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When It All Starts to Sag
Momentum is a delicate thing in writing.
Sometimes you start out revving along in a novel, falling in love with your main character, fascinated by the situation you’re creating and cranking out the words with ease. Then you notice that you’re starting to slow down. It’s getting harder to know what to write next. And it all feels kind of sloggy and not very exciting.
And you realize: you’ve hit the middle of the novel sag.
You might kind of know what the end should be, but getting there feels like wading through mud. You wonder if a reader would stick with you through that dull middle. You’re certain that you’re doomed. This can be a very gloomy spot to be in. But there are ways to firm up that sagging middle. And the answer is usually “change.”
When nothing is moving and nothing changes we get bored. Think about the last time you went on a road trip. Which are the worst parts? Cities can have horrible traffic to the point of being terrifying, but they aren’t boring. The boring stretches are the ones where everything looks the same, nothing grabs the eye, and nothing changes. Books are like that too. Without change, we frequently get bored. So keeping the middle moving is all about change.
Remember that plot arc diagram that was thrust at you in high school? Toss that out and imagine instead that your plot arc looks like a series of sharp turns and switchbacks and steep angles. All that change will keep the reader riveted to the writing and keep the writing flowing from your brain. So what kinds of things might you change?
Answer a Question We’ve Been Asking
Your big plot problem isn’t solved until the end. We all know that. But in a novel, you have lots of little things building along with the big plot arc. So maybe the big plot arc is “Will we find Dad?” But among the little things that we’re wondering are “Will you mend that fight with your best friend that happened because of your worry about your dad?” and “Will the ‘authorities’ find out you’re all alone because your dad is missing?” and a bunch of other little things that you tossed in to make the stakes really high and exciting. Well, during the sagging middle, pick one of those things, push it to crisis and resolve it. Make the ‘authorities’ figure out about the dad and make it look like the main character is definitely not going to find his dad because he’s almost certainly about to be shipped off to state care. Then fix it. Have a slightly flaky neighbor step in and pretend to be the uncle who has been watching the kid. Or have the person who caught the kid hear his story, believe it, and agree to maybe take a little extra long to file the report, as long as the kid can find a responsible adult to stay with. Do something to pay off this side thread while not solving the “big problem” and you’ll give your middle a boost of energy and excitement.
Blow Something Up
In action stories, the best way to change things is to drop a bomb on the proceedings. Make the story problem suddenly much, much worse. For instance, the main character has to find a dangerous artifact on a train. But it can’t be too easy and the search is growing a little dull. So what do you do? You could have the kid discover something much worse on the train (like a bomb). You could have someone let the kid know that the bad guys who are after the dangerous artifact are waiting at the next station (giving us a kind of ticking clock which ramps up the worry) or you could go for the old “tried and true” of having physical disaster come to the train (a bridge collapses, the train uncouples, something is on the track). In other words, make things suddenly much worse by throwing in a new problem.
Now, one thing you’ll have to do as you add “ramping up” activities is make a note to weave them into the early bits of the book. For example, extreme weather is a great “ramping up” activity. So if you’re going to throw in a hurricane or even an electrical storm, be sure to mention weather earlier in the story so it doesn’t feel too convenient when it pops up in the middle to stir things up.
Also, these “ramping up” things are fantastic for increasing tension in the middle, but they can get you into a lot of trouble if you don’t know how you intend to end the book. Many a writer has written themselves into a corner and realized there is flatly no way these kids could get out of this. So suddenly you introduce a skill we had no reason to suspect in a side character that saves the day (a “trick” even published authors have played on their readers) or maybe throw in some aliens (Stephen King has done this a time or two). That kind of trick might get you through the novel, but if you get the book published, reviewers will notice that you “cheated.” So when you blow things up, be sure it’s not something that keeps you from having a solid ending when the time comes.
Throwing in a huge, horrifying problem is fun, but even small problems can bring fresh life to a sagging middle. Maybe your main character has a huge fight with his best friend, the only person who had his back in the novel. That would certainly add tension and energy to the middle of the book. Or maybe the car breaks down. Or your main character gets detention. Small things that make life more difficult can increase the tension by increasing the difficulty of reaching the story resolution.
Sometimes you need to stop writing and start listing all the things that need to happen for this story to end.
- In order for the main character to solve the mystery, what needs to happen?
- In order for the main character to get safely home, what needs to happen?
- In order for the main character to find his dad, what needs to happen?
Sometimes you can see the ending and the last scenes leading up to it so clearly. In that case, begin imagining time rolling backwards from that ending. You know what happens right at the ending. What happens just before that? Good, now just before that? Making a list of all these things that need to happen to bridge the gap between where you are now (in the saggy middle) and where you need to end up (at the satisfying ending) can really help you get your own mental energy going, and often that’s enough to bring energy into the writing itself.
So middles can be tough, but they don’t have to mean the collapse of the story. You can do it.
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.