The Dreaded Sagging Middle

I wanted to blog about a topic many writers—including myself—dread. It’s the sagging middle. And I’m not talking about out waistlines. I’ll save that weight loss discussion for another day. I’m thinking of the middle chapters of our books. The part of our story that loses its drive, its enthusiasm, and well…its umph.

frustrated writer

Others call this midbook burnout. But whatever you call it, the result can be disastrous for both new and established writers. We start out strong. We picture our hero and heroine in our mind with vivid clarity. We know what they look like as well as their initial goals and motivations. We craft wonderful beginning chapters and maybe even strong endings. Then something happens mid-way through. The essence of the story gets lost. The conflict is too simple or too complicated. We sit at the computer for hours in frustration and write little. We decide the writing process is too hard and we even think about giving up.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? The good news is there is a way to work through our frustrations. Here are the four tips that I find most helpful:

Flesh out character development scenes

 My favorite book on craft for writers is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. He breaks down the twelve stages of the hero’s journey. He calls step six “Tests, Allies and Enemies.” I’ve found this particularly helpful when I’m stuck in the middle of my book. By testing your hero and having him make allies and enemies you are allowing for great character development. You can learn a lot about a hero’s character by the friends and enemies he makes. Romances are all about the character growth of both the hero and heroine. So flesh out these scenes.


Is there enough conflict?

Writers can often give their characters goals and motivate them, but when it comes to conflict the story sizzles out fast. The internal and external goals of your characters have to be tied into the conflict. Ask yourself what’s the big event that’s going to occur in the middle of your book. It must be important enough to raise the stakes. Feel free to torture your characters or put them in impossible situations. Both the hero and heroine have to learn something new about themselves in the middle of the story. Without this conflict and growth, there can be no happily ever after in a romance novel.

Manage your time

I’m not going to tell anyone they have to write everyday. Life happens. Sick children, elderly parents, spousal demands, and yes, even laundry. But a writer should never be away from their work for long. There’s the risk that you will forget much of the story and lose interest. If you have to keep going back and rereading your manuscript pages to familiarize yourself with your own story, you will never move forward. So be protective of your writing time.

Kick discouragement to the curb and keep good friends close

This about says it all. If your so called friend is telling you it’s impossible to make it in this business, then it’s time to “unfriend” her. On the other hand, if you’re lucky enough to find a few friends who encourage your endeavors even through the rough times, then keep them close.

 So tell me how do you deal with the sagging middle of your manuscript? What works best for you? Or if you’re a reader, what’s an exciting scene from the middle of a book you’ve read? I’d love to hear from you, so please share!

Tina Gabrielle

InTheBarristersChambers

You can find me at:

www.tinagabrielle.com

http://twitter.com/tinagabrielle

https://www.facebook.com/TinaGabrielle

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26 Comments

  1. Tina,
    First a big thank you to Joanna for leading me in your direction this morning. I’m currently sitting here with a stack of index cards for each chapter, and I notice now that there’s a significant lack of conflict just a little bit past the middle. Cute, but no conflict…
    This is just what I needed this morning. And I agree 100% about “unfriending” someone who is just plain negative about the “business.” Maybe I won’t ever make it big and become a #1 bestseller, but that won’t stop my LOVE OF WRITING. Even when friends have the best intentions, if they are in any way encouraging you from following your dream or from investing time in something you love, you really need to find more supportive friends.
    Thanks for a great and much-needed post!

    Reply
    • Hi Kimberly! Way to go with the stack of index cards. I used to be a complete pantser, and now I’ve discovered that plotting is more productive for me. I still find myself writing unexpected and unplanned scenes, but I do refer to my index cards often. I also think unfriending negative friends is a good idea. We need to surround ourselves with positive people. This is no easy task!

      Reply
  2. Jenna Blue

     /  March 3, 2014

    Wonderful post, Tina! Once again I am reminded: I’ve got to get that Vogler book! One thing I find helpful is not to sit and stew…if the middle is dragging, I’ll move ahead–sometimes just a scene, which simply builds momentum and confidence and allows one to go back later, or skip ahead to the next big event. And low and behold sometimes when I skip ahead, it turns out that I didn’t even need that “middle” I thought I had to write….Protecting the writing time is always a struggle for me. Need to work on that big time!

    Reply
  3. Hi Jenna! I think pushing through or even skipping difficult writing scenes is a great idea and something I need to work on. You’re right that some scenes aren’t even necessary and just slow down the plot.

    Reply
  4. Tina — great ideas!

    For me – I don’t always write in order, so when I hit a block or slowdown, I jump over and write the next part I can see. So, I write the beginning, the end, the part before the end, the part after the beginning and then connect it all through the middle!

    But, I think only pantsers work that way? LOL

    Reply
    • Hi Terri! Your ideas are all good ones. I admire how you write. I know how a book ends, but I do tend to write in chronological order. That being said, I do plan to skip scenes on my work-in-progress and connect it through the middle. Congrats on finishing your next book!

      Reply
  5. Joan Savage

     /  March 3, 2014

    Great post! Good ideas for working through and adding some zing. What better way to propel the story along than a good measure of conflict? I find myself thinking about The Breakfast Club and the notion that subtle (and not so subtle) attacks somehow push this splintered group of antagonistic individuals to gel into a cohesive group, even if for only a short time. They say conflict drives good storytelling, and I agree it’s a powerful way to overcome that middle dragging feeling.

    Reply
  6. Movies are great examples of how conflict moves a story along. Conflict is a wonderful tool to show character growth and to test and torture my characters!

    Reply
  7. Excellent advice–especially raising the stakes! I also like how you mention the development of both the internal and external story. If one or the other is dropped, the rest of the book begins to sag. 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Michelle! Internal and external conflict help with plotting and pacing. I also find that the characters have to evolve and change after every turning point in a romance. I love this as a reader as well!

      Reply
  8. The dreaded sagging middle! We’ve all been there. I liked your ideas. I heard one author say whenever her/his story sags, they kill someone off. LOL. Not all of us write books with high body counts, sadly.

    I always try to think how I can make things worse. How to get the two MCs closer but bring everything else in the world against them. 🙂

    Reply
    • Hi Joanna! This is funny. I may consider writing thrillers. On another note, raising the stakes for our characters is a good way to escalate conflict and get through the middle of a manuscript.

      Reply
  9. Tina, thanks for an excellent post! This one is definitely a keeper! 🙂

    Reply
  10. My pleasure, Tina! 🙂 Blessings!

    Reply
  11. RoseAnn DeFranco

     /  March 4, 2014

    Hi Tina,

    Great post. I’m also a Vogler / Hero’s Journey fan. I don’t however map the journey out before writing a draft. If things start to sag, I look at the steps of the journey and see if I’ve left anything out. Similar to Terri, I think there is GREAT benefit in skipping ahead to a scene that we as the author are excited to write. Nothing wrong with a place holder that you can then go back to flesh out. Once you know what happens AFTER that sagging scene, you might find more motivation to write it.

    Reply
  12. Hi Tina, As a reader, there is nothing worse than a sagging middle! So many books I’ve abandoned because by page 100, my interest had waned. Which as a writer, is always at the back of your mind…keep the story moving, right? Great post and tips! Cheers, Michele

    Reply
  13. Tina,
    I generally just plow through and worry about clean up later. I find what works best for me is to get it documented and tighten afterwards. Having written the middle allows you to have at least something to work with. Great article.

    Reply
    • Plowing through and worrying about clean up is a great way to get through the book. I still struggle with turning off my internal editor!

      Reply
  14. Great advice, Tina. And the Test, Allies and Enemies piece was a timely reminder. Thanks!

    Reply
  15. Jaye Marie Rome

     /  March 12, 2014

    Oooh, that dreaded time management. That’s the kicker for me, for sure. I love that you talk about introducing allies and enemies midway. I actually have done that in my current WIP, although I’m not sure exactly at what point that scene is going to take place.

    I sometimes find that writing scenes as they come to me, scenes I know have to be in the ms, helps me to break away from the sagging middle. When I’m stuck or feeling like suddenly the story is going nowhere, I’ll drop what I’m writing and write a totally different scene. There ends up being some scene shuffling when I get to revisions, but writing a new scene often rekindles my excitement for the story.

    Jaye

    Reply
    • Hi Jaye! Thanks for the comments. I’m reshuffling scenes on my current work-in-progress and will let you know how it turns out!

      Reply
  16. Great post, Tina. I don’t plot out the entire book, but have a general sense of the main events, conflict, turning points, and of course the HEA. When I find myself stuck, I also skip ahead and try plotting (and writing) a few scenes or chapters ahead of where I’m stuck. Sometimes I’ll go back and read a chapter or two prior to help me get back in the flow of what’s going on. In my stories, friends and families are important. I work hard to build the relationships between the H/H and their F&F. Sometimes an event can happen to a secondary character that could bring the H/H closer together, or possibly drive a wedge between them and raise the conflict stakes.

    Reply

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