Welcome to this week’s Master Your Craft post! Each Wednesday we’ll discuss prewriting and drafting a new book from the BIG IDEA to QUERYING. Last week, we covered Facing the Blank Page. This week, I’ll discuss the “saggy middle”.
The “saggy middle” happens to the unsuspecting at any time. Some are struck down during plotting or drafting, others during revising.
But if your story is suffering from a lack of baking powder, there’s hope!
The middle doesn’t have to stay a muddle. Managing the middle is very much like blackberry picking. There are two basic rules.
A. Make decisions. The middle of any story can look like vast, uncharted territory, but there’s really only so much room. If you can’t tell how much, try fitting your scenes into a recipe–a story structure–that appeals to you. (See Resources below).
Choose dark, sweet-smelling blackberries that give to the touch. You want scenes that excite you and:
- develop the story you want to write,
- tie into your theme, and
- show your main character’s growth/failure.
That way your plot is always flavored with juicy goodness!
B. Keep on picking. Don’t get so caught up finding the perfect berry patch/story shape, that you stop putting scenes in your story. As long as you keep on, you’ll eventually get enough of the good stuff. When it’s early in the writing process, ripe scenes are mixed in with undeveloped, green “berries”. Leave them until later. When it’s late, watch out for old berries (read: dried-up story “darlings”) and wasps (apparently unsolvable barriers that yield only to patience and calm).
Don’t let the deciding make you stop picking. You don’t have to visit every blackberry bush in your neighborhood to get the overview. If it looks like a blackberry, (see short list above), put it in.
Use these wisely, writer friends! If you find one that works, run away and WRITE. Reading about berry picking does not a berry cobbler make.
Darcy Pattison’s list of 23 ways to fix the saggy middle: draws from the Hero’s Journey, the Snowflake Method, A list of handy Act II “meta-metaphors” via Syd Field for the outline averse among you, and a quick refresher of Peter Dunne’s Emotional Structure, a.k.a. what each Act in the story is for.
Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants: helped me see the connection between the story, i.e. the character’s necessary growth to overcome a weakness or release themselves from a lie, and the plot, i.e. the series of events that happen in the book for the hero to achieve or fail at the physical/external goal. She shows how to draw from the “Story Core” to populate your plot.
James Scott Bell’s Write from the Middle: the book on what to do when you get to your story’s exact middle and how it helps you shape the rest of your story. Most of my highlighting is from Chapter 5 “The Magical Midpoint Moment”.
Writing Excuses 15-minute podcast. Episodes related to the saggy middle for outliners, discovery writers, and some-of-eachers:
- Q & A on Outlining and Discovery Writing talks about outlining scenes, index cards, when to stop outlining, and whether the writing process changes for every book
- Creating Great Outlines covers a variety of outline techniques from a list of the “details you’re afraid you’re going to forget” to extensive outlines as long as a middle grade book, and outlining backwards.
- Retrofitting Structure into a First Draft is about revising once you have a draft, but it’s also a handy list of things to do with the middle of your story to make it more fulfilling. Try/Fail cycles, fulfilling story promises, introducing new characters too late in the story.
Come back next Wednesday when we’ll discuss Tricky Plot Bunnies.
LAUREL DECHER writes stories for middle graders about things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany.