12 Tips to Tighten Up a Sagging Middle

SaggingMiddleMany writers bog down and even stall out completely when they get to the middle section of their novel. A writer may know how they want it to begin and end, but getting their characters from point A to point B is an exercise which often involves beating one’s head against the desk.

Identify a Sagging Middle

The first step to any problem is identifying the problem. So how do you know if you’ve hit a sagging middle? If you’re like me (a pantser), this happens almost every book. Some writers only hit it every once in a while. Sometimes it takes an outside opinion (like a beta reader) to point out your sagging middle (with love and respect of course).

Watch for these warning signs:

  • Writing suddenly feels harder (than normal) and you can’t get motivated
  • Even you are bored, and you’re writing it
  • You find yourself including lots of long explanations or descriptions
  • You are writing a lot of telling vs. showing.
  • Your conflict is not central to what you are writing
  • Nothing has happened for several pages
  • The tension you’ve built into the beginning loses steam
  • The conflict is already close to being solved
  • A secondary character has taken over
  • A subplot has taken over
  • What you are writing isn’t moving the story forward
  • You don’t know what to write next

12 Ways to Fix a Sagging Middle

Here are 12 tips and tricks for dealing with that sagging middle that may just give your writing the boost it needs to get over the hump.

1. Review Your Conflict

Just about every writer I’ve talked to will say the first and most common issue behind a sagging middle is that they’ve lost sight of the conflict. Give yourself a few days break (if you can), then read everything you’ve written with an eye toward when/where you lost the conflict. You may need to back up and re-write, or you may just need to bring the conflict back in focus.

2. Revisit Your Characters Goals and/or Motivations

Your characters may have lost sight of why they are on this journey in the first place. Are they staying true to who they are? Are their goals remaining consistent? Or, if the goal has changed, is the reason clear and true to the story? Is their motivation still tangibly present?

3. Remove the Boring Bits

Did your dialogue just include all the niceties like “hello” and “goodbye”? Did you just describe every move your protagonist made to walk through a room and open a door? Is the information about their backstory you just included not really central to that plot point? You might be including the boring stuff just to hit word count, and you’re losing sight of your key story. It might be time for a slash and burn.

4. Do a Quick Outline

Sit down and outline your main plot points that you know you need to hit. You might be closer than you think to the next point, and you’re spending too much time on a scene. Or you might need to add another 20 pages of plot before you get there. Either way, seeing where you need to be next may give you ideas.

5. Make a Change 

If you’re struggling, chances are your reader will to. Change it up for both of you. Switch locations, enter a scene from a different POV, revisit another subplot in progress. You get the point. Make a change.

6. Torture Your Characters / Up the Stakes

Think of the worst thing that could happen to your characters at this point in the story (something truly bad, or maybe a false high). Make a list of ideas. Pick the one that scares you. Discard your first one or two solutions for later in the book (they’ll be obvious to your readers too). Then run with it!

7. Add a Ticking Clock

If your characters suddenly have a time limit, I promise the tension will increase with it. It’ll also force you to write to that plot schedule now. So both you and the readers will feel the tension. 🙂

8. Build to a Minor Climax

Add a minor climax sooner in the plot. This might be a false high to give your characters further to fall later. It might be a stepping stone on the way to rock bottom. It also gives you a critical point to write to that is sooner than the end of the book (so is a mental trick for you as the author).

9. Write a Different Scene

Skip ahead and write the next scene up that you are really excited to get to. Just getting out of where you are stuck may get the juices flowing. How that scene goes may also give you ideas on how to connect the two points. Voila, no more sagging middle.

10. Write Backwards

This is one of my favorite tricks. Start at the very end of the book and write backwards a scene at a time. I guarantee that if you get enough scenes in there, having those ending details nailed down will inspire your brain with ideas on how to move forward from the middle.

11. Have Fun with the Fun & Games

In “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder, the sagging middle is typically the section called “Fun & Games.” This is supposed to be your opportunity to have fun with your characters and really develop both them and the plot. So, rather than resigning yourself to this section, have fun with it. Even get a little crazy with it. Believe it or not, this tends to be the section readers remember most. In movies, it’s often where the clips in the trailer come from.

12. Remember the Middle is the Important Part

The beginning of your book is the appetizer–introduce your characters, the conflict, and start them on the journey. Whet the readers’ appetites. The ending of your book is the dessert–the wrap up, the climax, the part where you leave your readers in whatever emotional state you are aiming for.

But the middle? The middle is the meat and potatoes. This is the main course. The appetizer and dessert by themselves are never enough. They don’t mean anything without the main course. You should be spending a good majority of your time fine-tuning the middle of your book, not just racing through it, or tolerating it, until you can get to the juicy bits at the end. As a dessert-fiend, I know how hard it is. But stick with it and spend the time you should with the middle.

 

Best of luck to you if you are dealing with the sagging middle. We’d love to hear from you as well. Do you have any other tips or tricks that work to take a sagging middle and make it a six-pack of gloriously tight writing?

Death to the Cliche

say-what-you-want-to-sayLet’s start with the official definition of “cliche” which is “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.”

The definition should be enough of an incentive for writers to do their best to kill those little buggers. You don’t want your writing to lack original thought. However, ridding your writing of cliches is harder said than done (cliche intended).

First let’s talk about identifying cliches–because for authors, more than the familiar phrases can fall under the umbrella of cliche. Then, let’s talk about alternative approaches to consider when you are trying your best not use a cliche.

IDENTIFYING CLICHE

Idioms vs. Cliches

By definition, idioms are phrases that don’t make literal sense but everyone understands what they mean anyway (ex. raining cats and dogs). Both idioms and cliches are phrases used in everyday language.

Cliches don’t have to be phrases that make no contextual sense. For example, as hot as molten lava makes sense without someone explaining it to you. Whereas, idioms tend to be specific to different cultures and would need to be explained to someone unfamiliar.

The biggest difference between the two is that cliches are overused and idioms might not be. In addition, cliches, in writing don’t have to be phrases. They can be any overused element such as settings, situations, or characters.

Clear as mud?

Cliches Can Be Common Phrases

Cliches can be common phrases. These are always tempting to use because they paint a clear picture which you know your readers will understand. There are scads of websites listing common cliches, even by genre. Google is your friend to help identify these.

Cliches Can Be Common Situations

Cliches can be situations characters fall into which everyone can see coming because it happens so often. For example, a work romance where they end up secreting away in the supply closet. Or in a horror, the car failing to start.

Cliches Can Be Common Settings

What settings in your genre are common? Is your mystery set in a house that looks like the one from Psycho? Is your romance set at a resort on the beach? Is your historical set in a castle? Settings aren’t always cliche, because writers most often set their books in locations that the characters would truly be in. Just watch out for the ones that are overdone. Try to go a different way that still makes sense.

Cliches Can Be Common Plots

The lowly farmer/bar maid/computer geek/orphan finds out they are “the one.” Think about that generic statement and then see how many story lines you know of that fit. Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Matrix. You see what we mean? Unless you have a unique twist on a common plot (like those three stories), try to avoid it.

Cliches Can Be Common Character Types

The plain jane, the mad scientist, the hooker with a heart of gold. We’re not saying don’t use these types of characters. In fact, in some genres common archetypes are used regularly and with great effect. The trick is to find that twist to how you use it.

APPROACHES TO CLICHES

It’s not that you aren’t allowed to use any cliches mentioned above. The trick is to make them your own, turn the cliche into something unexpected. In fact, when reinvented or acknowledged well, the cliche can become more effective for you. However, if you can’t use them well, then, yeah…don’t use them.

Remove

Pull the cliche out of the sentence entirely and ask yourself what you lose when it’s gone. If your answer is nothing, then you’re done.

Rewrite

If you remove the cliche and the sentence loses its meaning, then it’s time to rewrite. Try to determine what the cliche is conveying and then rewrite that sentiment/scene/idea in your own words.

Reinvent

Take the cliche and reinvent it or do something unexpected with it. For example “Absense makes the heart grow fonder.” There are a bunch of different ways to rework that. Absense makes the heart go wander. Absense makes the loins grow hotter. Absinth makes the mind go wander. And so forth. What twist can you put on the cliche you’re working on?

Acknowledge

Acknowledge that you’re using the cliche. This can be a great comic relief moment. A fantastic example is in The Amazing Spiderman 2, when she pulls him into the supply closet he actually says, “This is the most cliche hiding place you could have chosen.”