Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Middle of Our Books

By Elizabeth S. Craig

JH: Elizabeth S. Craig joins us today to talk about how she deals with middles. (And honestly, I think her list of suggestions will work for any scene you happen to be stuck in). If you haven't checked out her blog yet, skip over to Mystery Writing is Murder when you're done here. Her advice is always dead-on (sorry, couldn't resist the pun there) and not just for mystery writers.

Elizabeth’s latest book, Finger Lickin’ Dead, released June 7th. Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink. She also runs the Writer's Knowledge Base--the Search Engine for Writers. You can find her on Twitter: @elizabethscraig.

Take it away Elizabeth...

It’s easy to lose focus in the middle of a book. Usually that’s when I start running out of steam—and realizing I still have a long way to go to wrap up my story.

Since I’ve frequently encountered the saggy middle problem, I’ve developed different techniques to help me approach it. Here are some tips that have helped me out in the past:

Work backwards 

Sometimes I can visualize the end of the book, and where I’m heading, more easily than I can see how to get there. Once I wrote a story from the ending back to nearly the middle (as close to the middle as I needed to go to get a sense of my story’s roadmap again.)

Up the ante/increase the stakes 

I almost always have a second dead body in the middle of my books. Now my protagonist doesn’t just have one murder to solve, she has two. And if she doesn’t figure out who the killer is soon, maybe there’ll be more.

Introduce someone new 

This could either be a sidekick who helps your character move in the right direction and provides them with an ear, or someone who provides an obstacle to your protagonist’s reaching his goal. In one of my books, when everything seemed to be going wrong for my sleuth, I introduced someone to help her bounce ideas off of.

Take an established fact that your readers believe to be true and contradict it 

In the middle of my book, I nearly always kill the most likely suspect for the first murder.

A setback 

Pull your character an additional step away from his goal. Maybe you could even lead into it by making it appear that the main conflict of the book was wrapping up before the setback occurs. You could also write in a setback in the protagonist’s personal life (aside from trying to save the world): a job loss, death, or unexpected personal loss of some kind.

Put the protagonist under pressure 

This pressure could come in the form of another character, an event that sets the stakes higher, or the introduction of a ticking clock.

Create an interesting scene between two characters (especially a protagonist and antagonist) that propels the plot forward 

…possibly by making it appear that what the protagonist most wants is out of his grasp.

Reveal a secret 

Or disclose some previously-unrevealed information about your protagonist or a supporting character.

Check in with your subplot 

If your main plot is faltering, try working on your subplot for a couple of scenes and see if you can connect the main story afterwards. Or see if you can link the subplot to the main story in some way.

Got saggy middles? How do you deal with them?

About Finger Lickin' Dead
When an anonymous food critic blasts several local restaurants- including Aunt Pat's-Lulu Taylor and her customers are biting mad, especially when they learn that Eppie Currian is the pen name of their friend Evelyn's cheating boyfriend. When "Eppie" gets his own fatal review, the list of suspects is longer than the list of specials at the best BBQ place in Memphis.


  1. Elizabeth - Those are such good ideas for adding zest to the middle of the "story sandwich" ;-). Sometimes I use the "second death" technique to avoid saggy middles, too. Often I have that happen just after the second victim finds out something about the first victim's murder. I also use the "wrong suspect arrested" technique to up the ante, so to speak. Anything that keeps the interest up without getting melodramatic can be useful.

  2. Saggy middles?

    No problem at all. I just ask my blog friend Elizabeth and she tells me what to do ;)

  3. A great list of ideas to help out that dreaded middle :) I've used the secret and setback before and will have to give these others a try. Thanks for sharing this Elizabeth.

  4. Margot--Good idea! I love the righteous indignation I feel as a reader when I know the investigators have nabbed the wrong guy in a mystery. That's another great conflict to add to the middle of a book.

    djskrimiblog--You're too sweet, Dorte!

    Raelyn--Sounds like you do a good job keeping your middles from sagging! (I'm having way too much fun with the "saggy middle" concept. :))

  5. That's fantastic advice! I'm approaching the middle on my story - I'll be sure to keep this in mind!

  6. Awesome tips, I'll have to watch for saggy middles now! Revealing a secret is always my favorite strategy.

  7. I love these. Great post. Thank you!

  8. Thanks Elizabeth! What great ideas. I especially like the idea of contradiction. I try and do something that no one--characters or readers--sees coming. Thanks for the tips.

  9. These are all great ideas, Liz. I like the "think backwards" one especially. My last novel, I wrote three different possible endings for the story while still in the first 20K words. As the story evolved, whenever I got stuck I'd re-read the ending scenarios, and finally one of them stood out as best, and most attainable from where I was in the story.

    I copied and pasted your tips in one of my writers' aids folders - hope ya don't mind. (wink)

    Marvin D Wilson

  10. Man, I so needed this RIGHT NOW! Thank you! I love the 'undoing a fact' suggestion, and I PLAN on starting my 'plan' backward from the end. I am at about the 80% mark and have run up against a wall, so this was perfect timing!

  11. Excellent tips. Every writer needs these at some point. Thanks Janice and Elizabeth!

  12. Good tips! So far I've escaped saggy middles. Dropped a big battle and an explosion in the middle of my latest work just for some excitement!

  13. Great advice! I usually write the almost-ending near the beginning of my WIP. I work backwards whenever I feel tired or can't think of the next scene. I also allow myself to work out of order. Oftentimes a bit of dialogue or intrigue will come to me out of the blue, and I'll scratch it down before I forget. I usually have five or six loose strands I can work on at any given time.

  14. Fabulous suggestions! I'll have to try the one about working backward. Thanks for the tips!

  15. I often refer to this as the "Boggy Middle Blues." It doesn't happen with every story, thank goodness, but it did big time with the last book. Took me forever to figure out that I had a major plotting problem and all the tricks in the world was not going to help until I fixed the problem.

  16. Oh, those blasted middles! These are great tips, Elizabeth! I've never thrown in another body, but I have put in twists like someone not being who they said they were.

  17. Bethany--Good luck with it!

    Madeline--Secrets really spice up a story, I think. :)

    Rebecca--Thanks for coming by!

    Angie--Isn't it great to create surprises? :)

    The Old Silly--I love the "Choose Your Own Adventure" way of writing, where you come up with several possible endings or solutions to a story...sounds like you've got the perfect example of making it work!

    Thanks so much! I'm honored. :)

    Hart--Hope this helps with your wall! Believe me, we've all been there (and, if we haven't, we'll be there at some point!)

    Anne--Thanks so much for coming by!

    Alex--You know, I'd LOVE to work an explosion into my book! Wonder if my editor would think I'd lost it (if it would fit in with my genre?)

    Anna--I wrote one story *completely* out of order. The first draft was a breeze to write, but I will admit that my transitions took a long time to fix during my second draft. So....not sure I'll repeat the experiment again to *that* extent, but I still really enjoy writing out of order some days. :)

    M.E. Summer--It's sort of a weird way to write a story, and I think the very weirdness of the approach is what makes it work so well.

    Maryann--You're so right--sometimes it can really indicate a messed-up story that needs major reworking. Although, boy, that's never fun!

    Elspeth--Ooh...a mysterious person who's not who they said they were! Love it. :)

  18. Great suggestions for dealing with middle problems. I often have to swap around chapters to add the tension there. I love the setback and revealing a secret ideas.

  19. Natalie--Thanks! Yep, I've done the chapter swapping thing, too. It's amazing what a little moving around can do!

  20. These are really great points. I love them! Now I know you kill off your main suspect but it's a great idea.

  21. Elizabeth,

    Thanks for such a great list! Whenever I can't figure out how to move in the direction I'm going, I write scene. For some reason, that short burst helps me over the hump. Sometimes I even use the scene. :-)

  22. You can also introduce a flood, wildfire, tornado - Mother Nature likes to up the ante.

  23. Clarissa--I like to keep folks guessing!

    jenny--I like the idea of writing something to help just get you over the hump--knowing that you might *not* use it! That, to me, is really working through a block.

    Karen--Great point! Some natural fireworks can liven things up, too. :)

  24. Thanks so much to Elizabeth for coming by and sharing her middle tips! It's always great having you on the blog :)

  25. Thanks so much for hosting me, Janice!~