prevent the dreaded "sagging middle" in their stories. This is where the book stops being a page-turner and becomes something you read to put you to sleep at night.
Strangely enough, the most common method of trying to correct for this doesn't really work. Often, a writer will just throw more danger at the hapless heroine or hero. For example, if the hero is fighting with a bunch of bad guys, the author may just add a few more bad guys or one more bigger-and-badder fight.
Other writers hear the advice "upping the ante" and layer on an "Oh, my gosh, they're going to blow up the world!" moment. Which, while logically you would think would make it more exciting because everyone might die, "everyone" is sort of vague and faceless, and frankly, we don't really care. Interestingly, that's why in the Big Disaster Movies, they always focus on the life-or-death of individual characters and their loved ones--in the midst of the world coming to an end. Because it's the individuals we care about, emotionally.
So really, what can you do?
Here's what I do. I ask a really simple question: What's the worst that can happen to the heroine? (Or hero--depending upon your story.) Hint: the answer isn't: she might die. Nope. The worst is what gives that character nightmares. It's probably easiest if I give you a stupid, but fairly concrete example.
You have a heroine who is painfully shy. I mean painfully, agonizingly shy. She stammers when she tries to talk. Stammers horribly. And the sad part is, she's a brilliant biologist, and can write papers that are wonderful, but she just can't talk in public. Or even very well one-on-one. She can't think on her feet. Fortunately, she doesn't have to worry about it, because she gets a fantastic job for an articulate scientist who can present her information and do the glad-handing necessary to get them grants for their research, etc.
So...what's the worst thing that can happen to her?
Her boss comes down with laryngitis right before he has to present their research at a symposium, and their next critical grant depends upon that presentation. If someone doesn't do the presentation, they'll not only lose face at the symposium, but they'll lose the grant and she'll potentially lose her job (and you know she's horrible at job interviews because she is so inarticulate).
And guess what? She's the only one available to do the presentation.
Now THAT's upping the ante and creating tension. And if you really want to be cruel and make the big dark moment even darker--make her flub up that presentation. They think they're going to have to shut down their research. Then give her a sliver of hope that if she and her boss can talk to Mr. Big, they might get enough money to continue. But then, they have to face a worse horror. Something happens to her boss (he has a heart attack? Grabbed by an evil dude?) and it's now up to her to talk their way out of the situation and get the grant--whether that is to get help or talk a bad guy out of killing them...whatever. And what if she's in love with her boss? If she can't talk eloquently enough, she'll lose everything...the grant (her job), and possibly her boss's life.
Guess she'd better get to that speech therapist, after all.
You'll notice with this last twist that it doesn't work if you just have her speaking in front of another large group--even though she may be even more jittery after failing the first time. No. You can't do the same thing a second time. You have to present a different opportunity to fail--an opportunity that is different (and preferrably more personal) than the first challenge.
What you should be picking up from this is that creating tension and that "page turner" quality is all about identifying the worst thing that could happen to a character, and making it happen. And then twisting it to make it worse.
And each of these "opportunities for magnificent failure" has to be different. If it's the same, even if it's rife with bigger-badder-ness, it's going to just feel like more of the same. These challenges must come from unexpected directions. You're looking for that "Where did that come from?" and "I didn't see that one coming" reaction from your reader.
Conversely, in order to have a successful (and happy) ending, you need to know What is the best thing that can happen to this character? What does he or she really, really want? And then figure out how to let her earn that ending.
So all you need when you sit down to write a novel are the answers to these two questions:
- What is the worst thing that can happen to this character?
- What is the best thing that can happen to this character?