How to Cure Mid-Novel Sag

by James Scott Bell

The plot doctor is in.

I see the waiting room today is full of pantsers. They have that lost look in their eyes that usually appears in the middle of their first drafts.

One comes up to me and says, “Doc, I was having so much fun! I was writing along, letting the characters take me wherever they wanted to go. Now I’m forty thousand words in, and I’m frozen. I don’t know what to write next! Every choice seems like a rabbit hole! Help me, Doc, please!”

“Of course,” I say. “Just have a seat and—”

“Is there any hope?”

“Who’s your plot doctor, huh? Now just wait a moment and all will be well.”

There are plotters here, too. One approaches slowly, as if fearing recognition. He whispers, “Doc, I can’t figure out what went wrong. I had the whole thing mapped out and the pieces were falling into place. But the middle is sagging. Not enough oomph. What can I do, Doc?”

“Well, let me tell you—”

“Not so loud, Doc. I don’t want these pantsers giving me the raspberry …”

I’ve treated many such cases over the years. A cursory examination of the patient usually calls for three things: a shot, a couple of pills, and preventive measures.

1. The Shot

The first step is a shot of the potent “mirror moment” drug. I’ve seen immediate improvement to the eyes (which sparkle) and the mouth (which smiles or shouts Yesss!) after an injection.

The mirror moment gives the writer a new and powerful insight into what their novel is really all about. That illumination shines both backward (to the beginning) and forward (to the ending), stimulating new scene ideas and added character depth.

2. The Pills

Now I give the writer a couple of pills, with the following instructions: take the first one and see if that clears things up. Give it a few days to work. If, however, the symptoms persist, pop the second.

The Best Move Pill 

Step away from your manuscript. Go find a quiet spot or your favorite coffeehouse table, and use a pad and pen (I find this an aid to creativity).

Write down the names of every major and minor-recurring character in your novel.

Now, dedicate a page to each of these characters, answering the following question: Considering what this character wants out of the story, what is the best possible move he or she can make RIGHT NOW?

Please note that most of your characters will be “offscreen” at any given moment in your manuscript. That’s okay. They are not inert. They are in the process of planning, conspiring, sneaking, escaping, suffering … they are all doing or experiencing something. (When characters are offscreen, I call their activities “the shadow story.”)

This exercise will give you lots of plot material, scene ideas, and possible twists. See how it goes. After some time has passed if there is still significant sag, you have this:

The Guy With a Gun Pill

Raymond Chandler once wryly noted, “When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.”

Of course it does not have to be a literal man with a gun. It can be any character introduced in some surprising fashion. We’re not talking about a one-off character in a scene, but a recurring character who will add complications to the protagonist’s life.

When you place a new character in your story, you immediately inherit all of that character’s backstory, agendas, secrets, shadow story and so on. Additional scenes arise organically. As you create the new character, ponder a few questions:

  1. What can this character do to make life more difficult for my Lead?
  2. Can this character bear a secret that will upset my Lead’s applecart?
  3. Do they still make applecarts?
  4. Is there a hidden relationship this character can have with another in my cast?
  5. What is this character’s agenda?
  6. How far is this character willing to do to gain his objective?
  7. How can I give this character an even stronger motive?

Writers who dutifully take their medicine usually contact me in a few weeks to report being in the pink again. They have pep in their step and a twinkle in their eye, along with a few other clichés.

I am happy to hear it, but then I advise one further measure.

3. Preventive Medicine

If you want your heart to be healthy, you’ve got to eat healthier (and I never even went to med school!). Have you heard of Burger King’s new offering, the Rodeo Burger? It’s described as “two savory flame-grilled beef patties totaling more than ½ lb. of beef, topped with three half-strips of thick-cut smoked bacon, our signature crispy onion rings, tangy BBQ sauce, American cheese and creamy mayonnaise all on our sesame seed bun.”

I’m so there!

(Yeah, maybe once every three years.)

Anyway, I try to make my heart happy. It takes some discipline (e.g., steamed broccoli) and some hard work (e.g., actually eating the steamed broccoli).

Writing is no different. So if you’re a pantser, don’t be afraid of work and study. Get over the fear that any planning beforehand is stifling to your creativity. It’s not. You need to learn that surprises happen in the planning, too.

You plotters can continue to shore up your foundations with a growing knowledge of powerful story beats, which will allow you to leave a planned route for another choice. You can do that because you’ll know the next beat to write toward. You won’t be lost; you’ll be enjoying the trip!

Ah, the waiting room is clear. My work here is done. The doctor is out.

Do you often feel a sag in the middle of your manuscript? How have you solved that problem in the past?

31 thoughts on “How to Cure Mid-Novel Sag

  1. I don’t usually have this problem with my novels, but I’m working on a novella right now, and I’m stuck about halfway through. I blamed it on life disruptions and having other pressing projects like my audiobooks, as well as a different mystery sub-genre. The skies are clearing, but motivation is low. Will try these suggestions. Thanks!

    • Terry, the novella form is tightly focused, so does not usually lend itself to a mirror moment (not enough time) or an added character (too much expansion).

      I suggest looking at the main character’s objective, and making sure it is a life-and-death matter (physical, professional, or psychological). Then re-route everything toward that issue.

  2. I work with a 3-act structure & a series of escalating turning points. The middle is a major turning point, but before I used this method, I sometimes would weave in a subplot to ebb & flow against the main story line. This sounds like your Guy With a Gun idea. Another writer friend told me she just kills someone off.

    Thanks for the tips, Jim. Have a good Sunday.

    • I like that idea, Jordan. The opposite of adding a guy with a gun is killing a guy with a gun. In Techniques of the Selling Writer Dwight Swain advises, “Drop a corpse through the roof.” Ha!

  3. You’re sooo right about the characters and pantsers. They talk to me the first 10k words faster than I can write and then they get attention deficit disorder & get bored with their own story and disappear. Then I have to do some outling until they return in my head again. It’s exhausting being a pantser, but in the end it works.

    • We certainly hope it works, Alec. I look at it as a loooong and rather unwieldy brainstorming method, which I think can be done more efficiently with a free-form document up front. But then again, it’s a preference, and if you don’t mind the time involved, then have at it!

  4. Sound advice, as usual. I’ve printed off your comments on Chandler’s famous suggestion and posted them on the bulletin board next to my laptop.

    Now, about that steamed broccoli — next time, chop it up, toss with a bit of olive oil and salt, then roast it. You’ll never go back.

    • I’ve also considered Hollandaise and/or chocolate sauce, Mike.

      But yes, my wife does that with Brussels sprouts, which I never thought I’d ever, ever like. And now I do. And fresh minced garlic on top, too.

  5. Jim, Good advice (as always). If you’ll give me the plot doctor’s address, I’ll send my next novel when I get hung up. Or shall I take one from column A and two from column B and call in the morning if I’m still stuck? Seriously, thanks for some excellent writing advice.

    • I know you can figure the best course, Doc. Just don’t report me to the authorities for practicing plot medicine without a license. Why, then I’d have to do the unthinkable and hire a lawyer!

    • This is a first, Steve. ED finally makes its way into the Kill Zone. There are many plays-on-words that spring (ahem) to mind, but I will only say this: For a vexation lasting more than four hours, call your plot doctor.

  6. Doctor Jim,

    Your shadow story concept was a real epiphany for me when I first read about it in 2015. I’d written mostly in first person or close third POVs and was so fixated with the main character, I totally ignored what was happening offstage with the villain. The shadow story turned me around and I don’t think I’ve found myself in a corner since…at least not for long!

    Thanks for your always-practical tips!

  7. I find that the middle crisis (mirror moment) is the most difficult in the whole story. It must be right. It must be logical and/or based on a weakness the MC must face.
    For me the coffee shop gambit is the only way. I order a tall latte and a cheese danish. Then I re-outline the first half of the book to make sure I know what I’ve already got. At this point, I usually say to the barista, “Hit me again.” Then I ask myself what is the most logical surprise that could happen that will drive my MC forward. I want it to be driven by a crisis that threatens to defeat the MC. I wonder where I got that? JSB? Thanks again Jim.

  8. Your suggestion about paying attention to other characters is the one I find most intriguing and helpful. As Debbie said above, we often get so fixated on our protags and villains that we are blind to the possibilities that lie within the secondary cast. Plot can often move forward again VIA the secondary folks…they affect the protag’s life. And utilizing them (and their fears, foibles, strengths etc) also illuminates the character of the protag. I can’t count the times, when I’ve been stuck, that the key was handed to me by a minor character. You just have to listen to them, even though they usually are in the background, sotto voce.

    One more word: James Hall has an interesting take on outlining in his most recent blog post…75% into his WIP, this consummate pantser found he had to stop and outline. Here’s his link

    • Good to hear about your own experience with thinking about all the characters, Krris.

      I read Hall’s piece, and I like his honesty. He doesn’t recommend his method, but it works for him.

      I love riding my first drafts in scrivener, because as I complete each scene I also note the day, date and time. So I can get a quick look at my entire manuscript, all the scenes in outline form, and see the timeline. Saves a lot of headaches later.

  9. I discovered the secondary-character-insertion ENTIRELY by accident. I had to struggle with him a little bit, trying to decide whether or not a god and his machine had given me a new angle. When I decided it was a legitimate device, I took a couple of days off, read, slept, listened to Doo Wop, Glenn Miller, and Madama Butterfly.

    Oh, it was a happy day.

    By the way, have you ever tried to convince a Canadian that we don’t CARE if it’s a zed?

  10. We just spent a week without power courtesy of Hurricane Irma. Usually I can write during hurricanes no problem. This one was wild. A lot of people are still without power.

    I love the Best Move pill. I’m going to try it.

    Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat method uses both an A story and a B story. I used his Beat Sheet to write a screenplay that placed in the finals of a contest. It works well for me. Some novelists use it as well.

  11. Using the shadow story at the beginning of the story helps me flesh out my characters. What is each of my characters doing with the story opens? And why are they doing it.

  12. Oh, boy–am I stuck! I’m working on a sequel, I love the characters, the story got off to a great start, I know how it ends–but I have absolutely no idea how to get from A to Z.

    Thanks for the advice!

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