Today’s guest blog post is brought to you by Jennifer Snow.
How To Avoid A Saggy Middle In Your Novel
As readers, we have all read books that start off strong with a great hook and plot idea, only to be faced with slow-moving, description-laden writing in the middle before the plot picks up again towards the climax and resolution. As writers, we too are faced with this issue when we start a new project. Most often, we are hit with a plot bunny so strong while we wash our hair or drive our children to school, that we are compelled to start writing right away, forcing us to set aside our current work-in-progress that may have stalled. We may know how the story will start and how it will end, but the struggle is getting the story from the beginning to the Happily Ever After, in the case of a romance novel.
Many things can happen-we may not clear about where the story is heading or the plot may not be complex enough to fill four hundred pages and it’s often tempting to walk away from the story and never finish it. Or worse, the book that does hit store shelves has an uninteresting saggy middle that can cause a great story to fall into the ‘did not finish’ pile for readers. Over my career as a writer, I have been fortunate to hear editors say ‘Yay, no saggy middle issue’, but believe me it’s not because I don’t feel the pain of that middle section of every book I write…I’ve just learned to ‘get around it’.
Every time I attend a writer’s conference, I sit in on sessions that deal with this craft issue and I always learn something new. Kensington and Montlake Books author, Sierra Donovan offers great advice about pre-planning which is a great way to avoid these middle doldrums. “I spend the first half of the story building up to a pinnacle in the middle…in sweet romance, that’s the first kiss. Up to that point, the hero and heroine are fighting the attraction, trying to deny it, etc. After the kiss, the panic sets in. They react to the situation, try to escape it, but the feelings they’ve discovered propel them toward the HEA.” Pre-planning through the use of an outline is a great way to keep the story moving forward. If you’re a plotter-you can pre-plan each section of your book with scene ideas that keep you writing. But what about the non-plotters-the ‘pantsers’ like myself?
One way is by “raising the stakes by adding a complication that stands in the way of the main characters reaching their goal”, as YA and Harlequin author Karen Rock suggests. As writers, we all do this at the beginning of the book, but sometimes an unexpected twist in the middle that makes the protagonist’s goal that much more important can help you get through the middle. For example introducing a compressed timeline, making an already tight deadline even shorter works great in plotlines where there may be a promotion on the line for the character or in a situation where the hero or heroine may be leaving town and the other has little time to convince them to stay. This creates a new sense of urgency in the writing that keeps the reader turning the pages. Another way to raise the stakes is by involving a loved one in the conflict-someone else who is affected by the character’s actions can add a richer element to the plot and keep the story moving forward. Children or aging parents whose well-being depends on the character’s success often works well.
Another great way to increase the conflict in the middle of the story is to Throw a Curve ball at your main character. For example, have your protagonist realize that the goal they’ve been chasing is the wrong one and have them switch focus. This works particularly well in stories that involve more than one possible hero, where the man that the heroine is chasing is not the right one for her, while the right one has been in front of her all along. Or vice versa for the hero. Making the character’s original goal harder to attain or removing it entirely is also a great way to shake up what could be a predictable plot-now the character has to go in a different direction, inspiring new scenes.
In every story, the protagonist usually has things they can depend on…things helping them achieve their goal. My suggestion is to take these things away. Remove allies-maybe a best friend betrays them or leaves them or an ability they rely on is taken away. For example, in my novel Falling For Leigh, the hero is an author on a deadline who breaks his hand helping the heroine. Taking away the use of his hand strengthens the plot because now he has to enlist the help of the heroine to finish his novel in time for his deadline, giving the two characters the opportunity to fall in love.
Introducing new characters or switching characters also works well in creating a new dimension to the plot. When introducing a new character, it needs to make sense. It is often best if some mention of this new character has occurred somewhere in the first half of the book. However, the foreshadowing should be done subtly, so as not to create a predictable storyline. Bringing in a new character, such as an ex in the case of a romance, can create a love triangle which causes internal conflict in the hero and heroine while providing a very real source for external conflict as well. Switching characters also works well if a particular scene isn’t working. Sometimes scenes need to be included in a story for the purpose of the plot succeeding, but as we start to write them, they fall flat or something seems off. It could be because we are either in the wrong POV for the scene, in which case, switching POV characters fixes the problem, or we have the wrong secondary characters in the scene with the protagonist. Choosing the least likely character that would have normally been in the scene, can take the plot in a direction the reader would never have thought of. For example, in my holiday novella, Mistletoe and Molly, Molly participates in a Christmas toy drive for the hero’s nephew’s school and originally I had her paired with the hero to collect gifts in a certain neighborhood, but the scene stalled because both characters weren’t eager to divulge information about themselves, so I decided to switch characters in that scene and have Molly paired with the hero’s sister, who had no trouble bragging about her brother’s good attributes to impress the woman she knows he likes and is getting nowhere with.
Other simple things likes writing shorter scenes or chapters in the middle can make the story move faster. Limit the heavy description to only what is necessary and write dialogue rich scenes instead. Increase your pace with the use of shorter, quicker sentences.
And my final suggestion for avoiding a saggy middle is to simply skip over it. I know we’ve all been told that writing out of order is not the best way to write the story, but it works just fine for me. Of course it means more work in the revision/rewrite stage that follows, but at least the story doesn’t stall in the middle and never get finished. It is easy to fix what you have on the page. Editing, deleting or adding scenes is easy when the main storyline is already written. Often, I know what scenes need to happen in the book, the ones that really drive the plot, the ones that excite me-so I write them first. I always know the ending as I begin a book, so usually I write it before the middle and then work backwards. For example-in book two of my Brookhollow series, What A Girl Wants, I needed the heroine to be in her garage (she’s a mechanic) toward the last scene of the book in order to make the ending work, so I wrote that scene, then figured out what scenes needed to happen before it to get her to the garage in that crucial scene and so on. Writing the bare necessity scenes first at least gives you something to work with, expand on and I find that it works great to get that tough first draft down on paper.
So, those are my suggestions for How to Avoid a Saggy Middle in your Novel. Ultimately we want to create stories that are rich in character development, real dialogue and compelling conflict throughout the story to keep readers turning the page longer than they’d planned when they sat down to read…just a few pages.
Quick Fixes For Saggy Middles
- Preplan your novel-create an outline of the main plot points from beginning to end, including integral scenes.
- Raise the stakes in the middle-add a new conflict that creates a sense of urgency in both the characters and the readers.
- Throw a curve ball at your protagonist-force them to switch goals or remove their opportunity to achieve their primary goal entirely, pushing them in a new direction.
- Cripple the hero/heroine by taking away the things they depend on- a physical ability or a loved one.
- Introduce a new character or switch character POV’s in a scene that has stalled.
- Increase the pace in the middle by writing shorter scenes or chapters.
- Limit excessive descriptive scenes in the middle and focus more on dialogue rich interactions that propel the plot forward.
- Skip over the middle. Write the scenes you know you need to include then go back and fill in the missing pieces.
- Lastly, write the book you would want to read!
That was great. My middle feels trimmer already. 🙂 Thank you, Jennifer.
Jennifer Snow lives in Edmonton, Alberta with her husband and four year old son. She is a member of the Writers Guild of Alberta, the Romance Writers of America, the Canadian Author Association, and SheWrites.org. She is also a regular blogger on the Heartwarming Authors site and is a contributing author to Mslexia Magazine, WestWord Magazine and RWR. She has offered online courses on writing sweet romance through several RWA local chapters and has written articles for Avenue Magazine. More information can be found on her website www.jennifersnowauthor.com or on Twitter @jennifersnow18 or Facebook at www.facebook.com/jennifer-snow-books.
Jennifer will be back in the next few weeks so look out for that.
Upcoming September Release blurb
Book three in Jennifer’s small town contemporary romance series – Falling for Leigh…
Can she be his cure for writer’s block?
For New York novelist Logan Walters, falling for the girl next door was more than a cliché. It was a calamity! If Leigh Norris hadn’t been so attractive, and hadn’t been hammering relentlessly while he was trying to write, Logan would never have ascended her rickety ladder in a misguided mix of gallantry and frustration. And he wouldn’t have a broken wrist—or a guilty new assistant who can’t type. Clearly, his escape to the Brookhollow B and B was not going to be the quiet, idyllic retreat he needed to finish his overdue manuscript. But it was fast becoming much more interesting than expected….
Amazon pre-order link: http://www.amazon.com/Falling-Leigh-Brookhollow-Story-Jennifer-ebook/dp/B00JZFWR70
- and from this blog, my guests who have written on this topic is…Heidi M Thomas.
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