Sagging Middles – Causes and Solutions – Part 1

Dear Dr. K, can you tell me why I have such hot-start beginnings and then often have nowhere to go after that?”

            – Writer Dawn, via Facebook

 

Thanks for the terrific question, Dawn! We all face this issue, maybe with each story we write. We crank along thinking it’s going so well, we know where things head next and finishing will be a breeze.

Then – SCREECH! As if someone suddenly jammed their foot on the creative brakes, we hit our head on the steering wheel. The airbag deploys (if we’re lucky) and that tight feeling in our chests (from the aforementioned airbag) and the buzz of adrenalin leave us shaking.

Been there before, experienced it, and will probably do so again. I’ve come to accept it as part of the creative process. In part 1 of this blog, we’ll talk about what goes in the middle. In part 2, we’ll discuss how to firm up the sag.

 

WHAT CAUSES SAGGING MIDDLES?

Continuing my driving analogy, what we hit was – nothingness. No deer in the road, no child’s toy, no barking dog. In fact, there is no road. We have run out of writing steam. Our journey ended with an abrupt drop-off, the proverbial cliff we only avoided driving over (scrapping the magnificent story) because our writing vehicle has auto-brakes.

castle on sea cliff shutterstock_324719708

But wait, you say. Things were going so well.

Sagging middles are most often caused by weak plot structure. No matter how you prepared for your story, plotting your outline in intimate detail or pantsing it along as it comes, this can happen easily. Too easily, in fact. It is probably the most frequent complaint of both writers and readers. And it is the one receiving the least attention in everything from MFA programs to self-help blogs.

Bottom line – nothing is happening in the middle, ergo, BORING!

What to do? Change. Conflict. Consequences. You need it, and you need lots of it.

 

WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN IN THE MIDDLE?

Let’s consult the experts. I subscribe to three concepts, all of them related, and each of them with different benefits for the storyteller. They are the universal story, the hero’s journey, and katabasis.

The Universal Story

You have probably heard about this in its many forms, but most commonly, our universal stories of change are a three-act structure. In the three-act plot, the beginning, or first act, allows our readers to meet our character in their everyday life, and experience their angst as their life changes. To return things to the status quo, or to what they believe they want, they must change. They are only vaguely aware that change is necessary, and they sucked into the vortex of activity to return things to the old normal.

Change is hard and necessary, though, leading us into act two, where most of the action happens. Our characters face external challenges, the things they fear the most or realize would cost them the most. The internal challenges come from their self-knowledge that they are changing. They fight it, but they must do it, both to survive and to come out on the other side a better person. That might mean beating the bad guy, getting the girl, or overwhelming their continuous self-doubt. Bottom line, they need to be their best to survive this.

If they do survive, they enter act three. It’s your character’s worst nightmare come true. Their greatest trial awaits them, the mother of all challenges. This culmination proves to them and to the world that they have changed into the best self they can be. They are allowed to have the life they sought in act two, but never knew they wanted from act one.

Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey

Perhaps the most popular structure in almost any storytelling medium – and I’m including fiction books, movies and musicals – is the structure of the hero’s journey. Open your browser and you will find numerous books and articles written about Joseph Campbell, masculine and feminine hero’s journeys, and human behavior archetypes. Many describe the external journey in great detail, and yes, that is very similar to the three-act structure.

The external journey concept itself is fascinating, but it’s what happens inside the hero I find even more exciting. The hero feels an internal conflict because change is required, and consequences are significant no matter the hero does, even nothing. Change. Conflict. Consequences.

Our hero (or heroine) is settled into a life that may or may not be satisfying (most often the latter, though they are not yet aware of that fact). An obstacle drops into their path, a big one. With it comes the realization that to conquer it, they must change, and they fear and resist it.

Ultimately, they decide they must move forward, which means – here comes that word once more – change. They commit to it. They take wrong turns and make missteps. They experiment, sometimes with awesome success and sometimes, great failure. There are consequences, with stakes raised at each challenge, each change they need to make, and each conflict. In the end, they accept the consequences, and with that acceptance, they dedicate themselves to overcoming their conflict.

But things aren’t over for them yet. They must still be face the ultimate test, the challenge that could end their lives, futures, hope, happiness, love – you name it. From this, they must prove to the world, but more importantly TO THEMSELVES that they have mastered the change, overcome the conflict, and faced the consequences. Brownie points if you can make them look graceful, noble and inspiring in the process.

Katabasis, or Descent Into Hell

Katabasis is a Greek word meaning, appropriately enough, the hero’s journey to hell and back. It contains consistent themes in many tales across various religions and cultures around the world. Its universal flavor is represented in mythological characters faced by the hero in his or her journey. You’ll see many similarities to the universal story and hero’s journey described above.

The core of katabasis is the concept of myth. A myth is a story told for the purpose of making a point. It is fiction, not fact. It will not stand up to scientific study or full belief. Contrast this with the idea of a legend, where a real individual or event, however, small, is blown into mythical proportions. There is no real individual or event at the core of a myth.

That’s the beauty of a myth, though, and the place where it becomes very useful for the storyteller. Take your middle act, and add myth pressed just to the point where a reader would have to suspend belief that it could occur. A fairy tale, if you will, that under some unique set of circumstances could be true. Press the envelope of believability, and you create – yes, again now – CONFLICT.

Later this week, I’ll discuss the methods to fix sagging middles. (Here’s the link.) Please check back for more on sagging middles!

What theme or style do you ascribe to the middle of a story? What other storyteller concepts have you used? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

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