I listen to a lot of readers talking about different books, or commenting on them in book lovers’ Facebook groups, and one complaint dominates. They moan about the number of novels that become a bit slow and tedious after the first couple of chapters. Sure, these books usually begin well, generating a lot of interest and reader involvement right at the beginning. Then they get boring. But finally, if the readers don’t give up, they begin to discover the pace picking up and the book becomes a rattling good read after all. So what are the causes of this ‘sag in the middle’, and how do authors try to avoid it?
In one sense, all plots are the same: a character has a problem he has to solve. The differences are in the nature of the problems and the method of finding and implementing the solutions. Most novels begin by telling us, in a way that arouses our curiosity, that there is a problem. But if we, the readers, are to really get involved, we need to have the problem explained and the skills and personalities of those involved given to us. It is this ‘exposition’ phase of the novel that gives writers a headache. Most people, unless they are philosophers or scientists, find explanations a bit boring. They are about the past, and the past is over and done with. The future is much more exciting.
This is the dilemma for novelists: the need to tell readers something they really don’t want to spend time getting to know. How do they get round that?
The obvious and easy solution is to keep the exposition as short as possible. If your audience is not going to enjoy reading it why make them suffer? This is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek comment, but a lot of authors do seem to have a sadistic tendency to labour superfluous detail in their expositions.
However, if the writer wants to avoid this defeatist approach, there are other options. Important past events can be presented as intrinsically interesting stories in themselves, rather than as a mere list of facts. Just as they do in the main story, writers have to use all the skills of characterisation and tension building in these back stories. Sub-plots can also be useful here too, if they are related to the story and are used to introduce knowledge that contributes to the main thread.
Writers should always remember that a novelist is obliged to constantly fight to keep the reader’s attention. There must always be a reason for wanting to turn to the next page. If not, dear reader, exercise your right to close the book and start something else. The author doesn’t deserve you.
About the author:
James Gault, born in Scotland, has recently retired to SW France after spending ten years in the Czech Republic. There he enjoys the sunshine, writes novels, short stories and English Language textbooks.
He also produces the on-line literary magazine Vox Lit with monthly notes by writers for writers and readers, news, features (short stories, poems and extracts from novels.)
He has written four novels, all available on Amazon as e-books and paperbacks:
Teaching Tania (Young Tania tries to put the world to rights with the help of her English teacher – a comic detective story)
Ogg (Supernatural being tries to teach teenage Antonia how to think rationally as they try to save the world from destruction – comic philosophical thriller)
The Redemption of Anna Petrovna (Young woman in ex-communist country tries to build a career in a totally corrupt society – political psychological thriller.
Best Intelligence – a detective thriller set in Scotland, France and Spain.
Current work in progress: the sequel to Best Intelligence and a satirical novella on the Trump-Putin relationship.
As well as ELT books and his novels, he has written short stories published in various reviews and magazines. In 2007, he won the writing prize from the British Czech and Slovak Society for his short story ‘Old Honza’s Day Out’.
In his time James has been an IT specialist, a businessman and a teacher as well as a writer, and has traveled extensively throughout Europe. He has worked with and taught English to students of many nationalities. He has an international outlook on life and his writing reflects both this and his other interests.
Apart from writing, his passions are politics, philosophy, film making, computer system development and his grandchildren.