This article by Joanne Grant is from the July 2020 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership

An impactful opening will hook your reader and quite rightly, there is a lot of emphasis placed on writers to get those first chapters right. And then there’s your ending. If you’ve done a great job, your ending will leave your reader feeling great about the time they’ve spent with your characters and are more likely to come back for more of your stories.

But what about everything in-between?

Whatever genre you’re writing, whatever the word count, there’s a lot of “in-between” that has to be just as engaging and memorable. After all, what’s the point of that fantastic finale if few readers make it there! But I know that writers can struggle to maintain momentum through the mid-section and are in danger of developing a saggy middle.

In this article I will focus on the often-overlooked middle by highlighting common symptoms and causes, and then suggest some toning exercises.

What does a saggy middle look like?

As a reader, you know when you’re in saggy territory because you find yourself losing interest, skimming the pages, in short – you’re bored! This could be because:

  • There’s nothing really happening – it’s all a bit dull
  • Or there’s lots happening! It’s all action and excitement, yet … it leaves you feeling flat
  • The narrative is confused, repetitious or waffley

What is going on? The chances are — not a lot. And there sits the problem. You’re wading through a sludge of filler because nothing significant is happening to move the story forward in an engaging, meaningful way. This is key:

  • Every scene, within every chapter, should be moving the story forward. Whether through plot, character motivation, emotions, conflicts, character development — something should be shifting, moving, propelling the reader through.

Without this forward-moving momentum, the pace will stall, your middle will sag, and readers will start to lose interest.

You know what sagging middles feel like as a reader, but how can you recognize it as a writer? Or when you feel like it might be sagging but aren’t sure? First, let’s identify whether your mid-section is in trouble.

Signs you’re developing a saggy middle

  • You’ve lost interest in writing your current story. In fact, your head may be half-way into a different story. If you’re bored, your reader will be too!
  • Your writing feels mechanical, you’re losing your natural voice and spark, and everything you write seems to lack the energy you created in the opening.
  • You find yourself checking your word count every half an hour (or more!), willing it to have magically shot up a few thousand so you can move on to the next exciting part of the story.
  • Your characters are repeating themselves — in actions, thoughts or conversations. In fact, they have run out of new things to say to each other!
  • You find yourself describing the mundane. It may be real life, but it probably isn’t that interesting to read.
  • You throw in some action — another sex scene, another fight — because, it’s exciting … isn’t it?

Does any of this sound familiar? If so, your writing is displaying some of the symptoms of a saggy middle, but the good news is that there are ways you can tone it up!

Two exercises to tone up the middle

Scene by scene analysis

We’ve established that every scene should be moving something along, so a good place to start is by looking scene by scene and asking: what purpose does this scene serve? Here are some elements to focus on:

  • Characters: What have you learned about them? Have you revealed anything new to the reader, to another character or even to themselves? What has changed within them, or is the aim to show that they haven’t/can’t change?
  • Emotion: Have the emotional stakes shifted? Have emotions changed in the scene — from hopeful to anxious; from insecure to content; from in love to feeling betrayed?
  • Conflicts: Check your conflicts. If you haven’t noted a change in the above two points, it is likely your characters have stalled in their development and character arc: perhaps conflicts have been resolved too soon. This could also signal that the conflicts are simply not strong enough to sustain the story.
  • Plot: What is happening in the external action of the story — has the plot progressed?
  • Repetition: Is there any repetition of information, action, behavior from what has come before? Question whether the repetition is necessary — to emphasize a point, flag it as important to the reader — or is it just repetition with no purpose?

If you consider each of these elements and nothing has shifted from the beginning of the scene to the end of the scene in a meaningful way – then your scene is contributing to the sag, it is just filler dragging down the pace. However, just a note on some of those calmer scenes.

You may have a scene where everything is seemingly static and you can’t decide if it should stay. A moment of calm in the story can be a welcome moment of relief – it provides a sense that everything is going to be fine after all. Such scenes have much more impact if the scene that follows has high drama, this becomes the purpose of the calm scene. The trick is not to linger too long in the calm otherwise the pace will drop. And it never hurts to plant a seed of doubt that all is not well to propel the reader on.

Identifying where the sag began

It is often not the middle’s fault that it lacks tone – it really does get a bad reputation! Instead, the problem likely originated elsewhere so it’s important to detect exactly where:

  • Look at the chapters that came before. It may be that your opening doesn’t have such strong foundations after all. What threads did you start that need continuing, what has been resolved too soon, or even forgotten about? Revisit your early chapters and check that your scenes have purpose here too.
  • Think about your ending. You might find that you are meandering through the middle of the story because you’re not quite sure where you’re going, or how you are going to get to the end. This may be the time to focus on your story outline and synopsis to make sure you are heading forward with purpose.

Now on to the painful point…

Sharpen those editing tools!

You’ve identified which scenes have purpose and which don’t and where the problem originates from, so it’s time to get editing, and you may need to get brutal! No one said this was going to be easy…

  • Work on your saggy scenes to ensure there is purpose: that it links to the what has gone before and pushes forward to what is about to happen.
  • Once you’ve made sure that your scene has purpose, check it for any unnecessary description, exposition, repetition — basically cut the waffle! We’re trying to tone that middle, not hide all that great work under layers of padding.
  • Adding purpose is not the same as an information dump! If you have a lot of information that needs to be shared by the mid-point, make sure those crumbs are dropping in sparingly before you get there.
  • Sometimes a saggy scene can’t be toned up. You need to be objective and honest. Even if you like the scene, if it isn’t doing your story justice, it’s time to let it go. This could be mean losing a whole scene — it’s time for the chop!

And now breathe… How are you feeling after your workout? I hope you are feeling much more confident about how to tone up the middle of your story and have recognized that it deserves to be lavished with the same love and attention as the opening and ending.

Now, someone pass the cookies – I think I’ve earned one!

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Joanne Grant is an editorial coach with over 16 years of editorial expertise working for the global bestselling publisher Harlequin. Joanne has edited hundreds of romance novels over the years and understands how to coach authors of all genres to deliver their best work. If you’re interested in finding out how she can help you achieve your writing goals, get in touch – Joanne loves to chat! You can find Joanne on Twitter @JoanneMGrant and Facebook at JoanneGrantEditorialCoach.

Laura Resnick

Laura Resnick is the author of the popular Esther Diamond urban fantasy series. A monthly columnist for Nink, she is also a past president of Ninc.