Shore Up Your Sagging Middle

Writing is a lot like building a bridge. Each scene serves as scaffolding or supports for your entire story to rest on without sagging.

Maybe you’ve made a great start. You have a dynamite hook (some of my favorites: “The last camel collapsed at noon.” Ken Follet, and “The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.” Frederick Forsyth). You’ve gotten off to a good strong start. Maybe you know how your book is going to end, and even have the final scene written.
Now, how do you get through the middle part without it sagging and possibly collapsing?

First of all, you don’t need to write chronologically. You can write scenes out of order. Pick out some highlights and write those scenes, then see if you can figure out what you might be able to fill in between A and G.

Now, send your inner “nice guy” out for ice cream and figure out just how mean you can be to your character. Conflict is the key to keeping a story moving, to shoring it up. You’ve introduced your character and the problem she has to solve. You know what the goal is at the end.

Let’s say Cathy Character wants to be the first teenage girl to climb Mount Huge. What are her obstacles? Her parents are against the idea. It’s too expensive, too dangerous, she’s not in shape, who else is going, etc. Cathy has to overcome each objection, solve each problem.

Maybe her neighbor is a banker, so she approaches him for a loan. If he smiles and says,” Sure, Cathy, anything for you,” the problem is solved too quickly. The story can get boring and the reader’s interest will sag quickly.

But what if he says no? Now Cathy has to figure out another way to raise money. What should she do – a bake sale, a part-time job, rob the local drive-in? (You can see the various paths this story could take.) There are all kinds of ideas and none of them should be easy.

Every time your character figures out a way over, around or through a problem, throw up another obstacle, within reason, of course. You don’t want her to fail at everything.

But when she solves the money part of the problem, there should be another one waiting. Who, besides her parents, are going to oppose her? Does she have a rival? Or is there a friend who is supposedly helping her, but is actually sabotaging Cathy’s efforts?

Building a story is like constructing a bridge. You need conflict as the pillars that shore up the middle.

For each scene you write, ask yourself:
• What is the purpose of this scene?
• Does it move the story forward? (What if I take it out? Does the story flow well without it?)
• Can the reader identify with the character’s problem and struggles?
• Have you created suspense? (Will the reader want to keep reading to find out how your character solves this one? What’s at stake for him/her?)
Have fun being mean to your character and building your bridge!

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A native Montanan, Heidi M. Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. Her first novel, Cowgirl Dreams, is based on her grandmother, and the sequel, Follow the Dream, has recently been released. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing, and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild and Pacific Northwest Writers Association. She teaches writing and edits, blogs, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series. Please visit her website and blog at http://www.heidimthomas.com

5 comments:

  1. Love your post, and especially like the suggestion about writing scenes out of order, which I am very much NOT inclined to do :-). I've done it on occasion, and it is indeed helpful.

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  2. Excellent suggestions Heidi. Sagging middle syndrome is very common. The simplicity of the bridge metaphor, and the notion of using conflict as pillars is memorable.

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  3. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I always get stuck in the "muddle" as James Scott Bell calls it. Am there right now, in fact. Thanks for giving me tips to climb out of it.

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  4. Heidi, great ideas to help bring conflict into your story. And, I agree with Maggie, great conflict analogy!

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