Writing Fix: Sagging Middles

Worry Cat is FrettingOne of my weakest writing areas has been the middle of the novel. This “needs improvement” area is shared by many novelists and would-be novelists–I’m not alone. The middle (also known as ACT II) is the novel’s largest section, so we should revise it to sweep readers along effortlessly.

Writing Tip for Today: Let’s discuss a few ways to help tame the curse of the slow or sagging middle.

Be Willing to Sag

Not your pants, your novel’s midsection. I think it’s a mistake to try to keep the middle from sagging on the first draft. If you’re already a plotter, well yes, you can plan your scenes and maybe your draft won’t sag as much as my pantster draft will. But consider this: As I draft without regard to how well or not the chapters pull the story forward, I may stumble upon a revelation that both deepens and enriches the story. I maintain, especially on first novels, that “mistakes” such as a bunch of scenes or even chapters which will eventually need cutting actually help writers understand their characters and the all-important motivations they display. Don’t be afraid to fail as you write toward the climax. Is this method likely to result in more “work” (read: revisions)? Absolutely. But I’d rather fail and learn and grow my skills than stay in one spot on the technique scale.

Sharpen Your Scalpel

Be willing to create a hot mess, but also be willing to cut out stuff that isn’t getting your character closer to that goal or climax scene. If you start with a weak premise, you’ll be rewriting a lot. The adage “Writing Is Rewriting” applies here. One way to determine what should stay or go is to create some sort of scene list or storyboard. You can use 3 x 5 cards, post-it notes or a simple list to see how the story as a whole moves. Write one sentence for each scene and assemble in order. Now step back and you should begin to see spots that march in place or sag the story. These scenes can either be rewritten, deleted or summarized with transitions to bridge time gaps. When I begin revising in my master document, I first copy/paste the scene into a new file and work on it until I am satisfied before I insert it into the master. It’s a form of insurance against what I call “another shortsighted Linda move.”

Keep Tension High

As you remedy a sagging middle, look for tension. Does it flag? Are you excusing weak tension by calling it a “breather?” Readers do want relief from high action but only in very small doses–I’m talking about sentences or paragraphs, not scenes or chapters. Each succeeding event should ratchet up the tension on your protagonist, culminating in the “do or die” moment of the climax scene. “All is lost!” is the sentiment you need going into that scene, and either victory or defeat should be the climax scene’s result. If your story runs out of steam too soon, you will want to re-examine the stakes of the story, your character’s goals, the obstacles and how many people are affected. The bigger each of these, the higher the stakes and the more tension the story will contain. Most of us desire a firm and toned middle. Your novel needs one too.

Your Turn: Do you have a favorite method for trimming the fat from your novel’s middle? What is it?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

7 comments on “Writing Fix: Sagging Middles

  1. Great question! I really enjoyed hearing about your process too. Because I’m a planner, I make sure to hit the important milestones along the way, including the middle: All is lost and Dark Side of the Moon. However, I do tend to pants my way from one checkpoint to another to allow the story to grow organically. Sometimes I veer waaay off course and other times I’m laser-focused on the next checkpoint. To answer your question, I guess it depends on my mood. I do use index cards, but even they don’t keep me in check if the muse takes over.

    • Sue,
      I love when the Muse comes out to play! The more novels I write, the more of a planner I’ve become–especially when I’m on a deadline. Still, I tend to know the beginning and the ending but get to explore and go a little crazy in the middle. That’s where the fun is for me. Thanks for sharing your process, too.
      Keep Writing,

    • Mary, Thanks as always. I find synopses valuable for general direction but usually by the time I get to a synoptized scene, I’ve thought of a better idea. I think it has to do with knowing my characters in more depth by then.
      Keep Writing!

    • Mary Kate,
      So glad you find the tips useful. Take heart, writer–every novelist has trouble in the middle, at least until the final rewrite gets it right.
      Keep Writing!

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