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Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Getting Unstuck: Tightening Your Story’s Saggy Middle

Oh, the horror of the second act! So many things go off kilter here. And when a story isn’t flowing it’s easy to get writer’s block, avoid editing, or give up on it all together. The solution can feel really confusing and just out of reach. I’ve done a lot of thinking on this section of a story and just recently changed my perspective on it. I now look at a saggy middle as no more than a simple structural issue that can be resolved with a couple of easy lists. I’ll explain…

Organization – A saggy middle is a plot problem. And it often means that you’re not tormenting your characters enough. In act one you put your main character (MC) on the edge of a cliff. In act two, you should be swinging at her with a sharp sword. It should get so bad that she falls and clings the crumbling dirt for dear life. That is until act three when she pulls herself up, picks up her own sword, and fights back. So the first question you want to ask yourself about act two is, are you swinging a sharp sword or a limp noodle? Is your character gripping the edge with white knuckles or is she sun-tanning with a mojito?

Know Thy Weapon – In order to be an effective sword-swinger, you need to first know what types of threats/conflict/abuse work on your MC. So here comes the first list; on it goes: 1) your MC, 2) what your MC wants more than anything in the world, 3) what your MC’s weaknesses are emotionally, physically, and situationally.

Sinister Plotting – Now comes the really evil bit where you use your MC’s weaknesses against her. Here comes the second list divided into three columns: emotional, physical, and situational. And in each column you list as many obstacles and conflicts that you can think of that accomplish two things: 1) keep your MC from getting what she desperately wants, 2) take advantage of her weaknesses (from your first list).

Brandishing Your Steel – Once you know all the ways you can make your MC suffer, taking full advantage of her vulnerabilities, you have to organize them. This is a personal choice and will vary by story. You can put them in escalating order or they may organize themselves organically based on your plot arc. But the point is to list them out and know exactly which ones you are gonna use (the most difficult ones). The more these lists make you cringe and feel bad for your MC, the better.

The point of doing this is to keep your stakes and suspense high. Ask yourself every step of the way if the conflicts are as bad as they can be or if you can make them worse. This makes the resolution of act three so much more gratifying and keeps readers up until 3AM desperate to know how your book ends. Of course, there are lots of other elements that need to connect in act two, but this plot structure will give you a backbone on which to accomplish them. And if you find yourself writing a scene that resolves your character’s tension… imagine me calling you a “limp noodle” in your head and then press the delete key.

Happy writing, everyone!


Mahala Church said...

As an editor and author, I agree with your post. The middle is like a root canal for most writers! I included a link to the post in my July column in The Book Breeze. Thanks for the information in such a logical and clear format.

Mahala Church
Barefoot Writer

Adriana Mather said...

Thank you, Mahala! I'm thrilled you found it useful.

Anonymous said...

Hi Adriana, great concise column. There's just one thing I'm a little unsure of: The Know You Weapon list has "Your MC" as item one, do you mean "Using your MC against themselves; or to list the types of threats that will have the greatest affect on your MC?


Adriana Mather said...

Great question, Matt! As item one I meant more simply to write down your MC's name (and even a brief character description if you want) so that you can start to list what your MC wants and how to keep her/him from it. Buuuut, you are spot on about what you said about types of threats. Use all of them. You should ideally be listing how to use your MC against herself, how to use others against her, and identifying what types of threats are going to have the greatest effect. Thanks for your comment!

Mirka Breen said...

Spot-on. The middle doldrums benefit from charting. That thin wire, strung across from the rooftops of the *oh-wow!* beginning to the *Ah-ha!* ending had kept me from falling off altogether and never making it to the end.

Steven E. Belanger said...

We worry so much about the top and the bottom of our manuscripts that we forget about our middles. Sounds like an extended metaphor for our bodies as well!