Sagging Middles, Part 2

Recently, I discussed how to deal with a sagging middle in a novel. Here are a couple more tips that will help you strengthen that middle.

Vary Your Story
Sometimes a novel feels dull in the middle because your conflicts are not varied enough. In other words, as the reader is going along, he feels like the novel on page 400 reads just like it did on page 100. Yeah, maybe your character faces death at every turn, but that’s all that he faces. We’ve all read stories like that–tales so filled with action that nothing of import seems to be going on.

Very often I find this in survival stories. You see a tale about a teenager who goes down in a plane in the Alaskan wilderness. As he struggles to walk 400 miles south, he must first battle off a wolf. Then he gets to battle a wolverine. Then he battles a bear. Next he fights off a moose. You get the idea. The whole thing becomes rather episodic pretty quickly.

Romances can be tiring in the same way. Having a heroine who agonizes about a man and nothing else for six hundred pages would just be too much. That’s why romances tend to be very short.

In short, no matter what your genre, too much of a good thing is just too much.

So as a writer, you have to wonder, maybe your reader would like something more in this tale. Perhaps it needs a mystery to be solved, a romance, some internal angst on the part of one of your characters–maybe even a character that we haven’t seen much of yet. Or maybe instead of just having the protagonist battling the antagonists, now it’s time to add a new problem–a conflict between the protagonist and his best friend. In other words, sometimes you need to try some things that you’ve never tried before in your storytelling.

When you look at conflicts, there are several major categories that you will hear writers talk about. These categories include: Man vs Man, in which a protagonist has a conflict with another person; Man vs Society, in which a character is forced to combat a stifling political regime–or perhaps just an odd family or clique; Man vs Nature, in which your protagonist fights against the natural elements; Man vs Self, in which a character must battle his own inner passions or vices; and Man vs God, a story where a man takes on his creator.

As you look for ways to vary your story, one way to do that is to ask yourself, “What kinds of conflicts don’t I have? Should I consider using one from another category?” It doesn’t have to be a huge diversion to add this. Maybe you decide, “I’ll add a Man vs Nature” conflict, and so as your hero is galloping through the dark to meet the woman of his dreams, his horse trips on a root and throws him in a ditch, leaving him bloodied and battered, and he has to limp four miles to his rendezvous, only to find that his sweetheart has already departed.

In short, varying your conflicts can help, but there are other ways to add variation to your story. You might consider the emotional beats that you’re hitting. Do you want to add something different: a little humor, a little drama, wonder, or some other emotion?

Sometimes just describing something that you’ve never described before can bring a scene some life.

Avoid Closure
Another problem that I’ve noticed is that a middle may sag because you as a writer have closed a conflict too early.

It is a natural human tendency for us to want to solve problems and get along. As writers, we sometimes resolve them too quickly. For example, you want your hero and heroine to love each other, and so halfway through the book you have them kiss and get together. Now, maybe that’s all right. Maybe the book will still work, but it’s probably literary suicide.

If you’ve got some conflicts that have resolved halfway through the book, the fact is that you probably need to go and rip out those resolutions. Leave all wounds festering, all hopes unfulfilled, all demons alive and still roaming the city.

But don’t avoid closure for too long. If your reader suspects that your characters aren’t resolving problems because you as a writer just arbitrarily decided that they wouldn’t, you’ve taken too much time.

Avoid Agreement
One other trick that can help perk up a sagging middle is to avoid agreement. It’s not that two people are refusing to negotiate a problem, it might be that they see two different problems entirely: Imagine that your character has a longstanding habit of taking his wife out to dinner on Friday night. But his business has taken a severe downturn. Now maybe he imagines that his wife will understand if he doesn’t take her to dinner. After all, she’s a sensible woman. That’s why he married her.

But the wife sees it differently. She might see this as a sign that his love is waning. He’s been growing cold and distant for months, preoccupied with business. He’s spending more time away from home. This little Friday night extravaganza is all that reminds her of her days as a new bride. She might even wonder if he is having an affair.

So as they begin to talk about dinner, the husband might say, “Let’s not go out tonight.” To which his wife replies, “Are you sleeping with your secretary?” Bam! They can legitimately have an argument where neither sees the point that the other is trying to make.

Now, I have to warn you that this is another technique to use sparingly, but as you look at your sagging middle, look at interesting ways to keep your characters out of agreement.

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