Sagging Middles

by Vicki Hinze

What exactly is a sagging middle?

When you start writing a story, you begin in this fireball burst of enthusiasm. You usually know the beginning and end. Itís how to get from beginning to end that stumps you—what actually happens. Thatís the middle. And if youíre not careful, itíll sag under the weight of the story.

Sag?

Along about the end of Chapter Three, that fireball fizzles to a flame, and it hits the writer that now comes the work. The initial enthusiasm dies out and, when it does, unless the writer gets fired up, s/he fails to sustain the conflicts or to move the story forward to its logical conclusion. Now, no writer wants that. Itís hard to write an uninspired middle that lacks direction and purpose, and itís even harder to read one. So how do we writers avoid it?

It helps us to think of the book as a bridge. The on-ramp to it is the storyís beginning. Thatís where the main characters, their goals, motivations, and conflicts are introduced. The middle of the story is the bridge itself. Your job as a writer is to get the people on the bridge and keep them there until the end of the story—the off-ramp.

Now, picture this bridge as one of those rope and slat jobs that crosses an expanse in the jungle. Below the bridge is a raging river.

In the middle of the book, if you fail to:

  • Offer new insights to a character
  • Move the plot along
  • Logically lead the reader from one slat to another

Youíre putting too much weight on each rope. What happens to overstressed ropes?

Like over stressed people, the ropes start to snap and unravel.

You canít keep everyone on the bridge or get them successfully off the bridge with snapping, unraveling ropes. Your bridgeís middle sags, and you dump everyone in the river.

Often the middle of a novel sags because the writer has not created sufficient conflict to sustain the story.

Remember, conflict is the story's spine. It creates motivation in the characters not only to act, but to act now.

Conflict creates immediacy, evokes strong emotions—and it often offers new perspectives that deepen the existing conflict or create a new conflict.

An example. In True Lies, a husband believes his wife is having an affair. She doesnít know heís a spy. So heís living a secret life. But that alone isnít enough to sustain a lengthy conflict.

In a set-up to expose his wifeís infidelity, the husband anonymously hears his legal assistant wife say just once, she wants to take a risk, to accomplish something out of the ordinary. Something not boring.

Knowing his wife is less than satisfied with her life, the husband sets out to give her the thrill of an adventure. That deepens the conflict.

And when enemies of the spy attack the husband and wife, that conflict twists and deepens further. The adventure turns real—and the costs of failure are higher.

The complications just keep on coming. They build logically and rationally one upon the other. In each step, we see character growth and change. We see less reluctance to act and more active engagement because the characters' motivations keep growing stronger. We see the plot driven by the choices the characters make.

By adding depth and dimension to these conflicts, we move the characters steadily across the bridge toward the off-ramp. The middle doesnít sag because its slats are constantly shored up by movement: plot twists, change in the characters, their motivations, and their growth.

Often when writers feel the middle fizzle, theyíll delete conflicts. In short, donít do it. Instead, beef up the existing conflicts by inserting further complications, new bits of information that the characters learn which alters their perspective and gives them a different view. Information that compels them to continue on in their journey across the bridge.

Make each obstacle the characters face more difficult—a greater challenge—than the last one encountered. Make the consequences of each obstacle more difficult for the characters to swallow than those in the last challenge. Otherwise, the smaller challenges seem inconsequential compared to what the characters have already encountered. That diffuses tension.

Tension should steadily increase from the beginning of the novel through to its end.

So if youíre dealing with a sagging middle, you need to get on the bridge with your characters and mix it up. Create some conflicts, some new and compelling information that changes the way the characters see their situations. Strengthen, not delete, the existing conflicts, and maybe even add a new one.

During an interview recently, a radio host told me that he was taught in creative writing to put his characters in a tree and throw rocks at them and in my book, Iíd thrown boulders. Thereís a reason for that. Boulders are a lot harder to dodge than rocks. Youíve got to deal with them.

Dealing with them is difficult. That difficulty produces challenges in both the external and the internal conflicts and challenging internal and external conflicts, which should mirror or echo each other, assures writers that our middles will not sag. We will have sufficient conflict to sustain the spine of our novel and to get our characters safely across the bridge.

Vicki Hinze © 2003

Dr. Vicki Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who routinely shares her expertise at national writers' conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Visit her website at: www.vickihinze.com

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