Friday, January 14, 2011

How to avoid the “sag” in the middle

We’re talking about strengthening a writer’s storyline here, not his or her tummy—although that dangerous “sag in the middle” may require some vigorous exercise to fix.

How many times have you reached page 200 in a book that got off to a great start and wondered why you feel compelled to describe the passengers on a bus in excruciating detail or flash back to childhood memories so distant that their relationship to the main events of the plot are totally obscure? Maybe you don’t have this problem. Maybe you’re one of those writers who doesn’t experience the doldrums in Act Two. In that case, unless you’re fooling yourself (I’m just sayin’) I extend my congratulations.

For the rest of us, how do we bust out of the mid-book stalemate? Let’s say you’ve got an excellent outline, complete with solid motivations and growing conflict, with the crises and resolutions laid out on a graph, peaks and valleys in all the right places, no surprises. Did I say no surprises? Oops.

You may know exactly where you are going and still run out of gas before you get there. It happens to driver on the highway all the time, why not to writers?

What to do? Here are a few ideas:

Ask yourself – “did the plot come easily to me and if so, will the reader find it as predictable as I do?” The answer may be “yes,” but don’t despair. You can use this predictability to your advantage—for example, if you are writing a thriller or a mystery, consider reincarnating your run-of-the-mill villain as a red herring. This will leave you free to create a new, more complex antagonist whose machinations will spiral the story up to a whole new level.

Let’s say your story is a quest and you think you have successfully mined your protagonist’s insecurities and challenged her to face her greatest fear. Or have you? Dig deeper.

In her excellent book, “Write Away,” Elizabeth George quotes author T. Jefferson Parker as saying “When my story stalls out on me, I’ve played my hand too soon.” Take another look at the journey – have you taken shortcuts around obstacles that you need your protagonist to face directly in order to build suspense? Does she have an Achilles heel, a weakness that trips her up just when she is about to prevail? In ASK THE DEAD, Jo Epstein’s biggest fear was that she would die by drowning and this was foreshadowed in the beginning, intensified in the middle and resolved at the end. I didn’t plan it this way, but as her character developed and her core needs and emotions surfaced, the story gained traction.

I hope I’ve provided enough examples to get the discussion going. Now it’s time to hear what YOU have to say.


  1. Great post. If there's any problems most writers share, it's probably the Dread Middle. Even friends who outline report running out of gas in the middle. I have nearly quit about half of my own books because the middle was inert and uninteresting.

    One of the temptations that we have to fight selectively is the bright new plot line that seems like the end of the rainbow. Maybe it is, and maybe we just like it because it's new. This is a great time for careful enthusiasm.

    Really enjoy your blog

  2. Excellent post, Joyce! I'll add a couple of suggestions I've had tossed my way.
    1. If your protagonist is relaxing then (figuratively) put them in a tree and trow rocks at them. (Nod to Larry Karp on that one!)
    2. Blow something up -- something that the protagonist will care about, and really be hard pressed to do without.

  3. @Timothy - I agree, that bright, shiny penny - the new idea that's going to "save" us - may (or may not) be worth 2 cents. Thanks for stopping by and for encouraging me to blog! The best part of this is when it feels like a community of writers sharing their experiences.

  4. @ Susan - great ideas, thanks! To expand on your first suggestion - In my experience it's often the writer who needs to be treed and woken up with well-aimed projectiles.

  5. Good post, Joyce! Middle sagging always presents a problem in plotting. Good advice.

  6. I try to write each chapter as if it was a short story, so hopefully done properly, there shouldn't be too much of a sag. Now if you're speakin about a plot sag, then you need a muse. Call Joyce. Or read her blog. Or both.

  7. @Gary - who me? I'm no expert, but thanks anyway! I like your idea of treating book chapters like short stories - have tried that myself and even published a few as such in lit magazines.

  8. Being mostly a poet, I'm short on plot and long on image ... creating a space for the reader to inhabit. Perhaps it could be helpful when caught in a sagging middle, to imagine the place where you have taken the reader, the space they currently inhabit, and then imagine what might prove an unexpected place for them to go from there.

  9. @Gloria - I love your poetry but you are also a memoirist and I'm wondering if that form can bog down in the mid-section as much as a work of fiction. And if so, what might propel it forward? - perhaps a new voice in the telling or a different pespective on what it means (meant) in your life? What does an "unexpected place" mean when the writer is staying true to actual events? What do you think?

  10. Anonymous12:20 PM

    Raymond Chandler put his finger on it; "In writing a novel, when in doubt, have two guys come through the door with guns."

  11. Funny you should say that - I took Mr. Chandler's advice in Ask the Dead - although it was only one guy who came in with the gun!

  12. hard for me to say, since i'm not yet at the point of editing my manuscript.
    in working from memory, i've avoided a chronological approach to allow more 'poetry', that is allow my memory to travel freely through time, coming upon the events that surface along the approx. 10 year timeline i'm documenting. what i have found in writing longer chapters, is that they tend to get bogged down in physical details in the middle, and so i am making a choice in those instances to skip over that sagging middle and write more pointedly toward an end point that also speaks to my interior journey. the unexpected places when writing of actual events, i think, are the links forward and back in your life-line, that stem from specific moments in the past, and that you can only see clearly from your current standpoint.

  13. Being familir with a few sections of your memoir, I know this linking of exterior and interior journeys makes for fascinating reading!

  14. Sayantan Gupta7:11 PM

    I find that writing poetry is much easier than writing a story. In the first novel that I have started, I'm bogged down by such a sag in the middle, that I cannot make any headway. But your blog and the Comments of all have shown me some light. Let's see now...

    1. That's great to hear Sayantan - look forward to hearing more about your progress on the novel and feel free to discuss issues here as they come up - we're all learning from each other!