Saturday, August 21, 2010

Welcome Guest Blogger Beth Cornelison

No More Sagging Middles
by Beth Cornelison

Last month at the RWA National conference in Orlando, I presented a workshop about fixing sagging middles. No, I'm not talking about that extra five to ten pounds of post-holiday weight that means your clothes don't fit like they did last year. (Although that is problem I'm personally all too familiar with!) I mean those middle chapters of your story that seem, for some reason, to bog down your pace, bore the reader with predictability, or otherwise lose the reader's attention. Having an exciting and dynamic opening hook or a compelling resolution to your book means little, if the reader loses interest halfway through and tosses your book aside. So how do you shore up that sagging middle? Here’s my workshop in a nutshell.

Middle chapters are the meat and potatoes chapters. In the middle of your book, you need to be doing several things, which build on a strong opening and proper story setup. Those things include: fleshing out characters- giving them depth and emotion, revealing backstory, unfolding plot elements, testing the hero and heroine for their growth arc and showing what they’ve learned in each stage of the process, building conflict, tossing out red herrings and introducing new characters, and developing the romance-- maybe including a love scene. Whew! So with so much to do, how could the story be sagging? Here’s a checklist of some things to look for in your middle chapters.

1) Make sure your characters aren’t drifting aimlessly through the pages. Make sure that with each scene your character has a goal. Not just the big picture story goal you set up in chapter one, but a baby step, working toward the story goal. Goals are the momentum of the story, the sense of going somewhere and making progress rather than floundering in the same place, so check each scene for character goals.

2) Likewise, every scene needs conflict. Those goals your hero and heroine have in every scene? They aren’t always going to reach those goals, because the other characters in those scenes will have goals too… usually goals that oppose or hinder the hero’s goals. For every two steps forward your hero makes, they may take one step or more backward because of the conflict that arises in a scene. That conflict will make your hero work for what he wants and make new decisions regarding how to proceed.

3) Take the story in an unexpected direction. Drop the proverbial dead body in the room. A surprise twist, say learning a deep dark secret the heroine has been keeping from the hero or some event that takes the story in a whole new direction, will keep the reader’s interest. Think in terms of a twist that will up the stakes for the hero or heroine or increase the conflict, emotion or goals of the hero or heroine. Whatever you decide, don’t let the plot stagnate. Be fresh and avoid clich├ęs.

4) Go deeper with the emotion. Readers read romance for the emotion. We are writing about love, pain, joy, rejection, betrayal, courage, grief, fear, and happily ever after. Mine the emotions of your characters and show the reader all the roller-coaster emotions your character is going through. Don’t be afraid to push your characters into corners and test them to their limits so that they can shine all the brighter when they reap their happy ending.

5) Watch your pacing. Everything from sentence and paragraph length to side-track info-dumps about backstory or setting can affect your pace. To avoid info-dumps, weave in information through your character’s POV as much as possible.

6) Cut deadweight scenes or parts of scenes. Every scene needs to have at least three purposes for being in your book to make a maximum impact on your story. Can you combine scenes to do more than one thing? If so, do it.

With a little work and with attention to these sorts of details, you can boost that sagging middle and keep the reader turning pages all the way through that dynamic ending and the happily ever after.

Beth is giving away a copy of her release, HEALING LUKE to someone who leaves their email address in a comment before midnight tonight. Please use the (dot) and (com) so the net spiders don't find you.

Thank you for blogging with us today, Beth.

Rita finalist Beth Cornelison received her bachelor's degree in Public Relations from the University of Georgia. After working in public relations for about a year, she moved with her husband to Louisiana, where she decided to pursue her love of writing fiction.

Since that time, she has won numerous honors for her work including the coveted Golden Heart for unpublished authors awarded by Romance Writers of America. She made her first sale to Silhouette Intimate Moments in June 2004 and has gone on to publish many more books with Silhouette. She has also published with Five Star Expressions, Samhain Publishing, and Sourcebooks.

Beth has presented workshops across the country to numerous chapter meetings, conferences, online classes and book clubs. Beth Cornelison lives in Louisiana with her husband, one son and a fluctuating number of cats who think they are people.

The Bride's Bodyguard

Book 2 in The Bancroft Brides

October 2010

Silhouette Romantic Suspense

ISBN 978-0-37327-700-1

When armed gunmen open fire at Paige Bancroft’s wedding, critically wounding her groom when he wouldn’t turn over a mysterious “bead”, best man and former Navy SEAL Jake McCall hustles the bride to safety. But until Jake and Paige can determine what the gunmen were after, Jake must keep Paige safely hidden from the terrorists. While in hiding with Jake, Paige deals with not only her groom’s betrayal, but also a sizzling attraction to her brooding protector.

You can find out more about Beth and her books at


Heather said...

I like #3, the dead body. I can just imagine a closet with a dead body that pops into the story whenever needed.

Beth Cornelison said...

Hi Heather!
Can you imagine opening a closet and finding a dead body? Yikes! =8-o
Of course the "dead body" might not be a literal dead body. If you don't write suspense of mystery, a "dead body" might be a tragic secret revealed, or a funny and ironic entanglement that the romantic comedy heroine finds herself in. The point is to surprise the reader and take the story in a fresh direction to keep the reader's interest!
Thanks for stopping by!
Beth C

Vince said...

Hi Beth:

Excellent ideas for the sagging middle! I’d love to attend the workshop. Are any CDs on that workshop available?

I like to see two things in the middle.

1) small victories for the hero or heroine. If I am vicariously identifying with a character, I like to experience a few ‘feel good’ victories at various points in the book. For example, the ‘protector’ cop learns that he has been promoted to Lieutenant – of course, he may not live to get it if he doesn’t get out of the current crisis. (Proper foundation needed for maximum enjoyment).

2) A surprise -- to the author -- event that was not in the plot outline. If the author did not know the event was coming, the reader sure won’t expect it. Louis L’Amour did this a lot – even to the point of being annoying. The reader would be finally comfortable with the hero tracking a killer in the badlands when the hero is shot and the plot switches to a survival story! At that point it becomes a new book with a new opening. (The trick is weaving the original opening into the end of the book.)

BTW: that’s a great cover for your book.

Thanks for your post.


vmres (at) swbell (dot) net

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Beth, welcome to the Prairies.

Your #3 is so true. I was watching Castle the other night and realized every time I think I have it solved, another thread or character pops up. There are so many twists. And it all makes sense, a natural progression. I'm never sure who's more surprised... Beckett and Castle, or me. LOL

Excellent post, Beth. Thank you so much for blogging with us today.

Anita Mae.

Beth Cornelison said...

Hi Vince-
I think you can order the workshop through Romance Writers of America (actually it is BillStephens productions) Look for the RWA 2010 National Conference CDs.
Good points about surprising the author and vitories along the way for the hero.
Thanks for stopping by!

carrie said...

I'm a big fan of #3 as well...a good plot twist definitely keeps my interest! Great post Beth!

Beth Cornelison said...

I keep hearing about Castle and haven't seen it yet... Must check it out!
Do I need to start with Season one or can I catch up if I start now?

connie said...

It would be interesting if the 'dead body' was not a 'dead body' at all but a twist always brought on by the same 'dead body' who is a factor, a saying, something the hero/heroine always does, but always the same 'dead body' - the same thing over and over. It could be comic if the 'dead body' was a ghost or a nosy neighbour who is always giving advice (I have one I would love to give away)or if it happened so often with an offbeat character that it is chuckle provoking.
Alas, the middle of my current project is a 'dead body' seriously in need of revival. Thanks for the tips!
constancesampson at hotmail dot com

DebH said...

i love your advice! it's a great list i'll want to keep handy because i always have that sagging problem it seems.

thank you for sharing your insights with the Prairie Chicks.

nm8r67 at hotmail dot com

Anita Mae Draper said...

Hey Beth, I'm back from my writer's group meeting. Thanks for holding down the fort. :D

As for Castle, a new season starts on Sept 20th, (I think) and yes, you can start watching. Here's what you missed:

Rick Castle is a NYT best selling author who plays poker with the mayor, police chief, etc.

Rick convinces the Chief to let him trail a real NYC detective for research purposes. I can't remember why, but Det Kate Beckett is chosen for him to shadow.

Sparks fly between Castle and Beckett. In the last season finale, Castle was going to declare himself to her but she said she was 'going' with this other Det. I almost cried at his face as she walked away. :(

So, Castle (who has lots of ex-wives) phones up someone and makes a date.

Meanwhile, Beckett realizes she'd rather have Castle so she sends the other guy away. She waits for Castle with a smile of her face.

Castle enters with... one of his ex-wives and announces they're getting back together. :=( They walk away arm-in-arm, laughing.

And I did cry at the look on Beckett's face.

That was the final episode as I remember it.

From the trailers, the new season threatens to be sizzling sexy. I'm really looking forward to it because the writing is absolutely superior.

Anita Mae.

Beth Cornelison said...

DebH and Connie- thanks for stopping by! Glad the post was helpful.

Anita- Wow! I'll make a note and try to catchit this fall. I'm betting the first season is already on DVD... what do you think?
Have a good weekend all! I'll draw for the winner tomorrow!

Beth Cornelison said...

And the winner of HEALING LUKE is... Carrie!
Please email me through my website and let me know where to send your book...
Beth C

Anita Mae Draper said...

Thanks, Beth. We appreciate you guesting with us.

Anita Mae.