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What exactly is a sagging middle?
When you start writing a story, you begin in this
fireball burst of enthusiasm. You usually know the
beginning and end. Its how to get from beginning to
end that stumps youwhat actually
happens. Thats the middle. And if youre
not careful, itll sag under the weight of the story.
Along about the end of Chapter Three, that fireball
fizzles to a flame, and it hits the writer that now comes
the work. The initial enthusiasm dies out and, when it
does, unless the writer gets fired up, s/he fails to
sustain the conflicts or to move the story forward to its
logical conclusion. Now, no writer wants that. Its
hard to write an uninspired middle that lacks direction
and purpose, and its even harder to read one. So
how do we writers avoid it?
It helps us to think of the book as a bridge. The on-ramp
to it is the storys beginning. Thats where
the main characters, their goals, motivations, and
conflicts are introduced. The middle of the story is the
bridge itself. Your job as a writer is to get the people
on the bridge and keep them there until the end of the
Now, picture this bridge as one of those rope and slat
jobs that crosses an expanse in the jungle. Below the
bridge is a raging river.
In the middle of the book, if you fail to:
Youre putting too much weight on each
rope. What happens to overstressed ropes?
Like over stressed people, the ropes start to snap and
You cant keep everyone on the bridge or get them
successfully off the bridge with snapping, unraveling
ropes. Your bridges middle sags, and you dump
everyone in the river.
Often the middle of a novel sags because the writer has
not created sufficient conflict to sustain the story.
Remember, conflict is the story=s spine. It creates
motivation in the characters not only to act, but to act
Conflict creates immediacy, evokes strong emotionsand
it often offers new perspectives that deepen the existing
conflict or create a new conflict.
An example. In TRUE LIES, a husband believes his wife is
having an affair. She doesnt know hes a spy.
So hes living a secret life. But that alone isnt
enough to sustain a lengthy conflict.
In a set-up to expose his wifes infidelity, the
husband anonymously hears his legal assistant wife say
just once, she wants to take a risk, to accomplish
something out of the ordinary. Something not boring.
Knowing his wife is less than satisfied with her life,
the husband sets out to give her the thrill of an
adventure. That deepens the conflict.
And when enemies of the spy attack the husband and wife,
that conflict twists and deepens further. The adventure
turns realand the costs of failure are higher.
The complications just keep on coming. They build
logically and rationally one upon the other. In each
step, we see character growth and change. We see less
reluctance to act and more active engagement because the
characters= motivations keep growing stronger. We see the
plot driven by the choices the characters make.
By adding depth and dimension to these conflicts, we move
the characters steadily across the bridge toward the off-ramp.
The middle doesnt sag because its slats are
constantly shored up by movement: plot twists, change in
the characters, their motivations, and their growth.
Often when writers feel the middle fizzle, theyll
delete conflicts. In short, dont do it. Instead,
beef up the existing conflicts by inserting further
complications, new bits of information that the
characters learn which alters their perspective and gives
them a different view. Information that compels them to
continue on in their journey across the bridge.
Make each obstacle the characters face more difficult--a
greater challengethan the last one encountered.
Make the consequences of each
obstacle more difficult for the characters to swallow
than those in the last challenge. Otherwise, the smaller
challenges seem inconsequential compared to what the
characters have already encountered. That diffuses
Tension should steadily increase from the beginning of
the novel through to its end.
So if youre dealing with a sagging middle, you need
to get on the bridge with your characters and mix it up.
Create some conflicts, some new and compelling
information that changes the way the characters see their
situations. Strengthen, not delete, the existing
conflicts, and maybe even add a new one.
During an interview recently, a radio host told me that
he was taught in creative writing to put his characters
in a tree and throw rocks at them and in my book, Id
thrown boulders. Theres a reason for that. Boulders
are a lot harder to dodge than rocks. Youve got to
deal with them.
Dealing with them is difficult. That difficulty produces
challenges in both the external and the internal
conflicts and challenging internal and external
conflicts, which should mirror or echo each other,
assures writers that our middles will not sag. We will
have sufficient conflict to sustain the spine of our
novel and to get our characters safely across the bridge.
© Copyright Vicki Hinze 2003. All Rights
Hinze is an award-winning, best-selling author who
routinely shares her expertise at national writers'
conferences, online, and through her writing guides. Her
latest non-fiction book is ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL,
from Spilled Candy Books for Writers. This 589-page ebook
covers everything you need to know about the craft of
writing, the publishing business, and the secrets to
getting published. ALL ABOUT WRITING TO SELL is
available at www.SpilledCandy.com as a download or disk.
Or you can visit Vicki's author site at www.vickihinze.com
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