The Dreaded Saggy Middle. It can happen to any writer at any time. There you are, happily writing along, when suddenly you realize your novel has run aground. Maybe you’re out of story, or maybe what you’re writing is so lifeless even you aren’t interested anymore. Worse, you can’t end the book for another 100 pages.
How did this happen, and what can you do about it?
One- or two-sided characters are one of the reasons a book may wilt in the middle. The nice heroine is always nice, the thoughtful hero is always thoughtful, the quirky best friend is always quirky, and the villain is always evil. Once we’ve introduced the character, we have nothing new to show the reader. We’re left writing scenes in which that one trait repeats over and over again.
Our spunky heroine shows up on page and exhibits spunk when her car breaks down. When she finds out she’s going to be running the family business with the hero, she has a properly spunky reaction. Later, she’s spunky with her friends, with her father, her ex-boyfriend, and the cop who pulls her over for speeding. No matter what comes her way, she’s spunky. Even a good character trait can get old after a while.
Try making that heroine spunky in her public life, but quiet and introspective in private. Or make her fearless in the business world and insecure in her romantic life. Create a villain who hates children and loves dogs. Just make sure the character’s contradictions are well-motivated and that you remain consistent when you’re in her head. She can’t love being in control here and hate it there, but she can love being in control here and long to be in control there. Multi-faceted personalities not only make a character more interesting and realistic, they can also provide keys to subplots that will keep readers eagerly turning pages.
Next, take a look at the scenes in your novel. How many highlight some of the other aspect of the characters’ personalities while still moving the story along? Are the different aspects of your characters’ personalities key to the plot or a subplot, or do they seem incidental or accidental? Your opera-singing trash collector might be quirky, but if his love of opera doesn’t directly impact the story you may not be using those quirks to your fullest advantage.
If you feel that your character is dry and lifeless, try looking for something your character would never willingly do, and then make her do that. If my heroine would never lie, I’ll look for a reason she has to lie, and I’ll make that reason bigger than she is so her decision doesn’t feel forced or unrealistic. She won’t lie to avoid embarrassment, but she might lie to save her son’s life, to keep the antagonist from taking over her family business, or to make her grandmother’s last days happy.
If you’re writing about people who lack passion for what they’re doing, you might run into a saggy middle in your story. The real world may be filled with people who aren’t driven to support a cause or make the world better, but nobody wants to read about those people. We read to renew our faith in the human spirit, and to do that, we want to read about people who are passionate about what they do, and who will take risks to accomplish their goals.
Once you’ve given the character something he cares deeply about, make sure he has a plan of action for accomplishing the task. If we’re going to ask readers to invest time and money in our story, our characters can’t be the kind of people who talk big but fail to follow through unless that weakness is part of the character’s growth arc.
Likewise, characters must have something at stake driving that passion—a reason for them to keep going when the going gets tough. A real person searching for her birth mother out of simple curiosity won’t keep looking when people and circumstances turn against her, or when the search drags on for a long time. Forcing a character to do something unrealistic may cause readers to stop identifying with her. Once the reader disconnects, your story begins to sag, even if your scenes seem action-packed on the surface.
Again, that “Something at Stake” must be bigger than the character to keep the story moving when the opposition ramps up. It must be bigger and stronger than any inconvenience or danger that gets in the way. That spunky heroine who’s searching for her birth mother out of curiosity about her origin might give up temporarily after several doors are closed on her. If she’s searching for her birth mother to save her son’s life, nothing will derail her.
Another characterization problem that can cause Saggy Middle Syndrome is moving too quickly or slowly through the character arc. Let’s say we start out with a heroine who is timid and afraid of fires, but who will be called upon to save someone from a house fire later in the book. Rather than showing her gaining courage subtly, through small, almost unnoticeable steps as the story progresses, we rush through the pivotal moments in her development so that she’s ready to face her ultimate challenge far too early. Or maybe we delay showing those small steps for too long, making the middle of the book long and dull and the end feel rushed.
If you establish the heroine as someone who is absolutely frozen in fear by the sight of fire because her mother was killed in a house fire when the heroine was a little girl, and she barely escaped with her own life, you having nothing new to share with the reader until the heroine’s ready to begin changing later in the book. You can solve that problem by letting her begin as someone who shows a strange reaction to fire in chapter one. Slowly reveal that she’s terrified of fire, that she was nearly trapped by a fire when she was young and, finally, that her mother was killed in that fire trying to rescue her. That final piece of information may not come until late in the book, and that’s okay.
Every story we write—every story we write—is a mystery. Readers pick up our stories to learn the answers to a handful of key questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how. Authors use the answers to those questions to create the mystery that will keep readers turning pages.
In genre fiction, such as romance, some of those questions are answered for us before the story begins. A romance reader knows the answer to “what” since she knows that the hero and heroine will end up together by the end of the book. Except in books containing an element of suspense, the reader knows “who”—the hero and heroine. She knows “why” they end up together—they’re deeply, madly, truly in love. After the first few lines of the book, she also knows “when” and “where.” So “how” becomes the key question in a romance novel. It’s smart, then, to hold back some “what” and “why” answers to such things as the character’s past or the motivation pushing him to achieve a particular goal to reveal in the middle of the book.
With only one real burning question to carry a book through the saggy middle, a romance novelist has to be very careful not to reveal too much too soon. We are told again and again to make our characters sympathetic, so often we share too much information too soon, hoping to explain our characters so clearly that readers can’t help but identify. Instead, those information dumps often kill perfectly good romance novels before their time.
Keeping secrets from the reader is vital to bridging the saggy middle. Choose which secrets to keep, and which to reveal in each scene you write. Give the reader only the information she needs to move forward for now. There will be time to reveal more later. Choose which pieces of information will create natural turning points in your story and use them to do exactly that.
In Laura Abbott’s October 2003 Superromance, My Name Is Nell, the author holds back a key piece of information and uses it to create the book’s first turning point. She could have easily revealed the information in the heroine’s first scene but she chose not to—and the effect of learning it for the first time after the hero’s back story has been established, after the initial attraction between the two characters is firmly established, and after they’ve even developed a fledgling relationship is chilling.
Abbott couldn’t have chosen a better place to reveal the heroine’s secret. She was able to use her book’s middle to reveal the heroine’s back story little by little and firmly establish what kind of woman she is now. In doing so, Abbott was able to create a sympathetic heroine out of a character that may not have felt sympathetic to many readers. The result is a very satisfying read, and every part of the story was necessary.
What if the characters aren’t the problem? Sometimes a saggy middle means that we simply don’t have enough story to see us to the end. That wonderful plot that got you writing in the first place suddenly seems to dry up, leaving you with 100 or 200 pages left to write, but nothing to say.
One of the reasons this happens is that we haven’t included enough subplots. In a romance, the plot is very simple—boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl. What makes the story complicated is how you get them there and the way in which you choose and then weave in various subplots.
The beginning one-third of your book is devoted to setting up the situation by establishing your characters’ ordinary world(s), unveiling the problems they’ll face, and issuing the call to adventure. The last act of your book is devoted to the actual resolution of conflict, the black moment and the climactic ending. It helps to remember that the middle also has a definite role to play. The middle serves to pit the character against conflict in the form of people, places, or things. It exists to establish enemies and allies for your main character(s) and to move the characters relentlessly toward the black moment, when the character nearly loses all.
It’s when we forget that the middle serves a distinct and important function that we write ourselves into corners and find ourselves in an endless loop, showing the same things happening in different ways. The hero and heroine have met and a spark has ignited between them. Now we write scene after scene in which they feel and think about that attraction and all the reasons they can’t act upon it. The story isn’t moving forward, it’s sliding sideways and that makes it begin to feel stale.
We can use subplots at this stage to make things worse for the people in our stories. Sometimes those things will be obvious, sometimes not so obvious. This entire conglomeration of plot, subplots, conflicts, motivation, and increasing trouble is also called plot by most people in this industry—but I think that for many of us, , especially when we’re writing our first few books, thinking of this huge multi-layered thing as “the plot” can be overwhelming. Very often, this is what sends us into panic attacks, creates blocks in our writing, and keeps us from sitting down to actually write in the first place.
For our purposes here, “plot” is the main thread of my story—the romance between man and woman, the investigation into murder, the relationship between mother and daughter—whichever I’m focusing on, depending on the genre I’m writing.
“Subplots” are all of the other smaller stories, related or seemingly unrelated, that create conflicts or provide motivation, but which always affect the main plot in some crucial way—the rebellious daughter who hates mom’s new man, trouble on the job that throws a kink into their relationship, renovations on the house that prevent the sleuth from following leads, the ex-husband that mom blames the daughter for losing, and so on.
I also consider slowly unveiling the characters’ pasts to be a story line separate from the main plot even though it impacts the main plot directly and may be the catalyst for moving from one stage of the main plot to the next. Revealing that the hero is kind, loves children, but hates dogs may convince the heroine to fall in love with him. Revealing later in the book that he never sees his own child since his divorce may cause her to rethink her feelings and even leave him.
Once you’ve decided on plot and subplots, identify the turning points in each story thread, and then stagger them so that something is always changing. Maybe your hero and heroine are in that “We’ve established our attraction and now we’re just getting to know each other better” stage, but you can keep their scenes from feeling stale and repetitive by including a turning point from one of your story’s subplots.
That way, we get to watch the hero and heroine sip wine and listen to a Michael Bublé CD together as their relationship deepens, but we’re kept from becoming complacent by choosing that moment to send the story in a new direction by letting the dog run away, learning that the heroine’s mom has walked out on her dad, or letting the hero get a phone call telling him his business is on fire. Using this method is a great way to deepen characterization, add conflict, and underscore motivation, while keeping your story moving forward all the time.
Instead of a plot that looks like this:
INCITING INCIDENT. . . . . .TURNING POINT. . . . . . . [S-A-G-G-Y M-I-D-D-L-E]. . . . . . TURNING POINT. . . . . . END
You might have a plot that looks like this:
INCITING INCIDENT. . . .TP. . . TP. . . .TP. . .TP. . .TURNING POINT. . . .TP. . . .TP. . .TP. . . .TP. . . . .END
I can’t end without mentioning conflict. A good, solid conflict or two can keep your story moving relentlessly forward. Weak conflict, anticipated conflict and remembered conflict are all causes of the saggy middle. Remember that conflict isn’t just a woman who was once in an abused relationship or a man left standing at the altar. Those are statements of fact, not conflict. They only become conflict if something equally strong is at work in your character’s life, pulling her in a different direction at the same time. She wants A and she wants B, and she can’t have both.
The abused woman who still has strong feelings for her abuser is in conflict. The man left standing at the altar who must be married by Christmas is in conflict. The woman who doesn’t believe in lying but must lie to save her child is in conflict. If the push and the pull aren’t equally strong, your conflict suffers and so does your book.
Be careful not to let your characters spend too much time thinking about the possibility of conflict, or your scenes may drag. Ditto if your characters frequently think about past conflict or if you create a current conflict that’s too easily resolved.
Strong characters with rich lives, backgrounds revealed one piece at a time, subplots with staggered turning points and strong realistic conflict are your best bets for avoiding the saggy middle—not just in your current work-in-progress, but in every book you write.
This article first appeared in the May 2010 issue of Romance Writers of America’s Romance Writers Report.