(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)
The middle of a novel can be a veritable plot thicket and it has swallowed many a promising novel. You started out strong, feeling good, feeling righteous, and suddenly, somewhere after you hit that inciting incident, the thread of your story begins to slip through your hand and you’re slogging through twenty pages of circuitous dialogue or just making shit happen for the sake of making shit happen, with no idea where it’s all heading or (worse yet) not even feeling interested in the events themselves.
The main thing I try to keep in mind when I’m laying out a book is the concept of escalating conflict. Also called rising action in Freytag’s Pyramid, escalating conflict speaks to the idea that the scenes of conflict in a story escalate as the story moves forward, like a fight with your significant other that seemed so innocuous at the beginning and ends up with both of you in jail. The conflict can be external (the protagonist fighting bigger and badder monsters as he continues his quest) and or purely internal (the protagonist coming to terms with the death of his child, his terrible childhood, etc.) but I’ve personally found through much trial and error that a good balance between external and internal conflicts is usually optimal. If an internal conflict within a well-rounded protagonist drives their actions forward, sending them marching ever onward despite growing obstacles, the plot always seems to fall into place in a much more natural manner. What a character wants speaks to what they end up doing about it.
If every conflict is external, i.e. events just keeps happening and the main character is forced to react to each event in turn, the character loses depth, bouncing back and forth between events like a tennis ball, and the reader will have more trouble emotionally investing in a tennis ball then a well-rounded character struggling with an internal conflict which, to some degree, they’ll feel familiar with, as we all have our own internal conflicts and struggles. A lack of emotional investment in a character is not only a major downfall in fiction but in many a film as well, especially action movies. Film, primarily a visual medium, must either take the time to show us why we should cheer for a character (which many action movies are loathe to do, since this takes valuable time that could be better used for more explosions) or resort to a clumsy flashback or two and just get on with the front story. Fiction’s great advantage over film is its ability to peer inside a character’s thoughts and mind with a naturally unobtrusive lens, merging the reader and character into one being.
Earlier I alluded to plot as a string of dominoes lined up to fall against each other. Each domino is a plot point, a major event in a narrative, but each of these theoretical dominoes is not the same size. Think of a plot’s inciting incident, which starts the whole line of dominoes falling, as the smallest domino in the string, with each subsequent domino a little greater in size, until the climatic event, the biggest domino, falls last and leaves the author (through the sections of descending action, resolution, and dénouement) to collect the pieces and put them back in their narrative box. You don’t want the plot to boil over too soon by introducing a scene that’s more important than the scenes coming after it—you don’t to shoot the primary antagonist in the second act and leave your protagonist with nothing to struggle against for the rest of the book. You want to cause trouble in the middle of a novel but not so much that the reader is underwhelmed with the novel’s final scenes, like a child that eats too much cake at a New Year’s Eve party and falls asleep before the midnight countdown.
As for stagnation in the middle of a novel, that plot thicket, you need to trust your gut. Chances are if you feel your antagonist is growing and changing internally as they go along you’re on the right path and if you’re invested in their journey, their struggles both internal and external, your reader will be as well. You’ll know when you’ve reached the climax of your story when you’ve finally reached a scene that forces your character to make some decision, to take some action, which changes everything and leaves them with no recourse but to keep moving forward—they’ve come so far they can’t go back anymore and the shadowy abyss of resolution lies before them, waiting to swallow them whole.
If the middle of a novel is a thicket the author must hack their way through, concluding a novel is akin to guiding an enormous ship through a treacherous waterway and bringing it safely to port. By the time the narrative has crested and reached its climactic moment it has a great deal of momentum behind it and is riding low in the water, heavily laden with all the cargo the story has taken on over hundreds of pages. The author, as captain, feels the pressure of all this weight pushing behind her and understands that one small miscalculation can end up sending the novel far off course, with the possibility of crashing into the shore and capsizing the entire ship always buzzing at the back of her mind.
Some authors write with an ending in mind from page one (like John Irving, who starts a novel by writing its final line first), some have a vague idea of how everything will turn out and write toward that, fleshing out the details as they go along, and some write with no clue how everything is going to turn out for the majority of the first draft. Some authors seek full control of the novel writing process from start to finish, viewing a novel’s structure in the same light as an architect studying a blueprint, and some are comfortable, indeed flourish, with a lack of structure, feeling that it gives their imagination full reign in a way that following a rigid blueprint doesn’t allow for.
After much trial and error, I’ve found a comfortable middle ground in plotting a novel all the way through. I really like the idea of giving yourself as much space as possible for surprises in a plot, truly enjoy the surprise discoveries that happen, big and small, as you get to know your characters better and see how they interact with each other and the choices they make, but I’ve also written enough novels that went completely off course near the end that I now appreciate the idea of always having a rough idea of where you want the novel to land. I enter a novel with an idea I’d like to see play out (like a suicide plague, or a meteorite landing in the middle of a small Nevada town, or a teenage pyromaniac trying to work through his mother’s death, etc.) and spend a week or so writing the first pages of the story and just feeling around the story to get a handle on it. Once I can sense that there’s enough to the story to carry it for the length of a novel, enough potential in its characters and its setting, enough interesting, I start sketching a rough outline in my author’s notepad.
My usual outline is about as basic as it gets. I write one line for each potential chapter describing in curt fashion what’s going to happen and to which character. I start with chapter one and go from there, piecing the story together and telling it to myself as I go along—an author’s first audience is always themselves and frequently they’re as surprised as anybody to learn what’s about to happen. This first outline, which will be mucked up and rewritten and rewritten as I go along and discover new characters and investigate new developments, is just enough to both give me confidence that I have enough material to span sixty thousand words and give me a general direction—that final chapter—to aim for. I view none of the chapters as set in stone but I will consult the outline daily as I go along, altering it on the fly and reassuring myself that the story is remaining generally cohesive.
I don’t consciously think of the terms falling action, resolution, and dénouement as I write toward the end of a novel but I am aware that I need to wrap everything up in a more or less satisfactory way, at least as satisfactorily as the story allows. I’m keenly aware that once I’ve written that final sentence of the book I’m ending an entire world I’ve spent a long time creating and refining and I want to honor the death of this creation. It’s been good to me—it’s given me hundreds of hours of escape from the world and surprised me with its twists and turns.
I’ve also become a fan of the bang-inside-the-bang, the little revelation inside the greater final revelation in a story. Not only is the murderer’s identity is revealed, we learn that he has a personal connection to the detective. Not only had the valiant knight slain the dragon, but we learn that he wasn’t actually the one prophesized to do it (that guy was the knight who was actually fried by the dragon in the first chapter). Not only has the main character found a way to finally accept the death of their parent and make their peace with it but they’ve learned something about themselves through the process of grieving that will now change the entire trajectory of their lives. Give the reader a little extra pop in those final pages, one last surprise to really send them off in style.
Plotting a story is a matter of conflict, both external and external, and structuring those conflicts in an order that naturally escalates before finally reaching a conclusion. You can take apart a story and study its various plotting components like a mechanic working on a car but eventually you’ll need to take a step back and consider the work as a whole. Have you done more than simply complete a rote task? Has the story grown beyond what you intended for it when you set out in some pleasing way? Does the ending feel both surprising yet inevitable, as if it’s the one true ending for your story, throwing all other possible outcomes in shadow? There’s an aesthetics to plotting every good author appreciates and pays attention to, something beyond their stubborn ego and initial intent. They’re well aware that when a mortal makes a plan the gods laugh. They also know this is what makes writing so interesting.
 I find outlining is best down in lying in bed with a pen and a notepad which I use as much for doodling as I do writing the outline itself. A first outline usually takes a couple hours of dreamily staring at the ceiling.