Monday, June 03, 2019

The Easiest Way to Fix a Novel's Sagging Middle

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By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

A sagging middle is a problem a lot of writers face during a first draft, but there is one trick that will help get you through it. 

Raise your hand if you've ever had trouble with the middle of your novel.

-hand raises-

I can't tell you how many 150-page drafts languished on my hard drive when I was still trying to figure out how to write an entire novel. I'd start out fine, but then after my inciting event and my first major plot point it ground to a halt. Not every draft was bad, but most of them were, well, boring.

They dragged, they snoozed, they spent a lot of time repeating the same types of scenes or activities and I just stopped working on them, sure that the idea was terrible and I was an equally terrible writer.

Neither was true.

The Middle of a Novel is Hard, because that's Where the Hard Work Happens

Middles make up roughly fifty percent of the novel. It's where all the try and fail plans occur, and where the protagonist does the most plot-driving work. Beginnings are all about setting up the story (in the good way, not the bad way), and endings are all about resolving the conflict and bringing it all home--but middles? They have to connect those two points and make it interesting.

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That's 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.

The exciting parts of novel also tend to be the start and the end, so we often spend more time and effort on those, and the middle gets less attention. It's like an airport terminal where the characters wander around, grab some food, and hang out until the call for the climax is heard.

And since most writing advice tells us not to dump backstory into the beginning of a novel, the middle is when we think, "Now that I have the reader hooked, let's dump all that backstory I was holding back on them!"

None of this 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--until I figured out one key plot point that changed it all.

(Here's more on Planning Your Novel’s Middle)

The Midpoint Reversal. The Savior of Sagging Middles Everywhere.

As I struggled with yet another dreary middle of yet another first draft, I wondered--what would happen if I broke it in half and added another plot point?

And thus, the midpoint reversal was born.

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I realized that if I planned for something to happen in the middle center of the novel, that gave me a plot point to write to.

But this wasn't enough. I also wanted it to be unexpected enough to change the story in ways that gave me things the protagonist had to recover from, as well as send the story rushing forward.

Tastes and story needs will vary, but I like something major and shocking for my midpoint reversals. That gives me a goal for my protagonist to work toward (and thus providing narrative drive to get me through the sagging parts) 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 midpoint reversal is something that throws the entire story sideways. It:
  • Leaves readers open-mouthed in shock, because they never saw this coming
  • They worried it might happen and were desperate to find out if they were right
  • It changes what readers (and characters) thought they knew about the story and suddenly the ending is unpredictable
Do this right, and you'll have readers flipping pages fast, amazed by the unexpected turn of events, and dying to see where this new predicament goes.

A good midpoint reversal will also raise the stakes, even if they were high to begin with.

This plot point will often add a level of personal consequence that wasn't there before, or reveal a secret (or problem) that was hidden. Sometimes this problem will 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).

(Here's more on 5 Common Problems With Middles)

5 Questions to Get You Through a Sagging Middle

If you're stuck in a sagging middle right now, step back, look at what happens in the middle chapter of your novel, and ask:

1. What is the absolute worst thing that can happen to your protagonist at that moment? Is that what's going on? If not, find a way to make it happen and force the protagonist to work overtime to get out of it.

2. Is there a way to make your protagonist's inner goal clash with the outer goal in a disastrous way? Impossible choices almost always grab readers and create unexpected plot paths. That old "damned if you do, damned if you don't" dilemma can really crank up the tension in a story.

3. What's the one thing that could happen that would make your protagonist give up? Do it, even if it's hard. Then think up a way to keep the protagonist fighting anyway. Yes, there's a good chance it'll create some plot wrinkles to get out of, but the story will be the better for it. If it was working as is, there wouldn't be a sagging middle, right?

4. Are there any deep dark secrets that could be revealed and ruin everything? If so, reveal them, and for extra fun, see if you can make the result be not the one the protagonist was worried about. Make it worse.

5. Can you mirror the climax in any way? Sometimes a midpoint reversal will foreshadow what's to come, either by showing the protagonist failing or hinting at what they'll need to do to win. This is often referred to as the false victory or defeat. For example, if the protagonist has to rely on others to win in the end, show her trying to do it all by herself here, and failing because of it. That way, the growth of accepting help by the end shows in how she changes her behavior and succeeds.

(Here's more on Stuck in the Middle: What Makes a Good Middle)

Getting through a sagging 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.

Do you struggle with sagging middles? What helped you get through it?

*Last updated June 3, 2019.

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).

  14. Great article, thank you for the extremely helpful tips and advice.