Craft Corner: Tackling the Dreaded Middle

Welcome to the Class of 2k21 Craft Corner! These posts will be dedicated to sharing writing tips and tricks we’ve picked up on our journeys to publication. Each month features a new theme with insights from members of the Class of 2k21; this month, we’re sharing tips on how to avoid saggy middles.

Whether you are a long-time creative with too many ideas to wrangle or a beginner with no idea where to start, we hope you’ll find something you can apply to your writing journey. Let’s get started!

Jessica Vitalis: There is nothing worse than sailing through the first act only to run out of steam in the middle of a novel. Doing a little pre-planning can help with this (see our earlier post on plotting), but I once heard another author (if only I could remember who!) say that sometimes when one gets bogged down in a saggy middle, it’s because their antagonist isn’t strong enough. In addition, I recently discovered an e-book that has some real nuggets of wisdom when it comes to strengthening the middle of a story. It’s called Write Your Novel From the Middle by James Scott Bell and it’s usually available as an e-book for a few bucks. (I especially love the idea of a “mirror moment” where the MC becomes aware of the theme in the book but rejects it in favor of the pursuit of their misbelief.)

Andrea Wang: Sometimes, the middle of a novel is like a swamp, where the words just won’t flow and the story stagnates. Other times, the middle is like a hedge maze, where the plot meanders in and out of dead ends, the exit to Act 3 nowhere in sight. When this happens, I skip over the middle and write the ending. Once I’ve figured out where my characters end up physically and emotionally, it’s easier to go back and write the story of how they got there. As Lisa Cron says in her craft book Story Genius, “You, the author, needs to know what the future holds for your protagonist right now in order to create the road to get her there.” Keeping the ending in sight makes it easier to ignore all the random roadside attractions (i.e., shiny but irrelevant plot ideas) that can bog down the middle. In THE MANY MEANINGS OF MEILAN, Meilan comes up with a plan that will get her back to Boston -- that plan acts like a roadmap to keep the plot on track until the end.

Megan E. Freeman: Often when drafting, it’s clear to me what the beginning of the story is about and I have a strong inkling how the story is going to end, but how to get from A to Z is more of a mystery. In the case of my novel, ALONE, I was working with a clear, linear chronology. I knew the main character would age and face different challenges at different times of the year (seasons, weather, resources, etc.) and at different times in her development (birthdays, getting her period, boredom, existential angst). Having those clear benchmarks helped keep the story moving forward and avoid getting bogged down in the middle. On my current work-in-progress, though, I didn’t have the same kind of linear chronology and so avoiding the murky middle was tougher. I ended up going back to theories of acting from my days in the theater. I asked myself, “What is the overarching want/need/desire my character is seeking (his objective), what’s in his way (his obstacle), and what is he going to do to try to overcome the obstacle (his action). By assessing every scene in terms of objective, obstacle, and action, it quickly became clear which scenes were superfluous and likely to bog down the pacing, and which ones were moving the character closer or farther from his goal. I rewrote some of the superfluous scenes to infuse them with more momentum (objective/obstacle/action) and others I cut. The end result was a story in which every scene matters to the plot or character development and every scene moves the reader toward what I hope will be a satisfying ending.

Thanks for joining us! Craft Corner will be back in September with thoughts on writing strong antagonists. See you then!