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Plotting the Middle of a Novel

Plotting the middle of your novel is the most exciting part of the plot-building process. It’s where the action kicks in for real.

Earlier, I talked about a novel having three acts. The first act is the beginning, when the character decides to take action. The middle section of the plot then deals with the action itself.

It’s useful to think of Act II as the start of the character’s “journey” (whether they’re making a physical journey or not). For the whole of the first act, they remain at “home” – or in a world that’s familiar to them. At the start of the novel’s second act (the middle), they set out on their journey and enter a world which is not familiar.

  • In some novels, this will be a literal departure. The spaceship takes off. The explorer sets out for the South Pole.
  • In others, the departure will be more metaphorical. The young man enters the wonderful but mysterious world of dating girls. The idealistic woman enters the murky world of politics.

Or it might be a combination of the two.

Once they’ve set foot into this strange new world, the hero doesn’t immediately set out to achieve their overall goal. The goal is too complex to have a quick and simple solution. Instead they take it in small steps, trying to achieve one mini goal at a time.

As they go, they learn the “rules” of this new world they’ve entered, meet allies and enemies, discover new things about themselves and the nature of their quest.

The journey isn’t simple by any means. It’s frequently a case of one step forward and two steps back (or at least sideways). There will be plot twists, too, where things turn out to be totally different to the hero’s assumptions.

I’ve always liked how the novelist Oakley Hall put it…

Plot progresses in a series of reversals and recognitions, breakthroughs and catastrophes, an inch gained here and the rug pulled out there.

Little by little, though, despite all the wrong turns and setbacks, the hero will gradually edge closer to the object of their quest.

How do you go about plotting the middle in practical terms? You use “mini plots.” Think of these as…

The Building Blocks of Middles

Here are the three steps that make up the middle portion of your novel…

  1. The First Mini Goal.
  2. More Mini Goals.
  3. Rock Bottom.

The first thing you’ll notice is that they’re a lot more vague than the three steps from the beginning. That’s deliberate…

By keeping the structure loose, it gives you maximum flexibility to plot the perfect middle for your story. Don’t worry, though – I’ll give you plenty of concrete advice as we go on what to include (or not include) and how to arrange it.

The second thing you’ll notice is that I haven’t talked about “mini goals” before. What the heck are they?

Like I said, they’re the “building blocks” of the entire middle section of your plot. They’re the things that allow you to tell a compelling story that doesn’t run out of steam halfway. In short, they’re important. So before we dig into the details of plotting the middle part of your novel, let’s take some time to understand them.

You’ll enjoy this section. Mini goals, and the whole structure that surrounds them (mini plots) are pretty neat!

What Are Mini Goals?

Most things that we do in life we do by breaking them down into smaller steps. Even something simple like buying the morning paper involves…

  • Finding some money.
  • Crossing the road to the store without getting hit by a car.
  • Finding the correct newspaper on the shelf.
  • And so on and so forth.

It’s exactly the same thing with a character pursuing a goal in a novel. The way they achieve their overall goal (the one they arrived at during the novel’s beginning) is to break it down into a series of mini goals.

Mini goals not only give you a way of plotting a rock-solid middle (one that doesn’t “sag”). They’re also ideal for keeping readers turning the pages.

Hooking your audience, then keeping them hooked all the way through, boils down to filling the plot with compelling questions.

Where do these questions come from? From your characters’ goals. As soon as you give the protagonist something they want, you provide the readers with a question they want answered…

  • Will the boy win the girl and live happily ever after with her?
  • Will the detective solve the crime and bring the guilty to justice?

But it’s not just those overall, novel-length questions that help to make a plot a page-turner. By breaking down the overall goal into small steps, the hero will have a mini goal in every scene.

Yes, the audience wants to know if the boy eventually wins the girl, but they’ve got to get through 200-odd pages to discover the answer. In the meantime, smaller, scene-specific questions will keep them hooked…

  • Will the boy work up the courage to ask the girl out on a date?
  • Assuming the girl rejects him when he does, will he give up? If not, what will he do next?

And so it continues throughout the novel, with each “mini question” forming another hook in the overall plot.

Don’t forget, too, that characters other than the protagonist will have goals of their own – both longer-term, overall goals and shorter-term mini ones. And these goals will probably be at odds with those of the central character.

The goal of the boy’s love rival, for example, will be to win the girl for himself. And the readers will want to stick around to see that he doesn’t succeed!

(We’ll talk about the goals of other characters in the article on subplots.)

Bottom line so far?

In a short story, it’s enough for a character to have a single goal that they can achieve (or not) in a single step. In a novel, the hero’s goal is more complex. So the only sensible way for them to tackle it is to break it down into a series of mini goals.

Now let’s look at…

How to Build Mini Plots

Think of a novel’s middle like a journey from one side of a river to another…

The near bank of this river represents the novel’s beginning. The character is still on dry land at this stage. If they wanted, they could decide not to act and stay where they are. But they don’t do that. They commit to achieving their goal.

The object of their quest is represented by the far bank. If they can make it there, they’ll have succeeded. But to get from where they are now to where they want to be, they need to cross the water.

Now, this river has rocks jutting out of the water. The way that the character will reach the far side is by jumping from one rock to the next, using them as stepping stones, all the way across. And guess what? Each of these stepping stones is a mini goal – the next place they need to get to in order to reach their overall goal, the far bank of the river.

Now, a mini goal isn’t a “building block” by itself. It’s simply the thing that sets in motion the next small section, the next “mini plot” of your novel. A mini plot consists of five elements…

  1. The hero decides to act on a mini goal.
  2. They encounter conflict.
  3. The scene reaches a resolution, often leaving the hero in a worse position.
  4. They hero reacts to what has just happened.
  5. They come up with a new plan, or a new mini goal to pursue.

Actually, there are only four elements. How come? Because the fifth step in “Mini Plot A” – deciding on a new mini goal – is also the first step in “Mini Plot B”. That’s what makes them so great for plotting the middle and keeping it from sagging: they snap together like toy bricks!

Here are the five steps in a little more detail…

Mini Plot Step 1: The Hero Decides to Act on a Mini Goal

Remember, this isn’t their overall, novel-sized goal. It’s one of the smaller steps along the way. Their overall goal is to reach the far bank of the river, but right now they’re focused solely on reaching the first stepping stone.

(The river is a metaphor, obviously. We’ll look at some more concrete examples of how mini plots work later on. For now, I’m just explaining the concept.)

Mini Plot Step 2: They Encounter Conflict

A good rule of thumb when plotting a novel is to never make life easy for your characters. If their goal is to reach the first rock and they step onto it without even taking their hands out their pockets, it won’t exactly make for riveting drama. So…

Make them take a long run up. Turn up the heat so they sweat more. Make the landing surface slippery. Stick a couple of crocodiles in the water. In short, introduce conflict.

Conflict in a plot (also called opposition) can be internal, external, and environmental. Sticking with the river metaphor…

  • Internal conflict comes from inside a character. In this case, it’s the character’s fear of water, say. Maybe he should forget the whole stupid idea and put up with life on this side of the river.
  • External conflict comes from other characters whose own goals are at odds with that of the hero. So we could put the hero’s arch-enemy on the first rock and make him threaten to kill the hero if he comes any closer.
  • Environmental conflict is anything non-human which threatens to thwart the hero’s plans. A lot of plots won’t contain environmental conflict, but in the river there’s plenty. The slippery rocks, the hungry crocodiles, the water itself.

Mini Plot Step 3: The Scene Reaches a Resolution

Like I said, plotting a novel is essentially about making life as tough for your characters as you can. And in a mini plot, that usually means that they should fail to reach their goal. So…

The man leaps for his rock but misses and lands in the water. The river sweeps him downstream with the snapping crocs in pursuit. He grabs another rock and clambers to safety, but not before a crocodile has bitten off his big toe.

Mini Plot Step 4: The Character Reacts to What Has Happened

If the hero’s first mini goal was to reach the first rock safely, he’s clearly failed. More than that, he’s in a worse position than when he started. He’s ended up on a different rock entirely, one that’s completely off course.

Oh, and he’s lost a toe – not a great start!

What he does now is lay low for a while and react to what has just happened, often in an emotional way. So he screams in agony maybe, or breaks down in tears, or wishes he’d never started – something like that.

Mini Plot Step 5: The Hero Comes Up With a New Mini Goal

What happens next? He comes up with a new plan. He’s the hero in a novel, after all, and leading men or women don’t quit at the first sign of trouble!

His overall goal remains the same – to reach the far bank of the river. And although his attempt to reach his first mini goal (the first rock) has failed, his efforts have not been totally in vain.

For one thing, he’s beginning to learn the “rules” of this unfamiliar new world. In particular, he’s learned that rocks are slippery and that crocodiles have very sharp teeth.

So he takes this knowledge and uses it. He decides that swimming to the next rock will be better than trying to jump onto it. And he decides that crocodiles need fighting off, so he grabs a large pebble as a weapon.

And off he sets, armed with a new plan designed to take him to the second rock on his long and perilous journey across the river.

Action and Reaction

The only other thing to say about mini plots is that the first three steps are known as the action phase and the last two as the reaction phase.

  • In the action phase, the character tries to achieve a goal in the face of conflict – internal, external and environmental – and (usually) ends up in a worse position.
  • In the reaction phase, they go away to lick their wounds. But they eventually pick themselves up and, using any knowledge they’ve managed to acquire, come up with a new plan of action (i.e. a new mini goal to pursue).

The action phase of a mini plot usually takes the form of a scene. Scenes are dramatic in nature and characterized by talk and action. They take place in “real time” before the readers’ eyes.

The reaction phase usually takes the form of what I call an “interlude.” These are characterized by quietness and introspection and very little in the way of action. In them, time is often skipped through briskly (“Fred spent the evening nursing a scotch and watching a dumb movie on TV.”). Time can also be left out altogether (“The next morning…”)

It’s worth noting that different commentators use different names for these two phases of a mini plot…

  • Some call them action scenes and reaction scenes. The trouble there is that scenes, for me, are fast-paced units of action. And the reaction phase, where the hero licks his wounds and comes up with a new mini goal, are frequently slower episodes in which very little happens.
  • Others call them scenes and sequels. That’s better, except that we usually think of a “sequel” as a separate novel, the next one in the series.
  • I call them scenes and interludes. For me, “scenes” are the fast, exciting parts and “interludes” the slower bits in between the action.

I’m only mentioning that in case you come across some of the alternative names elsewhere. Now you’ll know that a “scene” and an “action scene” are the same thing, as are “reaction scenes”, “sequels” and “interludes”.

Wrapping Up Building Blocks

It’s almost time for the nitty-gritty of plotting the middle. To summarize everything so far…

The way you get from the beginning of Act II (roughly 25% of the way into your novel) to the end of Act II (roughly 25% from the end) is to snap together one mini plot after another.

You start with the first mini goal, or the first small thing that the hero must achieve. That leads to the next mini goal, then the one after that. And so it continues, all the way through to the end of the middle, where the hero hits rock bottom and his or her dreams are seemingly shattered. (Don’t worry, though – things will turn out okay in the final act!)

With the bulk of the theory under our belts, it’s time to look at the three steps of plotting a novel’s middle in more detail…

(I’m assuming you’re already familiar with Steps 1-3. If not, go read about them here.)

Step 4: The First Mini Plot

Remember the boy and the female detective from earlier? Here’s a quick summary of their stories so far…

The detective was expecting a quiet night in with her husband but instead got called to a murder scene. Her overall plot goal, obviously, was to solve the crime.

The boy was settling down to another miserable evening alone when he caught sight of the new girl in town and fell in love with her. His overall plot goal was to become her boyfriend.

Both characters hesitated at first – the detective because driving away to solve a murder might tip her marriage over the edge, the boy because he believed that the girl would never be interested in a loser like him. But both eventually came around and committed to their goals.

The first step in plotting the middle sections of these novels is to give each character their first mini goal. This is the first small thing they must achieve to take them one step closer to achieving their overall, novel-length goal.

  • In the crime novel, the detective’s first mini-goal will be to find clues at the scene of the murder.
  • In the boy-meets-girl novel, the boy must work up the nerve to approach the girl and introduce himself – never a bad start to a relationship. He decides to do it at school the next day.

Conflict

That’s the mini goals dealt with. Now let’s see how the next stage of a mini plot (“They encounter conflict”) plays out in each case.

For the detective…

  • Internal conflict comes from her fear of failure. (She’s worked hard to get as far as she has, and she knows some of her less enlightened male colleagues would love to see her fail.) Let’s also give her a fear of blood, just for fun!
  • External conflict comes from one her colleagues, who’s ignorant and doesn’t believe a woman is up to the task. Not only is he waiting for her to make a bad job of it. He actively makes her job more difficult by questioning her decisions.
  • Environmental conflict comes from a storm rumbling ever closer, threatening to wash the evidence clean away if they don’t get a move on.

For the boy…

  • Internal conflict comes from his shyness and his doubts that the girl will feel anything for him.
  • External conflict comes from the girl herself. Not only does she have no amorous feelings for the boy, she’s openly hostile to him when he tries to talk to her.
  • There’s no environmental conflict here. (In the majority of scenes in the majority of novels, there won’t be. But still look for ways to inject it if you can.)

The scene can play out in a hundred different ways, and all of them would be right. The crucial thing is that, whatever happens during the scene, the hero will usually find themselves in a worse position when the scene reaches its resolution. So…

  • The detective manages to find plenty of clues, including the murder weapon. But it turns out to be her own gun and she’s arrested.
  • Not only does the boy fail to charm the girl. She makes it quite clear that she wouldn’t be interested in him if he were the last guy alive. To complete his humiliation, the girl’s friends (who were listening in on his awkward attempt at chatting up the girl) all laugh at him and call him names as he walks away.

Reaction

We now enter the “reaction phase” of this first mini plot.

Because things just turned out badly for the characters, the first thing they’ll do is react emotionally to what has just happened. They’ll cry, pour themselves a large drink, punch the wall, whatever. In short, they’ll do whatever any of us do when we’ve just had a metaphorical punch in the stomach.

In the real world, we might stay down for quite some time. And when we do eventually get up, we might well abandon the idea of achieving our goal.

But a plot in a novel isn’t about replicating what happens in the real world. Your hero is a hero, after all. So it won’t take them long to move from emotional reaction to intellectual reaction, where they analyze what just happened and work out what to do next.

Sooner rather than later, they’ll come up with a new plan, a new mini goal…

  • The detective, sitting in a jail cell several hours after she was arrested, remembers some of the other clues she found at the crime scene. She now realizes that they point towards her having been framed. Her next goal in the plot, with the help of her trusted sidekick, is to prove her innocence.
  • The boy, remembering that the girl was talking to her new friends about the school play when he went to see her, checks out the notice board. Sure enough, the girl has signed up for the role of Juliet in the end of term play. No prizes for guessing which part the boy decides to audition for.

And so, armed with new mini goals, the characters are ready for the next mini plot in their stories.

Which leads us neatly onto…

Step 5: More Mini Plots

If you’re mentally plotting the middle of your own novel as you read this (at least in broad terms), you’ll now have the middle’s first major scene (action phase) and interlude (reaction phase) under your belt.

Plotting the remainder of the middle (and avoiding what’s called a sagging middle) is simply about putting together a whole string of these mini plots.

Your protagonist will enter each mini plot with a new mini goal. This is something specific they need to achieve to bring them one step closer to their overall, novel-length goal.

And they will usually end the scene in a worse position. They’ll lay low for a while and lick their wounds during the “interlude”, but they will always pick themselves up again and arrive at a new plan of action, or new mini goal.

This pattern of plot development is the pattern you need to keep repeating throughout the entire middle section of your novel…

  • Mini Plot – Mini Plot – Mini Plot…
  • Action – Reaction – Action – Reaction…
  • Scene – Interlude – Scene – Interlude…

Doesn’t “snapping” mini plots together, one after another, make the middle of your plot repetitive?

Not if you make sure that each mini plot is different in some way to all the others. How do you make them different? By deliberately shaking up all of the variables within a mini plot…

1. The Nature of the Goal

Some will be physical in nature, others more intellectual. Some will be difficult to achieve and others will be easy (or at least seemingly easy). And some will be dangerous to tackle, others less so.

2. The Nature of the Conflict

Remember, there are three kinds of conflict (or opposition) in a plot: external, internal and environmental.

So if the hero battles an enemy in one scene (external conflict), make them battle their own doubts and fears in another (internal conflict). And if it works for your story, also throw in some environmental conflict (a violent storm, a flood, and so on – anything that is non-human).

Also, “battling” an enemy doesn’t necessarily mean fighting with fists or guns. It could just as easily be a heated argument or a battle of wits.

If you’re writing high-octane genre fiction, most of your scenes probably will involve physical action. But you should still shake up the pattern by making some scenes revolve around dialogue rather than action.

The same thing goes with literary or mainstream fiction. Just because your novel as a whole is light on action, still beware of making every action scene revolve around dialogue. Make the conflict physical in nature occasionally – a race against time through heavy traffic, say, or sneaking into another character’s house without getting caught.

3. The Nature of the Resolution

I said earlier that each mini plot usually leaves the hero in a worse position. And that’s a good rule of thumb. Occasionally, though, you need to give them a mini victory, not just to add variety to the plot but to keep them moving forward on their overall quest.

Also, shake up the nature of the “worse position” that the hero usually finds themselves in at the end of a scene…

Sometimes it will be a devastating blow that knocks them two steps back, and sometimes it will be more of an unexpected twist that merely pushes them sideways. Occasionally it will be a mini victory.

If one resolution involves physical pain or injury (to the hero or someone close to them), make the pain or injury mental in the next scene’s resolution. Or occasionally make it an outcome that hurts nobody but kicks a big dent in the overall plan.

Sometimes the setback will be easy to see coming, and sometimes it will be a major plot twist that changes the rules of the game entirely.

4. The Nature of the Interlude

Interludes, remember, are those quieter passages in between the scenes. In them, the hero reacts to what has just happened and comes up with a new mini goal to pursue.

The nature of these interludes will very much depend on what has happened in the scene that’s just ended…

If the hero has been badly hurt, physically or mentally, you’ll probably have a protracted interlude. The character will lay low and lick their wounds, so to speak, and perhaps get emotional while they battle with their doubts and fears.

At other times, when the outcome of the previous scene has not been so momentous, a quicker or more upbeat interlude may be best.

And sometimes, when there’s no need for any “reaction” at all, you could get away with writing something like this…

Two days later, Fred phoned Betty and arranged to meet her for lunch. It was important, he told her. She was waiting for him at their usual table in the corner when he turned up five minutes early.

And off you go into the next scene!

A few more points before we move on to the final step of plotting the middle of your novel…

Never forget the importance of cause and effect. Each mini plot should be the cause of the next mini plot and an effect of the preceding one. If not, your novel will be episodic.

Something else that’s crucial is the need for rising drama and tension throughout the course of the plot’s middle. Try to ensure that, generally speaking, the scenes get a little “bigger” and the stakes a little higher as the novel progresses. (Yes, there will be peaks and troughs along the way, but the trend should always rise.)

Finally, an important point that’s worth underlining. Not all of the scenes in a plot will have a bad outcome…

  • The boy will get to kiss the girl sooner or later, way before the novel’s ending. They may even enjoy an extended period as a happy couple.
  • The detective will prove her innocence and return to the case, where she will make progress towards unmasking the murderer.

But every time they experience a victory, another disaster won’t be far ahead…

  • Yes, the boy kisses the girl in the moonlight. But it doesn’t end at a kiss. And when the girl’s father catches the happy couple coupling happily in the barn, he bans them from seeing each other ever again.
  • Yes, the detective is reinstated and soon has a prime suspect. She even looks to be on the cusp of solving the case. But then the prime suspect is murdered and she’s back to square one.

The characters keep pushing on, though. However bad things get in the plot, and however far they get thrown off course, they never lose sight of their overall, novel-length goal.

And against the odds, they somehow edge closer and closer to achieving this overall goal.

This is a plot in a novel, though, and nothing comes easy for the characters. Writers need to be cruel sometimes, and the final step in plotting the middle of your novel is where you need to be crueller than ever…

Step 6: The Character Hits Rock Bottom

You’re probably wondering by now when the sequence of mini plots comes to an end. After all, you could keep up the sequence indefinitely. Here’s the answer…

The final mini plot in the middle of a novel is the one where the character’s mini goal is to finally achieve their overall goal.

Or to return to the “stepping stones across the river” metaphor from earlier, the final mini plot is about jumping from the last rock in the river to the far bank itself.

Despite all the setbacks they have suffered along the way, the protagonist is now on the cusp of victory. They’re about to seize the prize they’ve had their eyes on all this time.

But they are wrong. Something terrible is about to happen…

  • Just when the boy has persuaded the girl’s father that he isn’t such a bad kid, thereby removing the final obstacle to his happiness, his own parents tell him they’re moving to the other side of the country.
  • Just when the detective is closing in on her man, she’s pulled off the case and the murderer gets away.

In short, they hit rock bottom.

At what point, precisely, during the final mini plot does this happen?

At the end of the action phase. The protagonist pursued their goal in the face of conflict and believed the resolution would be a happy and successful one. But they were wrong. The resolution turns out to be devastating.

What about the reaction phase to this final mini plot?

That comes next, in the novel’s ending.

Just as it was possible to pinpoint the precise moment when a novel’s beginning turns into the middle (when the character commits to achieving their overall goal), so it’s possible to pinpoint the end of the middle (the devastating resolution to the scene which makes them hit rock bottom).

If most of the scenes in your novel up to this point have left the character in a worse position, this particular scene ends with them in the worst position they’ve ever faced. More than that, their hopes of achieving their overall goal seem as good as dead now.

Hey, plotting the middle of a novel is not for the soft-hearted!

The good news is that it’s time to turn things around. We do that in plotting the ending of your novel.

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