Sagging Middles – Causes and Solutions – Part 2

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

 

If you missed Part 1 of this blog, the background on what should be in the middle of a story, you can find that entry here. Remember the key words. Change. Conflict. Consequences. Now, on to solutions!

 

HOW CAN WE FIX SAGGING MIDDLES?

Coming of age, happily ever after, defeating the villain – all are common plot tropes that allow us to take the character from the status quo through hell and up to a new plane of understanding and achievement. Think Luke in the original Star Wars, or the eponymous Rocky, or Lucy Kincaid in Allison Brennan’s terrific series. You probably have your own list of favorite stories told. Examine them, even at a high level, and you will find a plot arc that reflects the structure I noted in part 1 of this blog.

What makes the middles great? CONFLICT! Bad things happen, and then more bad things happen. The CONSEQUENCES go up on an exponential scale. Your hero CHANGES, only to be batted down again. Will they get back up?  Will they survive the journey?

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Now that you know what causes sagging middles, you know you can give them the support they need. They will rise again. Here are some methods I use on a regular basis.

Destroy the Hero

I find that if my middle is boring, it’s because I created a boring hero or heroine. They are too nice. Nothing is bad about them. There is no conflict, and therefore, no reason to change. Take the required change out, and there is a sagging middle left in its stead.

I revisit the character with the sole purpose of making them more – something. Unlikeable. Injured inside. Struggling. Physically marred as a metaphor for their internal baggage.

The key to remember is that they can be the superhero on the outside, but inside they’re a tortured soul. No character (and in fact, none of us in life) get past indoctrination into the age of reason without facing things that change us, producing baggage we tote around for the rest of our lives. Some of us carry it with more grace. Change your character into someone who hasn’t found that grace yet, and you address your sagging middle.

Increase the Conflict

This is a goodie, because there are infinite ways to throw a barrier in the hero’s way. Villains? A past secret catching up with them? A logical surprise? They believe they have things under control, only to learn they aren’t even close. Blow something up, literally or figuratively, and make it the hero’s fault, something they must fix or big, bad consequences will catch up with them. Reveal that the hero is responsible for XXX, the one thing the heroine said was a deal breaker for their future relationship.

I leave the many nuances of increasing conflict to your vivid imagination. The important point to remember, though, is that the conflict must have consequences for the hero. This might mean you have to return to the set-up of your hero, their personal story you introduced at the beginning of your piece, and create the line of breadcrumbs leading the reader to understand what’s at risk. The challenge can be external, but effect of it creates internal turmoil.

Add to the Crisis

What’s at stake for your characters? Are they running for their lives? Are they trying to keep a secret hidden? Can you add new consequences for them, something even more extreme than before? Just when they thought they had escaped the country, the passport system pings their identity as a person of interest, and cops stream into the room.

A great crisis-inducing behavior is acting against what’s good for them. They know they should just get on the plane and fly away, but they feel obligated or compelled to make that phone call to report that dead body. They could have escaped, but the act of making the phone call changes everything. It’s not in their best interest for the present crisis, but it’s what they have to do to live with themselves.

Give Characters Equal Billing

Sometimes, the reason the middle sags is because you have one really kick-ass character, and the other is flat. You create a great heroine, and everyone admires her. Your hero is too – dare I say it – nice. Destroy him on the inside, and make him as kick-ass as her.

I bring this up separately for another important point. If your points of view for the story include the bad guys as well as the heroes, the bad guys have to change too. It they are not changing and the reader sees the world through their eyes, they may be evil, but they will also be boring. How did they get to be evil? What makes them accessible and approachable to the reader? Maybe they love puppies and volunteer at the shelter. That leaves readers wondering – how can they love puppies but be so darned bad? And how does he get even worse?

Check Your Plot

Sometimes it isn’t the ‘who’ in the story, it’s the what. The ‘what’ is the level of risk. If we’re talking about the changes a clerk in a retail store needs to make to be promoted, it might not be as compelling as, say, the changes the same character needs to make to keep their job. Keeping their jobs means keeping their kids, and their apartment, and respectability. The first can still be made interesting too, but you might have to try harder.

The same can be said for having too much risk. I put some books down unfinished because of unrelenting risk. There is no let-up, no break, no place for me to catch my breath. Believe it or not, this is also boring. Some great ways to break up the pace and allow your reader to say, whew, time for the next shoe to drop, is to use secondary characters or subplots. Make it lighthearted, and you ease tension, which adds more of a punch when the next challenge arises.

Use More Senses

Sometimes you need more depth to your story. Yes, you blew up the bridge, but where was it? Who usually crossed it? What purpose did it serve? What color was it? What are the stakes? It isn’t that you avoided conflict. You didn’t say enough about it.

A good way to dig deeper is by appealing to all of the senses. What does nervous sweat feel like? Does the heat of an explosion burn? Is the noise percussive? Does burning wood have an odor? What does twisting metal sound like? Granted, these are all external experiences of the hero, but you can also use them to be internal triggers for something bad, like acting in a way that is against their self-interest. The smell of burning wood means success in this case, but when their family’s house burned down when they were young, they did not act. Since they did not act then, they act now, rushing in to save people.

 

You don’t need to plot or outline to address your sagging middle. It can be done when you edit. Change. Conflict. Consequences. Move up the intensity scale on any or all of these, and you can prop up your sagging middle. Better yet, you can create such a compelling middle to your story that you keep your audience up all night because they can’t wait to see what happens next!

What are your mechanisms to fix a sagging middle? I love to hear how other storytellers overcome them, so please share your thoughts in the comments.

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