Monday, August 31, 2009

The Sagging Middle - Part One

When I start a book, I’m full of enthusiasm and great ideas – for about three or four chapters. And then I hit a wall. I have this wonderful, exciting opening, and often I know what the crisis or ‘black moment’ is going to be, how the subplots will be tied up and how all the conflicts will be resolved in the end. I just don’t always know how my characters are going to get from the beginning to the end. In other words, I suffer from SMS, the dreaded Sagging Middle Syndrome.

The middle is where all the action happens. When I’m reading a good book, the middle is often my favorite part of the story. It’s where we really get to know the characters and the setting. Events occur that force the characters to act, to make decisions, to make choices. Each choice brings them closer to the climax. As a reader the middle is exciting and full of information. So I know how important the middle is to my story. How do I overcome Sagging Middle Syndrome to craft a book as exciting as my favorites? Maybe it would help if I knew what the middle is supposed to accomplish.

The Purpose of the Middle. We can usually state the purpose of our beginning quite easily; to introduce our characters and the problems they face, the setting, the themes we want to explore. We know what our ending has to do; to solve the mystery, to bring our hero and heroine together, to increase the conflicts, bring the conflicts to a crisis point, and eventually resolve them. But what is the purpose of the middle?

Alicia Rasley, in her article, “Tightening the Sagging Middle” says the middle of your story has many important purposes:

- The middle furthers the plot. Most of the events happen in the middle. Each scene should have a distinct plot purpose, and should lead into the next. In other words, each scene should affect the next one and keep building to the climax. For instance, in my romantic suspense “Seeing Things”, each of Leah’s psychic visions gradually begin to fill in the pieces of the puzzle. The information revealed in one scene causes the hero and heroine to chase down a lead in the next scene. Each scene releases a bit more information (with a couple of red herrings thrown in) that brings Leah and David closer to finding his kidnapped nephew. Alicia Rasley says we have to be ruthless in the middle “so that the journey isn't a meandering one with too many blind alleys– every scene should be centered on an irrevocable event that changes the course of the plot."

- The middle is the time of rising conflict. The conflict between characters should increase and the stakes should become higher. For example, Alicia Rasley says that “If the romantic conflict is that the heroine is disguising her identity, then every scene should bring her closer to discovery, and her deception should become more dangerous to their growing love.”

- We get to know our characters in the middle. If readers are given a chance to know our characters well enough, then their motivations for the things they do will make sense and will help further the plot. Writers can also hint at secrets and other mysteries to be revealed closer to the end of the story.

- We get to know the “world” of the novel in the middle. We can explore how our characters feel about the setting. We can show how this world has affected our characters, and the values that are important in this world. World building is crucial in fantasies and futuristic novels, but it is also important to contemporaries. For example in my contemporary romance “Till September” the setting is a farm on the Saskatchewan prairies. My heroine Hannah is passionate about holding on to her farm, to her small community and to her way of life. When she discovers that the hero Quinn is a threat to her world, she sends him away.

- Story questions are asked and answered in the middle. These story questions drive the plot. In a mystery, the main story question would be “whodunit”. In a romance the story question might be “How do these two overcome all their obstacles to get to their happy ending?” Alicia Rasley says that “The middle of the book assembles the "evidence" that will eventually solve the problem or answer the question.”

- The middle builds toward the climax. Every scene in the middle should bring the story closer to this climax. If one of your scenes doesn’t fulfill one of these middle purposes (furthering the plot, increasing the conflict, building the story world, learning about the characters) it doesn’t belong in your story. In fact Alicia Rasley says a writer should try to make every serve more than one purpose.

Next week I’ll talk more about what you can do to prevent Sagging Middle Syndrome. Do you sometimes have troubles with your middles? What do you do to keep your middles exciting and sag-free?


Hywela Lyn said...

Thanks for this, Jane, it's so easy to get so caught up in the story one is telling that one doesn't realise one is 'rambling' and that the reder is actially waiting impatiently for some actual ACTION! (I'll be impatiently waiting to find out how to avoid this!)

Janet C. said...

Boy do I have problems with Sagging Middles - too many treats and poor eating over the last month :)

Oh, those sagging middles? Yep, sure do. I'm very much like you, Jana - the beginning comes in a whirl of excitement and basically, excuse the cliche, writes itself. The ending usually shows up before or at the same time as the beginning. That darn middle, however, is elusive.

This is a great post and I'll be coming back to it - and I can't wait to read next week's article. Everyone knows that for Mac and Gillian's story I chose to write it backwards, which helped. I think perhaps working with a story board of some kind could help the sagging middle syndrome. I believe Karyn talked about it in one of her comments a week or so ago. At least with a story board (however one wishes to do it) you can see at a glance which plot points need bolstering, which should be winding down, and how much world building you need to convey the setting of your story. Can you guess that I've been toying with story boards on my vacation?

Question - have you ever abandoned a book because of Sagging Middle Syndrome? Great start, but peters out and leaves you unable to get to the ending - great or not?

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hywela,
Welcome to the Prairies!

You are so right. Sometimes when we're writing we get so caught up in getting our characters from exciting opening to thrilling conclusion that they don't actually "do" much of anything in between. This can be a real snore fest for a reader. I'll give you a hint for next week: conflict.

Thanks for joining us. Come on back to the Prairies anytime.

Jana Richards said...

Janet, you're back!!! Man, have we missed you. So glad to have you back. I hope your vacation/move went well. I thought of you as I heard about tornadoes in southern Ontario and hurricanes in Nova Scotia. Not a great summer to be camping! Glad you're all in one piece.

Back to our regularly scheduled blog. I think you have to do whatever it takes to keep the action moving and the middle from sagging. If that means writing the end first and working backwards from there, so be it. I usually write in chronological order, but if a scene isn't coming to me, I often skip over it to get to the next one. I'll leave a notation saying "this scene goes here" and give a brief description of what I think will go there. Mainly a lot of tightening of my middles comes in the edit stage. Once I`ve had a chance to read the story again, after a short break away from it, I can often see where I might need more action or conflict.

Have I ever abandonned a story because I got to the middle and didn`t know where to go. You bet! The thing is somewhere on my harddrive, I hope (I had a lot of computer issues this summer, still ongoing.)

Great to have you back.


Karyn Good said...

Great post today, Jana. Very timely for me as I start the revisions I was supposed to do over the summer. I've printed out your post and taped it to the wall in front of me. I need a visual reminder that every scene must serve a purpose(s). I've cleared a space for part two!

Karyn Good said...

Hey Janet! Glad you're back! Missed you!

Helena said...

Your post has me thinking that my current problems with completing my first draft (yes, I'm STILL working on it ... off and on) is because I have stumbled into the sagging middle. This is where some of the most difficult scenes should be happening, and guess what? I'm avoiding them, and yet here is exactly where the conflict and the emotional and sexten level have to escalate before things can get better.

Perhaps I should skip ahead to the resolution, and fairly quick ending, and then see what's missing.

Another reason for the sag could be the fact that I am already thinking about a major revision to the story in the next draft, which is diluting my focus on completing the first draft. Maybe I should just start the revision and take care of the sagging middle during that process, as you indicated in your comment about the editing stage.

At any rate, I'll be eagerly awaiting your solutions for my dilemma next week.

Thanks for a great topic, Jana. And it's definitely UNANIMOUS -- so glad Janet's back!

Gabby said...

I just found this blog and I have to say - I'm sure glad I did. This was an excellent post and I'll surely be keeping all this in mind when I hit the middle of my WIP.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
Good luck with the edits. I hope I can help in some small way. Definitely take a look at the article on sagging middles written by Alicia Rasley. She has some really excellent stuff there. She has a long list of possible scene goals and thinks that every scene should try to accomplish two or three of these goals. That`s in addition to furthering the plot, which she believes must be accomplished in every scene.

Next week: concrete methods for tightening the sagging middle.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Most of us try to avoid conflict and confrontation in our own lives, so it`s natural to try to protect our characters from conflict. But to have a good story, not to mention a tight middle, we need to have conflict and action. Vicki Hinz says she likes to chase her characters up a tree and throw boulders at them. So start throwing a few boulders at your characters, Helena.

Correct me if I`m wrong, but I think you`ve actually got to have something written before you can revise it! I suggest you work on those conflicts in the middle. Get something down, even if it`s very rough right now. Maybe you want to write your ending first and work backwards, like Janet did. Whatever works for you. But you`ve got to work on your first draft. Put your worry about revisions out of your head for now. Try not to even think about them. Just tell yourself the story.

And yes, I`m thrilled Janet`s back. Can hardly wait for Friday.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Gabby,
So glad you could join us! I see you`re another prairie girl. Have you checked out Sask. Romance Writers.

Like I told Karyn, make sure you check out Alicia Rasley`s article. She`s an amazing writing teacher.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

I've definitely had problems with sagging story structure.. but I'd only call it the middle in the broad sense that it wasn't the beginning or the end. At the moment though, I can't say whether it's resolved or not though. In my case I found it's not so much a sag as a snag, too many loose ends tied up in knots so I couldn't figure out how to unravel them again. Retracing my steps, I'm hoping I can avoid the same trouble again. We shall see.

Helena said...

Jana, you're so right. And it's not as tho I haven't been AIMING to get my first draft finished before I go back and touch anything in a major way. It was just tempting to make a new beginning, there are so many things that need altering. But I shall resist --- because I know my good friend Jana is right!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I know what you mean about running into snags. Sometimes you paint yourself into a corner, and then you wonder `Now what do I do.`

I`m not sure I`ve got many words of wisdom for you. Do you know what you want your ending to be. (that`s supposed to be a question but for some crazy reason I get a weird symbol instead of a question mark) Are all your scenes working towards this climax and ending. Don`t be tempted to get rid of some of your conflicts in a effort to make the story work. Diluting the conflict will only make the middle sag more. It`s those twists and turns that make for an interesting story.

Good luck with your unraveling.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Sometimes, if a part of your story doesn`t work, you do need to start over again with a fresh perspective, even before you finish. Only you can decide if that`s what you need to do.

But in most cases, you`re better off to finish a first draft rather than making endless changes to the beginning.

Good luck.

Silver James said...

Jana, great post. I've been known to let a WIP languish as the middle drooped more and more. Eventually, I'll get back to those projects. Maybe. This post has some excellent ideas for combating.

JANET! *SQUEEE* Ahem. Yes. You've been missed. Not that all the other Chicks are wonderful, cool, delightful, knowledgeable, talented, marvelous...Am I laying it on a little thick? I hope you get settled soon!

Lynne Roberts said...

Great post, Jana!

Sometimes, when I'm reading, even a good book, I'll skip to the end to find out how everything works out. It doesn't ruin the journey for me, but I like to know where I'm going.

I do that when writing too. I am so excited about those first sparks in the beginning and thrilled with how everything turns out, but getting from beginning to end sometimes proves trying.

And as I'm in a 'middle' now, I'm really looking forward to your next post!

P.L. Parker said...

Good post. Losts of interesting stuff.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Silver,
I know, I know. I just can't compare to Janet (heavy sigh) no matter how wonderful I am. But I try :)

Yes, I have a few manuscripts that sagged to the point of no return. And like you say, maybe I'll get back to them, and maybe not. I've moved on and I don't know whether those sagging stories can be resurrected from the dead.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Lynne,
Thanks for joining us on the Prairies.

Yes, I'm always excited to start a new project. It's so thrilling. And then the real work begins. The dreaded middle. It's hard work but a strong middle can make or break your story and provide a satisfying for your reader.

I hope you drop by again.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Patsy,
Welcome to the Prairies! I'm glad you could drop by. Stay tuned for part two on sagging middles next week.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Silver, I know exactly where you're coming from...SQUEEE!!!

No, I've never stopped writing because of a sagging middle. However, I have skipped to the end and worked there until I was back on track.

With the plotting crse I took in June, I already have the middle all laid out so hopefully, I won't have SMS problem with my current wip either.

Excellent article, Jana.

Mary Ricksen said...

Great blog Jane, really informative.
At least I can fix one sagging middle.

Angelique Newman said...

I love your blog on "The Sagging Middle"

I call mine "The Middle Muddle" lol I think it's something most writers dread. grimace. They're hard to get though
especially when your thoughts are ten steps ahead of you.

You did a great job in breaking down "The Sagging Middle"

It's a great reference I'll have to come back to time and again.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Do you find that working backwards from the end helps with SMS? It makes sense, I think. If you know where you want to end up, working backwards can help you craft scenes in the middle that help get you there. Good luck with your new project.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Mary,
Thanks for joining us.

Yes, I can deal with the sagging middle in my story. The sagging middle around my waist is another matter.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Hi Jana, yes, I know exactly how I want it all to resolve, but somewhere along the way it just lost momentum. As I've been going back to rewrite with the new pov, I think I'm starting to notice the snags, where I left a motivation undeveloped or figured it out later but didn't actually set it into the text to truly help me understand how it would impact everything. When I get back to that snagged 3/4 point again, I hope to see it all fall into place. If not, then it'll be time to go crack the whip and make my characters work for me ;)

Jana Richards said...

Hi Angelique,
I'm glad you dropped by. We're glad to have you on the Prairies.

I'm glad you found the blog useful. I hope you can tune in next week when I'm going to blog about ways to combat the dreaded middle muddle.


Anita Mae Draper said...

Yes Jana, I do think it helps create the sagging middle. Maybe because by completing the end, you have a clear image of where you want to go instead of just a blank slate.

connie said...

Hi Jana,
I enjoyed this one!
My personal sagging middle got a heck of a shock when a neighbour asked me to go walking this morning. 45 minutes of trying to catch up and occasional collapses. Gotta quit smoking!
Now - to the middle. I need a great deal of stuffing for the middle of my wip - a great deal. It isn't the loss of momentum, its the old np reporter get-it-all-in-10-inches - even if it is full coverage of the end of the world you're covering. In other words, not enough words yet but the plan is there.
I find myself adding a 'comic relief' scene sometimes.
I have lots of story ideas in my mind but not one of them has a middle - yet.
Thanks. Look forward to the Rest of the Story

Molli said...

Good post, Jana. I'm like you--lots of enthusiasm for the beginning and the end, struggles getting from one to the other. Your comment about the middle being exciting and full of information for the reader is on target, and I appreciate the analysis you've done on the purpose. I'm in the process of working out the outline for my ballerina story so it's timely for me, as was Janet's comment on working through it backwards.

Thanks. I'm looking forward the the next instalment.

Jana Richards said...

To Connie and Molli,
Don't give up ladies! I hope you persevere through the middle and get to the wonderful endings you envision.


Danielle Thorne said...

Excellent article, Jana! I really needed that. I, too, am a victim of Sagging Middle Syndrome. Actually, sometimes, it's Vacant Middle Syndrome. This was very helpful!

Jana Richards said...

Thanks Danielle,
I'm glad you found the blog useful. I hope you drop by next week for part two on sagging middles.