Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #9: The Saggy Middle

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So you have your novel’s opening, which is interesting, exciting, and hooks in your readers. Then you have your climax, which is shocking and heartbreaking, and followed by an ending that ties up all the loose ends (don’t worry, we’ll learn more about that later). But what about everything in the middle?

On a developmental level, the biggest problem amateur writers have is a “saggy middle.” This is a middle that just doesn’t quite have enough going on. It brings down the novel like a cheap hotel mattress. It doesn’t matter if the sheets are clean and the bedspread is pretty, nobody wants to sleep on a mattress shaped like a banana.

So how do you know if you’ve got a saggy middle?

Writing the Middle was a Struggle

One of the simplest signs that your middle is sagging is that you struggled to write it. If you stopped and started a dozen times, and especially if you forced yourself to write without inspiration, there’s a good chance you wrote the middle before you really had the book figured out yet.

That’s okay! Now is your chance to re-imagine the middle so that it’s stronger, tighter, and leads steadily towards the climax.

Eating, Drinking, Smoking, and Other Time Wasters

Of course it’s possible to write scenes with eating, drinking, and smoking that are riveting, exciting, awesome scenes. I’m not attempting to deny that possibility. But this is also one of the biggest signs that a middle is sagging.

The thing is, when we’ve got characters we don’t know what to do with, it’s pretty dang easy to just set them at a dinner table and let them info dump — I mean, talk — to each other. When you get to the editing stage, as the author, you might find delight in reading the humorous or dramatic conversations of your beloved characters.

But let’s get real for a second. If you’ve written more than one or two scenes in the middle of your novel in which your characters are eating, drinking, smoking, playing a board game, or doing something otherwise not qualifying as a plot point, there’s a mega-huge chance you’ve got a saggy middle.

The number one sign that time wasting is an issue: when you were writing the novel, did you struggle to come up with scenes to include in order to break up the scenes of eating, drinking, smoking, or sitting around talking?

Reoccurring Conflicts

Sometimes authors respond to an uninspired middle by falling back on their conflict of choice. This results in a novel that reuses the same conflict a number of times. If there’s a fire in chapter four, eight, fifteen, and twenty-four, you might want to ask yourself whether this reoccurring conflict is building tension or zapping it.

The key to using the same conflict multiple times is that each time you must up the ante. If the first fire is a tipped over candle, the next one needs to be an out of control bonfire.

Reoccurring conflicts also work much better when there is a reason they keep reoccurring. If your character just happens to get hit by a stray bullet on three occasions, readers are going to find the novel a bit contrived.

Interpersonal Drama

Some novels are entirely about interpersonal drama because of their genre, and that is totally okay. But for all those other novels (science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.), scenes of interpersonal drama could probably do with some pruning. “But it’s character development!” you shout, clutching the pages to your chest.

But, in fact, that can be exactly why it’s a problem. Character development outside the context of a scene that moves the plot forward can contribute heavily to a saggy middle. This is common in writers who really love their characters and have more ideas about how the characters interact than they do about the plot.

Good interpersonal drama will create some sort of barrier or obstacle in the path of the character’s goal. Interpersonal drama that doesn’t do this and is included just for the sake of propping up a saggy middle, is likely to make the sagging worse.

Often this interpersonal drama is super easily solved by the characters and never really gets in the way of anything. Or it doesn’t make much sense in the first place and feels strained or forced.

My last point on this is that if you’re writing a novel that was set up to be a about something speculative (science fiction, horror, fantasy, etc.) and the middle is dominated by interpersonal drama, there’s a good chance you need to go back to the plotting drawing board.

Scenes Without Conflict

I know I’ve talked about this before, but I think it’s important to note it here as well. Scenes without conflict will bring your middle down like dropping a sack of potatoes onto a hammock.

Conflict is what keeps the reader reading. If it also moves the plot forward, then there is no way for your middle to sag. Keep in mind that the quality of a conflict can be tested by determining whether or not it is so necessary to tell the story that there would be no way to remove the conflict and still end up with the plot line intact.

Conflicts should cause something to change: plans, emotions, allies. And this change should affect the novel’s outcome in a way that is significant enough for the reader to identify.

Most writers will include 2-10 scenes in the middle of the novel that do not have sufficient conflict. The faster these scenes are cut, the faster the writer will begin to see where the novel is falling short and needs improvement. This is where being in love with your scenes can be a huge detriment to your writing.

Homework: Assess the Strength of Your Middle

This is a very effective exercise at weeding out the scenes in the middle of your novel that are causing the novel to sag, stagnate, or lose momentum.

Get your word processor’s highlighter ready by changing the color to black. You will use this highlighter to black out scenes without losing them. This gives yourself mental permission to play around with making cuts to your novel without those cuts feeling permanent or scary.

Now let’s get started! Work your way through each scene of your novel by asking yourself the following:

  • Is there a conflict in this scene? If not, black it out.
  • Is the conflict in this scene self-contained (meaning that it could be removed without affecting the plot)? If so, black it out. Note that self-contained conflicts might be okay in some situations, such as when they put pressure on a character or provide emotional growth. That said, experimenting with removing it should let you see more clearly whether it’s really needed.
  • Is this scene mostly eating, drinking, smoking, or conversation? Does the conversation push the plot forward (meaning that the information in the conversation prompts a development in the plot: a new goal, relationship, or necessary change in emotion. Info dumps don’t count!)? If not, black it out.
  • Would cutting this scene allow you to move more quickly toward the next plot point without a loss in clarity? If so, black it out. If not, is there a relatively small amount of information that could be moved to another scene in order to allow you to remove this one? If so, black out everything except that core piece of the scene.

Once you’ve blacked out all the unnecessary scenes in your middle, you will be left with the “core” of your story. You might want to put the document away for a day or two if you’re tired and can’t look at things objectively. When you’re ready, read through your new middle and see what you think. Is it stronger, tighter, more exciting, and easier to read?

Letting Go of Scenes You Love

Cutting out scenes you love or worked hard on can be tough. Because of how depressing and frustrating editing can be, especially if you have multiple scenes or a huge chunk of your middle that needs removing, it’s easy to become resistant to making changes. It’s also easy to be in denial.

The only thing I can say to help in this situation is to think about your goals. If you want to get published, making these cuts can be liberating. They can pull you a giant step closer to figuring out what’s wrong with your novel so that you can emphasize what’s right about it.

There is a lot of work in editing. But it will save you a lot more time in the long run than writing novel after novel that is shopped around with a saggy middle and no success.

Always remember that you are trying to tell the best story you can tell. Sometimes that means ripping out half of it and starting again. You will get through it. Your novel will get through it. All you have to do is not give up.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

6 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #9: The Saggy Middle

  1. Jennifer Austin - Author says:

    Great post. My novel suffers from a saggy middle, though with recent edits it is much better. One way I use to identify a problem portion of my novel is that if I get bored reading it, I know there’s really a problem. The issue I face is that the middle is the character’s personal growth period. If I skip to quickly over this, the reader will be confused how she went from one mental state to another without showing how that happened. At the same time it needs to be interesting enough to keep the reader reading. Thanks for the great post. I will definitely be referring back when I work on my middle again.

  2. Kate Sparkes says:

    Fantastic advice! I just did this before I started this round of revisions on my WIP. I put every scene on an index card in Scrivener so I could move them around or temporarily remove them, then went through and identified the conflict (and character goals/obstacles) in every scene. It quickly became clear that when scenes weren’t working, it was because of a lack of conflict (and therefore tension).

  3. Rebecca says:

    I almost didn’t believe it could be that blatant… that you could predict an eating or drinking scene would be likely to sag. And yet when I looked, YEP, you’re spot on. Thanks for this brilliant spotlight you’re shining on my work. It’s really benefitting.

  4. gillianstkevern says:

    I really like the idea of the black highlighting to cut in a safe way!

    Alternatively, I created a separate document when I began editing my current WIP. I titled it scenescutfrom(storyname). Basically, whenever I have to cut something I paste it in that doc rather than outright delete it. I already have a dozen backups of my first rough draft, but pasting them somewhere specific that I can find them again makes it easier to say goodbye to those flippant character conversations and descriptive nonsense that I was so proud of. The weird thing is? Once they’re gone, I don’t miss them nearly as much as I thought I would.

    • Brooke Kennedy says:

      I do this! I have a document that I put in scenes I need to move or aren’t relevent, that way I can put in information later if it’s needed or delete it in the end if it’s not!

  5. piperemcdermot says:

    This is the challenge I’m working on right now – I’m so glad I found this post. I always knew my middle was saggy (the book middle, but my middle is getting a bit soft, too!), but you have just given me the practical tools to tackle the problem. I’ve been reading and rereading scenes and chapters for days without being able see clearly where or what to cut. Now I know. Thank you for this boot-camp, it’s invaluable.

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