Fiction Writing Tips 3

When Middles Sag

Book middles can be tricky—especially for those of us who aren’t fond of outlining. There you are, in the dead-center of your book, and you feel like you’re not real sure what direction to take next.

This is usually when the deadly Shiny New Idea syndrome (SNI) sets in. Your manuscript doesn’t feel very exciting anymore, your characters aren’t quite as fascinating, and you get an amazing new idea…for a totally different project.

But don’t give up on your manuscript yet! It’s important to show yourself you can finish a project, especially if you haven’t been able to complete one.

Here are some ideas for dealing with your saggy middle:

Increase the stakes: This is my favorite fix for sagginess. If you’re not feeling excited about your book and your characters are just milling around, your readers probably won’t be too interested in the plot, either. But if you can up the ante, it really makes a difference. I almost always have a second murder right in the middle of my book. Now my poor sleuth has a couple of murders to investigate—and if she doesn’t get cracking, there might even be more. You could increase the stakes in different ways, of course. Basically, whatever your character wants most could be threatened or pushed even farther out of reach. Or make them afraid of something and present them with their fear. Deepen the trouble they’re in.

Reveal a secret or slip in an interesting, previously unknown character tidbit: Secrets are always fun. They can help provide a little backstory for a character that needs her motivation explained. They can keep readers guessing. They’re gossipy, surprising, and just right for saggy middles.

Put your protagonist under pressure or give him a setback: This is similar to increasing the stakes, except it doesn’t have to be tied into the main conflict. You could put pressure on a character by making them lose their job, have an elderly relative move in with them, or by the loss of a friend.

Work backwards: If you know how you want your book to end (but aren’t sure exactly how to get there) you could write your story backwards, working toward the middle from the end.

Introduce a new character: This character could be a helpful sidekick or could be someone who creates tension and conflict for your protagonist.

Work on your subplot: I love subplots. They help develop characters and create an alternate storyline for the reader to keep up with. They’re especially fun when they tie into the main plot in some way. If you’re stalling out with your main story, work on your subplot for a little while. That way, you’re still moving your story forward, but you’re doing something new and fresh while you recover from main plot burnout.

Contradict a truth: Is there something you’ve set up in your story to be an absolute truth? Something your protagonist believes is an established fact? Contradict it. I nearly always kill the most likely suspect for my mystery’s first murder.

Other tactics:

Put the book away for a month. Set a deadline for yourself to return to it and a reward for yourself to ensure that you do. Read the book up to the point where you left off. Can you brainstorm 20 different directions for the story to go in? Can you brainstorm 50? The possibilities can be as zany and improbable as you want—the point is to get your brain pointed in a creative direction with this particular story again. Out of all the ideas you came up with, which is more concrete, more viable?

Write the back cover copy for your unfinished book.

Give outlining a go. Even if you’re not an outliner, this could work—try writing a brief synopsis of what you’ve already written…it might remind you what your focus or theme is. Or write a set of mini-outlines each day, just outlining the scene you want to write for that day. That’s also very effective for squeezing writing into busy days. You’d just sketch out what the characters need to do, where the scene is set, and what the scene is going to accomplish.

Got a saggy middle? What fixes have you found?

Source: Writers in the Storm

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Elizabeth S. Craig (aka Riley Adams)

Elizabeth writes the Memphis Barbeque series for Penguin/Berkley (as Riley Adams), the Southern Quilting mysteries (2012) for Penguin/NAL, and the Myrtle Clover series for Midnight Ink.

Elizabeth’s latest book, Finger Lickin’ Dead


Riley Adams

When an anonymous food critic blasts several local restaurants- including Aunt Pat’s-Lulu Taylor and her customers are biting mad, especially when they learn that Eppie Currian is the pen name of their friend Evelyn’s cheating boyfriend. When “Eppie” gets his own fatal review, the list of suspects is longer than the list of specials at the best BBQ place in Memphis.

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