Saving the Sagging Middle

I thought today I would build upon an issue that came up with my last blog post on subplots. Someone asked in a comment whether a subplot could help with the infamous ‘sagging middle’ and my response was (basically) that an author needs to resolve why the middle is sagging before throwing in a subplot to try and ‘fix’ the issue. So today I thought I’d discuss the whole ‘middle’ of the novel issue, and see what processes or cures we might come up with that could help avoid the angst that comes with a middle that seems flat, meandering or just plain soggy…

Once again, I like to refer people to Jim Bell’s great book on Plot & Structure. His approach to the infamous middle focuses (and Jim I hope I’m not misquoting you here!) on two main areas: (1) stretching the tension; and (2) raising the stakes. I am particularly drawn to (2) as I like using the middle of a novel to up the ante for my protagonist. For me, the middle is where you really get to complicate and stir things up for your characters. As an outliner, I focus quite a lot on the middle and often find myself graphing out the tension levels in the novel I’m drafting. If I see a flat line in the middle then I know I’m in trouble. But, whether your an outliner or not – what do you do if, after the first draft is complete, you realize that the middle section just isn’t working? Here are some of my ideas:

(1) Reassess the premise of the novel and explore ways in which you can add complexity, drama and tension to this in the middle.

This could involve adding an additional obstacle for the protagonist, introducing a subplot to add more emotional resonance or tension, or it could be introducing an event that raises the stakes for your characters. Sometimes, the reason the middle of a novel is flat is because the author may not have sufficient depth (in either the premise of the book or its execution) and so the middle feels like ‘treading water’ until the resolution/final conflict occurs. Taking a step back and re-examining the premise might help you identify this and come up with some solutions.

(2) Map out the plot and brainstorm ways to raise the stake or add tension.

As an extremely visual person and a strong believer in outlining, I like to try and display the plot in a visual way that helps me identify places where I might need to add scenes that raise the stakes or add tension. I find once I can see the chapters that meander or sag, I can brainstorm ways in which I can alter the plot to add dramatic tension. This could be the place where an unexpected death occurs, a new character walks in to shake things up, or another obstacle is thrown in the protagonist’s way. Whatever you decide, it should all be aimed at keeping the reader turning the pages…

(3) Eliminate the boring bits!

Sometimes the middle gets bogged down with clues or details of an investigation, the mechanics of the plot or the protagonist going through the motions/actions necessary to progress the novel towards its denouement. One thing I like to bear in mind is that readers get bored…so when re-reading a draft I like to identify areas that even I am starting to glaze over. If, as the author, I’m not riveted, then it’s time to ditch those boring bits and think through how to maintain the tension rather than deflate it.

(4) Use your beta readers!

Another set of eyes and an honest opinion can really help when it comes to working out why the middle of your novel may be meandering or sagging. I like to give my beta readers specific questions to bear in mind while they are reading and one of these is often ‘let me know where you start to lose interest’. Sometimes beta readers help you realize what isn’t working (and often this can come at surprising moments in the book) and can identify the moment they started to find their interest waning. The key, of course, is finding beta readers critical and honest enough to tell you this (rather than what they think you want to hear!).

These are just four options for trying to wrestle with the issue of the dreaded ‘middle’ –  TKZers do you have anything to add or feedback on your own experiences with the dealing with middle-of-the novel ‘sag’?

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7 thoughts on “Saving the Sagging Middle

  1. I just deleted an entire ‘raise the stakes in the middle’ thread from the current WIP after hearing from my beta readers (and what fun reweaving the book.) The stakes weren’t really raised enough, and the resolution came foo easily and quickly. I’m still not a plotter, but tend to use the “what can I throw at them now?” approach. And, since I’m not a plotter, sometimes I’m not aware I’m actually IN the middle.

    However, sometimes what’s boring to one reader is just fine for another. Our book club read an Elmore Leonard who should be the king at leaving out the parts people skip, but many of us felt he could have left out the whole book.

    I’d like to say my 8 beta readers and 2 critique partners were in agreement about everything, but that’ll never happen, and now it’s my job to see what advice works, and discard the rest.

  2. Terry
    I do find it hard sometimes with beta readers/critique partners as there is rarely consensus on a book – but when there is, I certainly take heed! I also like the ‘what can I throw at them now’ approach to characters stuck in the dreaded middle:)

  3. Thanks for the good word, Clare. I especially like the adding of a new character. As Raymond Chandler once counseled, if things are dull, just bring in a guy with a gun. Every new character can bring a large suitcase of complicating material. So that’s where I like to start when thinking about the middle.

  4. I’m a planner, so my stories don’t usually suffer from sagging middles. Perhaps it’s because I’ve always been a bit paranoid about it. Before I write I make sure to make the story shift, raising the stakes at the midpoint. Works really well, too, IMHO.

  5. Hi Clare,

    Thank you for addressing my recent question of using a subplot to prop up the sagging middle. Your thorough analysis and great suggestions help a lot. I’d love to see an example of your “tension graph,” if you wouldn’t mind sharing with TKZers.

    #3 is where I got stuck, with my protagonist slogging through boring financial records trying to identify the scam that’s the basis of the plot. The mundane details have to be there, but this would be a perfect time to have the antagonist make an appearance to distract her from her quest.

    Also, thanks to Terry for the “what can I throw at them now” approach.

  6. Have to agree with Sue. Some sort of plan or outline will tell you instantly if you’re going to flounder in the middle swamp. To me, that’s why pre-structuring and planning are so important. It’s not about the detail in the plan, it’s more about whether or not I’m going to have to throw out a big chunk of manuscript because it’s structurally unsound and doesn’t work. Like most of us, I spend a good deal of time trying to get the words right. It’s heartbreaking to give the heave-ho to a lot of it because there was just too much missing from the craft that I would have recognized in the first place with a simple outline.

    Also have to agree with Terry. Some of Leonard is first rate, but I disagree frequently on what parts he should have skipped.

  7. I can’t tell you how many times I reach the middle of a book and want to grab the author and say, “for heaven’s sake, give me a reason to keep reading!” It often seems like they’re on a death march to what occasionally turns out to be a terrific ending. These are all great methods, Clare. My favorite on your list is an unexpected death. A high body count is so delightfully satisfying. Something else I’ve been thinking about–If it’s a long novel you can appear to wrap up a tense subplot early, only to have questionable aspects of it affect the ending.

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