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Tuesday, December 28

Moping in the Middle: Dealing With Saggy Middles

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Raise your hand if you've ever had trouble with a saggy middle in your novel.

-hand raises-

Middles tend to sag because we spend a lot of time and effort setting up the story, and we spend an equal amount of time and effort on the climax and ending, but the middle gets less attention. It's like it's an airport terminal where the characters wander around, grab some food, and hang out until the call for the climax is heard. It's often the time when we think, "now that I have the reader hooked, let's dump all that backstory I was holding back on them!"

Neither of these are good recipes for a happy middle, let alone a happy ending, since your reader has probably wandered off to do something else by now.

Middles used to be the hardest part of the novel for me. Then I finally figured out a way to combat Boggy Middle Syndrome.

The Mid-Point Reversal.

The middle is the largest part of the novel. If you're like me and use the Three Act Structure, the second act takes up the middle 50% of the book. That's a lot of space if you don't have interesting things going on to drive the story. It's also a long time to go without some forward momentum in your plot, some revelation of the world or characters, and some sense of the protagonist accomplishing something. Without these things, a story grinds to a halt, even if the scenes in the middle are exciting in their own right. It's just that they start to blend together after a while and the reader feels like there's nothing new going on.

I like to plan for something major and shocking to happen in the middle of the book. That gives me a goal for my protagonist to work toward (and thus providing narrative drive to get me through the middle) and something exciting for my reader to anticipate. (or be surprised by if I spring it on them)

But it can't be just anything. A good mid-point reversal is something that throws the entire story sideways and leaves the reader open-mouthed in shock, because they never saw this coming. (or they worried it might happen and were desperate to find out if they were right) It changes the story and suddenly the ending is unpredictable. Readers are flipping pages fast, amazed by the unexpected turn of events, and dying to see where this new predicament goes.

A good mid-point reversal will also up the stakes, even if they were high to begin with. It'll often add a level of personal consequence that wasn't there before, or reveal a secret (or problem) that was hidden. Sometimes it requires a sacrifice, be it a personal belief or an ally. Sometimes it's all of these things at the same time.

Once you've shocked your reader, you'll have new momentum driving your story toward the end. The mid-point reversal has made your protagonist's goal harder to accomplish, will cost them more to win, and will have serious consequences if they fail (heck, sometimes even if they win).

So, if you're stuck in the boggy middle right now, ask yourself a few questions:

1. What is the absolute worst thing that can happen to your protagonist at that moment? Find a way to make it happen and force them to work overtime to get out of it.

2. Is there a way to make your protagonist's inner goal clash with their outer goal in a disastrous way? That old "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma can really crank up the tension.

3. What's the one thing that could happen that would make your protagonist give up? Do it. Now think up a way to keep them there anyway.

4. Are there any deep dark secrets that could be revealed and ruin everything? Reveal them, but make the result not the one the protagonist was worried about. Make it worse.

5. Can you mirror the climax in any way? Sometimes a mid-point reversal will foreshadow what's to come, either by showing the protagonist failing or hinting at what they'll need to do to win.

Getting through a boggy middle is a lot easier if you have stepping stones. Look at your plot as a path through the swamp. Each stone is another step toward a major set piece, and once you get there, each stone is a step toward how the protagonist gets out of it. Before long, you'll be racing through those middles without getting your feet wet.

For more help on plotting or writing a novel check out my Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure.

Go step-by-step through plotting and writing a novel. Learn how to find and develop ideas, brainstorm stories from that first spark of inspiration, develop the right characters, setting, plots and subplots, as well as teach you how to identify where your novel fits in the market, and if your idea has what it takes to be a series.

With clear and easy-to-understand examples, Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure offers ten self-guided workshops with more than 100 different exercises to help you craft a solid novel. Learn how to:
  • Create compelling characters readers will love
  • Choose the right point of view for your story
  • Determine the conflicts that will drive your plot (and hook readers!)
  • Find the best writing process for your writing style
  • Create a solid plot from the spark of your idea
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure also helps you develop the critical elements for submitting and selling your novel once it’s finished. You’ll find exercises on how to:
  • Craft your one-sentence pitch
  • Create your summary hook blurb
  • Develop a solid working synopsis And so much more!
Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure is an easy-to-follow guide to writing your novel or fixing a novel that isn’t quite working. 

Available in paperback and ebook formats.

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book.

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

When she's not writing novels, she's teaching other writers how to improve their craft. She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing.
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  1. I like the "What's the worst thing that could happen?" bit...I just have to force myself to be mean to my characters, LOL. I'm far too nice!

  2. Usually my novels have saggy middles if I haven't planned the novel from the get go. So I'm writing filler until I figure out where I want it to go, just so I can say I'm still writing. ;)

  3. I like the idea of revealing deep dark secrets that aren't the secrets people are expecting. I love it when writers do that. Can't seem to pull it off in my own work... but then, I've never given it much thought before either. (Goes off to ponder possibilities.)

  4. This post got me through my middle when you originally posted it. The thing that helped me the most: knowing some important scenes before I started writing. When I was stuck, I took your advice. Thanks!

  5. Much thanks, Janice. I really like the stepping stones--very helpful.

  6. Ooo, I need this for one of my past novels. Great ideas!!

  7. Bookmarking.

    Which makes this about the millionth bookmark specifically from your blog that I've got in my folder.

  8. Oooo, I just got a an idea to amp up a scene I'd already thought of. #4 will be so much fun! My poor protag.

  9. Fantastic post as always! This have definitely given me something to think about. :-)

  10. Thanks! Middles used to drive me nuts until I figure this out.

  11. Hell yeah, I absolutely love your concept of mid-point reversals! And not just because it's so similar to my own idea of how a middle can work wonders*, but because it's the way to write middles and a great way to write stories!

    *I had a post during the A to Z blogging challenge this year for the letter H, called Halftimes In Fictions in which I say something similar, but in my then total greenhorn-ness in matters of blogging, I didn't put it as brilliantly as you!

    Thanks so much, Janice! You give awesome advice!

  12. Vero, thanks! I like your halftime analogy. It wasn't until I started really looking at novel structure that I realized HALF the book is the middle. No wonder I struggled with it, lol.

  13. Wow, this was my first visit to your site - and what a great lesson! I've got a couple of stories in the works right now that need some good 'middle action'! I'm eager to go through some of your other posts and learn more awesome advice. Many thanks!

    1. Welcome! Glad this helped and I hope you're through your boggy middle by now (I'm soooo behind in replying to comments, but I'm catching up).