How to Finish the Damn Book When the Going Gets Tough

When I first started writing, I found beginnings really easy. I’d think of the characters and the setup, get excited, then off I’d go. The first three chapters – hell, the first half of the book – would just flow and I’d be loving it. Then around about halfway I’d start getting bored. It wasn’t so much fun anymore. And I didn’t know where to take the story. Then I’d have this new story idea with new characters and clearly this new story was WAY better than the one I was writing which was OBVIOUSLY crap. So I’d ditch the one I was writing and start a new one. And it went really easily until I got to the middle. Whereupon I’d get a new story idea that was way better….

Sound familiar?  It’s you too right?

So I have a theory as to why that happens: the beginning of the book is all about the present. This is where you have your set up and you introduce your characters. The initial conflict the characters experience will probably be related to your setup – ie they’re competing for a promotion, or the hero wants the heroine’s land, or the heroine CEO is lusting after the mailroom guy and but it’s work and not allowed. You get the idea.  It’s easy to write this stuff because you’ve thought about it and it’s exciting.

But why does it get hard?  Because after the halfway point you need tension to keep the story going. The initial conflicts you had to start off with aren’t enough and so the story flags. You don’t know where to take it next. The pace drops and you have no forward momentum.

Now I’m going to be rude. Here’s where it’s very easy for writers to cheat and introduce fake tension by having a villain or a stalker or a jealous ex. I’m not saying these aren’t valid things to add to a plot, but I do think many writers use them as a way of adding tension when the pace drops and they run out of ideas for how to keep it going.

Okay so I’m not a suspense writer or anything so if you want to know about external conflict and how to use that to keep the pace going, I’m not your gal.

Oh the other hand, if you’re after using internal conflict to up tension then I definitely AM your gal. So here’s a few tips on how to use it to add tension when you get to the middle of your book and you don’t know where to take your story.

  1. Know your characters pasts as well as their present. There’s a reason romances are full of people with tortured pasts and that’s because those pasts provide lots of emotional conflict. A happy, well-adjusted person will not have as many barriers to love which may make for a very short book. I use dark conflicts because in my mind you need to have a VERY good reason to walk away from the love of your life.
  2. Once you get to the middle of your story, that’s when to start digging into those tortured pasts and deep emotional issues. Because that’s where you’ll get your tension for the second half of the book.
  3. Once you’ve figured out what the deep emotional issues are, you need to think about how that operates in your story. For example: hero lost his brother in an accident and blames himself. How did that event shape him? How does that relate to a romantic relationship? And – most important – what action does he take when he finds he’s falling for the heroine? My answer would be this – if he blames himself for his brother’s death, he’ll be afraid he isn’t worthy to be loved by anyone because hey, he killed his brother. Which means that when he starts to have feelings for the heroine he’ll push her away because deep down he doesn’t feel worthy of her love (or something equally tortured like that).
  4. Don’t know what happens next? As the characters begin to have feelings for one another, they will start resisting them. They’ll start taking action and one action always generates another. If the hero starts pushing the heroine away, what does she do? Again, remember that her actions would be driven by her conflict. So if the hero pushing her away reminds her of the way her father always shut her out, what action does she take?  Does she get angry? Does she curl up in a ball and weep into her hair (I hope not cos that’s gross)? Her actions toward him will prompt him to do something back, and so on, which will shape your plot for the rest of the book.
  5. If you’ve done this and are now thinking ‘how the hell am I going to get these two together???’ then congratulations. You’ve achieved what every romance writer hopes to achieve because if you’re thinking that, then so will the reader. And that will keep them turning the pages, frantic to see how you’re going to work it.  And if you don’t know how to work it? Sorry, that’s where this blog post ends. Hehe.

Now you can join me on the dark side….where the beginning is really hard and the second half flows like a dream (sometimes)!

Oh and where you ALWAYS finish your book. 🙂

9 thoughts on “How to Finish the Damn Book When the Going Gets Tough”

  1. Yay, welcome to the Dark Side! I’ve been here for ages. I hate the beginning. I LOVE THE MIDDLE… where I get to RUN AMOK and nothing has to make sense.

    Oh, I hate endings too :/ BUT THE MIDDLE IS AWESOMEHAPPYFUNTIME. For me. Less so for the characters. *cues maniacal laughter*

  2. I’m with you, Amalie. I LOVE the middle and then the build up to the black moment (not so much the ending). I get rid of all the pesky initial character layers then get to wallow in all the angsty drama and feels, torture the characters unmercifully. Generally make their lives hell. Hehe.

  3. Such an accurate list, Jackie. If only you’d written this post about three years ago! I could have really done with it then 🙂

    Bizarrely, I change depending on the book. My last book had a super-fluid first half, and the second half was like painstakingly glueing a shattered vase back to together. My WIP – the beginning was SO HARD and yet the second half has been much easier. Just wrote the black moment today actually, where all those middle-of-the-book backstory conflicts came to a head. I got all emotional. The best kind of feeling! x

    1. I wish I’d known three years ago, Madeline! Anyway, I LOVE that feeling when it all comes together and it’s all weepy too. But yeah, it is very book dependent. Some beginnings flow really well and some suck majorly. But I always love middles. 🙂

  4. No! I love beginnings – I could write them constantly. I’m mid book right now and I’m just itching to write the big scene I want that’s at the end of the book. But darn it! I have a middle to do first!

  5. Jackie, thanks so much for writing this! Guess what, I’ve just run out of steam and am really struggling. I think I used up all the PAST conflict in the first half. Are you saying: keep with the PRESENT set-up conflict until half-way? And what happens with the idea that the first 4 chapters or so will tell the reader everything (external?) they need to know about the character? Sorry to ask so many durrr questions but I am so stuck!!! Many thanks, Maggie J

    1. Maggie, okay, so firstly there are no hard and fast rules. The above is only a guideline. Which also goes for what you said about the first four chapters. That isn’t the case. The initial chapters should deal with the set up and be an introduction to the characters, and maybe hint at the backstory. If you reveal everything about a character straight up then there’s no mystery and no incentive for the reader to keep reading.

      Secondly, if you’ve used up all the past conflict in the first half then it’s possible you’ve made your characters too self aware. People don’t go around consciously thinking ‘I can’t love you because I blame myself for my brother’s death’. Those kinds of thoughts are buried very deep and come into play only after they start to recognise that they have feelings for the other person which is why they start happening later in the book.

      Thirdly, ask yourself this question: What is keeping them apart? If it’s a secret or a misunderstanding that if you had them talk about it straight away would end up being the end of the book then your conflict for them might be too thin.

      Does that help?

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