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Sagging, Soggy Middles

on December 14th, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on February 3, 2011

sagging story graphicNo, this is not a physical description of a body part of folks of a certain age. A saggy middle is the unflattering reference to the middle third of a novel before it’s been edited into a strong, dramatic series of scenes.

The middle is the part of the story between the eye-widening opening and the jaw-dropping conclusion. It’s the place where lots and lots and lots happens. So much, sometimes, that it’s overfilled with action. Or emotion. Or characters racing from one location to another, talking and filling up pages.

Middles are the meat of a novel, but they often get the smallest share of an author’s attention. And end up being overfull and out of proportion to the other parts of the story.

Writers polish the snot out of the opening—the first line, first paragraph, first pages.  And momentum usually carries the writer well into the first few chapters. An exciting story, fresh characters, and a great idea are enough to see the writer through the first third of the book.

And the ending, with its buildup and climax and black moment, well, the end of a novel is certainly exciting to tackle.

But the middle… Everything gets thrown into the middle.

New characters—often too many—are introduced. Plot threads are added every chapter to bolster the narrative. Back story and info dumps find their ways in as well.

Middles can be a mess.

They get bloated or become unfocused. Plot elements ramble. Characters grow verbose and contemplative rather than remaining active. Tension may seep out. Drama is reduced; conflict is only fleetingly visited.

But middles don’t have to sag.

Keep them fit and tight by separating the middle into its own sections—beginning, middle, and end.

Then give the beginning section of your middle the same attention you gave your story opening. Use conflict and tension the same way you do in the beginning chapters. In fact, ratchet up the conflict.

Increase tension. Play with pace. Use a subplot or thread to raise the stakes, then resolve the subplot and use the resolution to create even more conflict.

Make sure the middle of the middle doesn’t sag. Take out the boring parts. Take out exposition that slows the story. Be on the alert for info dumps. Yes, you need to layer the story with information and events that don’t play out in front of the readers. But, you don’t need to do it in long stretches or heavy clumps that smother those readers.

Rein in wandering plot threads. Eliminate sub-plots if they dilute the impact of your main plot.

Check on your supporting characters. If they get too much attention—with scenes that mean little to the story or that keep the reader away from the main characters and main plot for too long—cut and trim and rewrite.

End the middle with a bang.

The end of the middle will either be your dark moment or close to it. Make sure the conflict is high, that tension is humming. Make sure your characters are on a precipice, about to be knocked over into their worst fear.

Trim the fat. Don’t let characters pontificate on your favorite topic in the middle.

Introduce the unexpected. Up the stakes for both protagonist and antagonist. Push and shoot for boldness rather than seeking the safe route.

Shock your characters and readers with something startling. Add a character or twist, or use a plot element from earlier in the story in a new way. Change the pace. Introduce a misunderstanding. Fine-tune dialogue to eliminate bloat.

Polish and edit and rewrite the middle until it’s taut and quivering with tension. Lose the sag and the flab, and deliver a middle that fits with the rest of your story—strong and vigorous, able to pull opening and conclusion together into a satisfying whole.

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