add tension in a novel

But What If I LIKE My Sagging Middle?

Dear Editor…

I’m struggling with an editor’s note that says my story needs more tension. I think my beginning and ending are really good, but I admit the middle is kind of slow. I’m frustrated because I like the plot and don’t see how I can change that. I know you haven’t read my manuscript, but do you have any guidance?

Start Strong, End Strong

Dear Start Strong, End Strong…

What I can do is share what comes to my mind when I hear the phrase “needs more tension,” and when I hear people talking about slow, or “sagging,” middles. I first wonder if your stakes are too low. What if your protagonist fails to fix their problem or attain their goal—does it really matter all that much? If not, readers probably won’t get all worked up with worry. In that case, put more on the line. Make sure failure will hurt, big time. Another thing I wonder: Is there some Plan B your character can fall back on? “Well, I can always take that other job, or go to that other school.” No Plan Bs. If you fail, Character, you’ll have no job and live in your car! I had this talk with an author whose protagonist was offered a full scholarship as an incentive to do something very hard—but the character was rich. He could pay for college. He had a Plan B. Make it all or nothing! Be ruthless about that. And then, in your new ruthless state of mind, go on the attack: Target your protagonist’s support system. Cause misunderstandings that push your protagonist’s friends away, or that make teamwork impossible because of hurt feelings and defensiveness. Without a support system, your character would feel alone, abandoned, misunderstood, and defensive as they try to fix the high-stakes problem or attain the high-stakes goal. But you’re not done: Pick settings that prevent reconciliation or even worsen the hurt. Do your characters have the time, inclination, and place to sit and make up? Take away that time, and throw them into a busy, noisy, distracting place, like a mall at Christmastime, or a coffee shop during the morning rush, or PE class with frisbees flying, coaches yelling, and other kids bumping into your characters. You could move characters to a wedding reception, or into the stands at a ballgame. If the characters are desperate to avoid talking about their fractured relationship, force them into a quiet, one-on-one setting for an interaction that’s tense and awful because they don’t want to be there. Bonus: As you deny characters relief, you can compound misunderstandings. Now the emotional escalation and plot progression can work together in the middle of your book, making everything fraught and tense. You’ll get that juicy middle you want without overhauling a plotline you love.

Happy writing!
The Editor

The Editor, Deborah Halverson, has been editing books for over 25 years and specializes in Middle Grade/Young Adult fiction and nonfiction, New Adult fiction, and picture books. For her editorial guidance in making your manuscript ready for submission to agents and publishers or for self-publishing, click Editorial services.