Monday, September 7, 2009

The Sagging Middle - Part Two

Now that we know all the things we need to keep in mind when writing the middle of our stories (furthering the plot, escalating the conflict, developing the characters and their relationships with each other and the setting, world building, posing story questions, building toward the crisis) what are some techniques for shoring up our story and keeping it from sagging?

Vicki Hinz, in her article “Sagging Middles” says action is the key. A book works when its “middle doesn't sag because its slats are constantly shored up by movement: plot twists, change in the characters, their motivations, and their growth.”

Methods to Combat Sagging Middle Syndrome:

Up the conflict. If things start to get too cozy for your characters in the middle, throw in a new conflict. For example, in my romantic suspense “Seeing Things”, Leah’s psychic visions lead her and David on a new lead – straight to his kidnapped nephew’s father. David reacts by accusing Leah of being in on the kidnapping with his estranged brother-in-law. Leah responds by telling David about a recurring dream of his that he’s never told anyone about. This new twist increases the conflict between them. The way they react to this twist also changes their relationship. New information forces characters to behave in new ways.

Make each new conflict a greater obstacle then the last one. Perhaps your characters are dealing with a problem, but are finding their way through it. Throw another obstacle at them that makes things worse. For example, in my contemporary romance “A Long Way from Eden”, Zane’s teenage daughter Erin is pregnant. He’s convinced the best thing for his daughter and new grandchild is marriage to Tom, the baby’s father. Tom’s mother Meg is totally opposed to the idea, having been forced into a marriage herself by a teenage pregnancy. After much struggle, they eventually agree not to force their children into marriage. But since Zane grew up not knowing his own father, he decides the time is right to learn who his father is. What he learns shakes him to the core. And when Meg's son Tom decides to find out more about his dead father, the carefully constructed life Meg has built for them threatens to crumble.

Raise the stakes. Each escalating conflict should mean there’s a little more at stake. Things should become more dangerous or drive the hero and heroine further apart. The tension should continue to rise from the beginning through to the end. In “Seeing Things” Leah unwittingly divulges some information about David’s family that tears them apart. Leah’s visions and the information she uncovers also make her a target for the kidnappers.

Start closing off options or avenues of escape for the protagonist. Eventually the protagonist can be left with only two options, and choosing one will lead into the climax. Betrayal, actual or suspected. A trusted friend, even the lover, can betray (or appear to betray), so that the protagonist's sense of certainty is shaken. In a romance, you must be careful not to make this apparent betrayal only a trivial misunderstanding. In my novella “Burning Love”, Riley feels Iris has betrayed him when he learns she plans to leave him for her new job.

Throw in a ticking clock. There’s nothing like a time limit to increase pressure. In my novella “Burning Love” Iris is only going to be renting a room at Riley’s house for six weeks. In “Till September” Quinn’s stay on Hannah’s farm is to last for the summer. In “Seeing Things” David and Leah and the police have to find David’s nephew before he’s of no further use to the kidnappers.

Make every scene do triple duty. In her article “Tightening the Sagging Middle”, Alicia Rasley recommends that every scene in the middle accomplish at least three things. One duty should always be “advance the external plot”, but some others might be increasing suspense, introducing new characters, or foreshadowing a climatic event.

Have the characters make love. In a case of divided loyalties, forcing a character to choose between his lover and his other loyalty, ups the emotional impact. In “Her Best Man” Will feels he has betrayed his brother by falling in love with Sarah, his brother’s ex-fiance. After he makes love to Sarah, he is so filled with guilt that he runs away, disembarking the cruise ship at the next port of call.

These are only some of the methods to tighten a sagging middle. Above all, remember that conflict is the key to an exciting middle. As Heidi M. Thomas says in her article “Shore Up Your Sagging Middle”, “send your inner “nice guy” out for ice cream and figure out just how mean you can be to your character”. Think like a reader when constructing the middle of your story. Readers love the middles because that’s where all the action is!

Do you have troubles with sagging middles? What do you do to shore up your middles?


Jana Richards said...

Hi everyone,
It early here on the Prairies, and since it's Labour Day, I've decided to take a day off from my labours. My husband and I are going golfing with friends at a course about an hour outside of the city. But I'll be here for about another hour and I'll be back tonight so please talk amongst yourselves. Have a great day!


Jennifer Ross said...

Terrific tips, thanks for sharing them. Have a great golf game, and happy Labour Day!

Karyn Good said...

Once again, Jana, this is EXACTLY what I needed. Awesome information! I'm taping it to my wall for easy access and reference as I revise Common Ground.

Excellent post.

The Word Place said...

Excellent advice, Jana! I'm printing out your blogs on "sagging middles" and keeping them in a prominent place for future reference!

Jana Richards said...

Hi Jennifer,
Welcome to the Prairies. It's a beautiful day here so it should be fun, as long as the mosquitoes don't eat me alive! My golf game is pretty lousy but it should be fun anyway.

Thanks for stopping by.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karyn,
I hope you find my tips useful. Be sure to read Alicia Rasley's article. She is an awesome teacher.

Good luck with your edits.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Judy,
Glad to be of service! Good luck with your edits.

Happy writing.

P.L. Parker said...

Great post. "Sagging Middle" has some good insight.


Mary Ricksen said...

As soon as they manage to get over one hurdle throw them another obstacle.
Great tips.Tanks!

Janet said...

Like Karyn, I'm going to print out this and the previous one to help me get through the sagging middle syndrome. Great tips and great links - thanks, Jana.

Hope the golf game was great and you bridie-d (is that a word - how do you spell it?) all the holes. Aren't holiday Mondays great?

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Jana, thank you for this post.

Never thought of some of those tips. Another copy and paste post.

Have a fun day. It's cool and rainy in SE Sask today so the harvest's stopped for a bit.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Patsy,
Thanks for stopping by. Hope there was some worthwhile information for you there.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Mary,
We definitely have to keep putting obstacles in our characters' way, especially in the middle of our stories. Put 'em in a tree and throw rocks at 'em. That's my new mantra.

Thanks for joining us.

Jana Richards said...

Hi Janet,
I hope my blogs prove useful to you. Good luck with your editing. I can hardly wait to read your Mac and Gillian story.

If I could birdie a hole I'd join the LPGA! I'm pretty happy if my ball doesn't go in the bush or the water. But it was a beautiful day here and we had a lot of fun so it was a great day.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Anita,
Glad you liked the post. I hope you can use some of the tips.

It was still pretty warm here, about 27 C, with enough wind to keep the mosquitoes away. We saw a few combines out on the fields. But they're calling for showers tonight so I guess we'll get your weather tomorrow.


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Jana, this is an excellent list and a great reference for future problem-solving. One other 'checkbox' I'd add would be the question, "What's the worst possible thing that could happen right now?" and then do it. There's no sense saving something awesome for the end if the middle starts to sag. If you use it then, things can get even more intense later on.

I'm curious, since different genres have different page expectations, chapter lengths, and such, what do you consider a sort of functional definition for the middle of the book in a romance novel? It is everything that isn't the introduction or conclusion, or do you approach it more in terms of acts?

Helena said...

Jana, I have been enjoying Labour Day with my almost grown-up grandchildren, so forgive my late appearance in the comments.

I heartily second everything that's been said so far. Both instalments are definitely to be preserved, and as I said last week -- precisely what I need right NOW!

Thanks for a great post.

Molli said...

Hi Jana - good info you've given us. Sagging middles are very much an issue for me. The author of a book I read recently could definitely benefit from reading your post--I was bored enough to start skimming and realized after I read this post that the problem started roughly in the middle. In the hope that it will help me with my own ms, I'm going to take another look at that book to see how she could have applied one or more of these tips more effectively. Thanks.

Sylvie Kaye said...

Send your inner nice guy out for ice cream! Nice way to put it :-)
thanks for sharing.

Sylvie Kaye

Jana Richards said...

Hi Hayley,
I'm glad you could drop by. I think your suggestion about thinking of the worst thing that can happen to your characters and then doing it to them is right on. It's all about conflict and action in the middle.

I would say that the beginning is roughly the introduction of characters and situation and everything up to the "call to action". The ending is approximately everything from the climax/black moment to the resolution. So everything that falls in between is the middle, and that's quite a bit of territory.


Jana Richards said...

Hi Helena,
Glad you're enjoying yourself with your grandchildren. Have fun!


Jana Richards said...

Hi Molli,
It's not a good thing when a reader starts skipping pages in the middle of the book. Middles are tough. There has to be a lot of action and conflict. A series of dates and some misunderstandings just aren't going to cut it. The conflicts must pit the hero against the heroine. A good conflict is one in which if the hero gets what he wants, the heroine would lose something that means a lot to her.

All the best,

Jana Richards said...

Hi Sylvie,
Welcome to the Prairies!

Yes, it is a good line. I wish I'd written it! But I'll give the credit to Heidi M. Thomas.