Monday, June 6, 2011

The Big, the Bad, the Ugly Sagging Middles

One of the most common problems that aspiring writers run up against is the dreaded “sagging middle”. This happens when a strong beginning and a compelling ending are sabotaged with a slow, boring central section. The sagging middle is the mother of all writing problems. The middle is the sweet, tasty middle of the Oreo cookie. Without it, those chocolate cookies are just plain and boring chocolate cookies. Without a strong middle, you just have a plain, boring manuscript.

Sagging middles were my Achilles heel. I could always dream up an interesting action-packed beginning and an equally appealing ending with twists and turns, but the middle was always where I became trapped. After my first year of serious writing, I had four half-written manuscripts. Each of my failed attempts became halted around the same spot – the middle. After brainstorming, restructuring and rewriting the openings, I learned the vicious lesson that I couldn’t get through the middle.

I took a half-dozen online workshops on taking the “sag” out of the middle, I learned to look at my novel more objectively. One instructor had me pull out the half-written manuscripts from the box in the back of closet and analyse them one by one for the glaring errors. Each one had their own flashing alarm bells to diagnose my sagging middle.

The first mistake was a lack of tension. In the early days I hated inflicting pain, torture and tormenting my characters. I could imagine the worst thing that could ever happen to them, but I couldn’t do that to them – they were my babies. WRONG! Now, my poor characters suffer, and suffer some more. And just when you think it couldn’t get any worse – the real suffering begins.

My next mistake was that while my characters were busy, nothing was really happening. I didn’t have much of a plot, or at least a strong enough action to carry me through the story. The story wasn’t moving forward, it was stalled. Now I ensure that everything that happens, happens for a reason. Every single plot event plays into the overall plot.
I also did a lot of recapping and repetition. I worried that readers wouldn’t remember key scenes or actions so I’d repeat it, and then repeat it again. I was underestimating the intelligence of my readers. WRONG! Not only are readers super intelligent, but those extra words just stalled the plot and wasted those precious words that we all desperately need.

One of the most important things that I learned is keeping the action incremental. It is too easy to feel as if you need to tell the reader what’s going on and make your characters hurry up and deal with things, both emotionally and plot-wise. WRONG! By keeping actions and things more incrementally, it hooks the reader so that they will read to the end instead of putting the book down and never picking it back up. Effective pacing not only makes the reader start reading, but also keeps them reading until the final page.

There are so many aspects of writing to learn and master, but with many workshops and countless hours of learning, I’ve learned how to exercise my sagging middle.

What are your tips on avoiding the sagging middle? What areas of writing do you most struggle with? Beginning? Middle? Endings?

R.J. Garside


Rosi said...

Good post and good food for thought. I have trouble with beginnings. I always have so much back story that's needed, and I think I have to get it all in at the beginning. I'm discovering a lot of books that handle the back story issue well and am trying to translate that into my own writing. Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

rj.garside said...

Hi Rosi,

Backstory at the beginning is always such a problem for me too! I took a workshop where the instructor wouldn't allow a single sentence of backstory in the first three chapters. I thought that it was the end of me! Thanks for your post. Happy writing!

RJ :)

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