For a certain kind of writer, the opening of a story is easy and fun – you get to allude to mysterious events and drop ominous clues. And then comes the middle, where all the stuff you’ve been alluding to has to start showing up and actually turning into something, and everything falls apart.
The first, most common reason for this is that the author didn’t actually have any idea what was going on to begin with, and when they start having to explain all their mysterious hints and ominous warnings, whatever they come up with just doesn’t measure up to the menace in the early chapters. It’s as if they’ve had livestock go missing and a field mysteriously burned, and everyone’s muttering about legends of dragons, and then they find out that the livestock was stolen by gypsies and the field caught fire when two kids were careless with the cigarettes they were smoking back behind the barn. It’s a let-down.
Obviously, one cure is to stop doing this – that is, first come up with the dragon, and then figure out what mysterious hints to drop to get there. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for folks who’ve already fallen into this trap and don’t want to throw away a perfectly good set of three-to-ten-chapters. What they need to do is come up with a problem that lives up to whatever level of threat they’ve established at the beginning. Better yet, come up with something that’s even worse than the opening implied.
My experience is that the most effective way to do this is to turn off your Inner Critic, sit down, and make a list of at least twenty things that could be the Big Problem. Gypsies, cigarettes, bandits, infiltrators from over the border, dragons, human sabotage, enemies setting a trap for the king or lord or Our Heroes, a new Fire Lord rising…twenty things, minimum. The first three to five will be the easy choices, the stuff that’s at the top of your mind. Mostly, they’re unlikely to develop into a particularly interesting story, but sometimes one of them is just the thing you want. After the first three-to-five, the ideas usually start getting more unusual and unexpected – dragons, traps, etc. – and you can pick one or more of those to use or combine into something that will live up to your opening. That’s why it’s a list of twenty things: to force yourself to come up with possibilities that aren’t obvious.
The trick to this is not to judge your ideas as you’re coming up with them, or think too hard about how they’ll twist the story you thought you were telling. There’ll be time for that when you have the list. Once you have the list, cross off the easy, obvious choices at the beginning and look at the rest of them. Maybe some can be combined for even greater impact – those infiltrators from over the border may be setting a trap for the king in preparation for starting a war, or perhaps the dragon is merely the servant of the rising Fire Lord.
The second reason for the falling-apart problem is that even though the writer has what’s supposed to be a huge problem facing the protagonists – the dragon – it seems much too easy once everyone finally figures out what’s going on. Missing livestock, burned field, dragon legends…ah, right, so there’s a dragon. So we call in the army with lots of cannon support, they set out some fat sheep for bait, the cannons blow the dragon out of the sky, and bob’s your uncle. This tends to happen either when a) the writer is much too eager to get to the Grand Finale and the confrontation with the dragon, and so skips over any problems that might occur on the way there, or b) hasn’t thought everything through (i.e., as in, not realizing early on that an army with artillery could take down the dragon fairly easily, as soon as they know there is one).
The fix for this one is similar to the brainstorming I just described, but instead of coming up with a list of ideas for what the Big Problem could be, the author has to come up with two lists. The first is a list of What Could Go Wrong from wherever the beginning ends. We know there’s a dragon now, so we’ll send a messenger to the king to get the army and the cannons. But: the king won’t send the army because he doesn’t believe in dragons, the trail up the mountain is too narrow for the cannons, the dragon eats the messenger so the king never hears, the cannons were built by the cheapest bidder and explode, the dragon is one of a larger flock and the cannons can’t take down twelve dragons at once, etc.
The second list is the list of What Else Could Be Going On that Our Heroes don’t know about yet. The dragon is the servant of a new Fire Lord, who will be really annoyed when Our Heroes kill it. The dragon was lured to Our Heroes’ village on purpose, by somebody who has it in for them and who will certainly try something else once they get rid of the dragon. The dragon has a dangerous object in its horde – cursed, stolen, something that possessed people, whatever – and once the dragon is gone and the object is found, they’ll have a whole new problem to deal with. Again, no judging ideas or worrying about how they might fit into the story until after the lists are complete.
The last reason for the falling-apart problem is usually that the writer is paying too much attention to The Rules TM, specifically the ones about how the heroes have to make mistakes, make their situation worse, etc. until the Grand Finale. The standard plot skeleton is DEscriptive, not PREscriptive, and it just means that a story wherein things run along too smoothly is seldom interesting to read. The heroes have to face and overcome obstacles, but the obstacles don’t necessarily have to be of their own making.