I think we all know it’s important to hook your readers early on. But what happens after that? I love stories. When I hear the premise for a story my mind runs off in a million directions, imagining all the possibilities. So it isn’t too hard to hook me. But lately I’ve run into a string of books that nearly lost me another way: the middle got boring.
I don’t think introductions are all that hard. Almost everything is interesting when it is new. Characters can often be more engaging the first time you meet them. Granted, it can be difficult to craft a seamless, engaging, well-balanced beginning. But even just an average one will often do the trick. But I think it is even more telling what you do after your hook your reader. What happens when the newness wears off?
This is probably one of the places where the author’s experience, or inexperience, really shows. This is where I can usually tell if the author is a natural storyteller or not, and if they are using an outline or trailblazing (I don’t like the word “pantser”).
Everybody knows what needs to happen in the opening (hook your reader). Everybody knows what needs to happen in the climax. And the rising action leading up the climax is often the most fun to write: tension, action, drama, suspense etc. But that little stretch of text between the beginning and the rising action is a tricky, tricky spot. It is a literary doldrums. As a reader, the momentum of the beginning will often carry me up to 15-20% (yes, I’ve been reading mostly e-books lately). But I run into the literary doldrums from 20% even up to 75%.
By now you’re all ready for me to give the magic solution, right? Sorry, I don’t have that! But I do have some tips and suggestions. Ready?
This is perhaps the most obvious solution. You know those books that people can’t put down and they stay up until 3:00 am to finish them? Those authors jump into the rising action right away. They saturate their books with suspense and tension from the beginning. I like these books as much as the next person. But I am also glad this is not the only type of book. A lot of my favorite books are slow-build. The rest of these tips will address slower-pace books.
Repeat that word over and over to yourself. The main plotline has to develop slowly, otherwise, this’ll be a short story or novella. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun in the meantime. A recent poll on Twitter surprised me by revealing that most people prefer a slow and steady build rather than a break-neck pace from page one. This gives me hope for humanity 😉 But that doesn’t mean your book needs to be boring. Let the reader go on mini adventures as the BIG adventure slowly brews.
This is a perfect time to put your characters to work. They’ve been introduced. But don’t wait until the rising action to add depth to them. People will keep reading if they like your characters. This is a perfect time to take some of your minor characters on subplot adventures. You can save the juicy stuff for your MC, if you want, but that leaves plenty for the minor characters.
This isn’t a must, but it’s very pleasant when it’s done successfully. It can be pretty amazing when subplots intersect/interact with the climax. It makes you feel like a mastermind as an author and leaves the reader in awe. But you don’t have to do it that way. You can tie up some of those subplots rather quickly. This is one way to earn reader trust. If you show them you can successfully take them on a “mini-adventure” from start to finish, they’ll be more likely to trust you, and they’ll anticipate the major plot arc. When I’m reading a new author and I hit the literary doldrums, and there are no subplots, I begin to wonder if the climax and resolution will even be worth it. If you successfully execute the full arc of a subplot in the first half of the book, it shows your writing credentials. It can also give your reader a sense of progress (especially for longer books i.e. Dickens style). As a reader, I don’t like the feeling of chipping away and not getting anywhere.
WARNING: These subplots can be tricky, though. They should never be confused for the main plot. If a novice author tackles this wrong, the reader will feel like the main conflict has subsided and wonder why he/she needs to keep reading. Uh oh!! Red alert! Make sure you put in compelling hooks for the big plot arc!!
So those are my thoughts on literary doldrums. What are yours? Have you seen any of your favorite authors use these devices? Do you have any advice to add? Join the conversation below!