Surprisingly I’m not writing about the dreaded saggy middle that creeps up on writers from eating too many slices of hot-buttered toast while waiting for the muse.
No, the saggy middle I’m referring to is the one that becomes apparent when you’re halfway through your novel.
Suddenly the fascinating plot seems contrived, your amazing characters unutterably boring and your sparkling dialogue leaden. Since I’m halfway into my latest novel and saggy middle has appeared again, I decided to think about the reasons for his. And yes, I do realise that this is another displacement exercise preventing me from increasing my word count!
When you first start to write a new novel it’s like falling in love. You’re breathless with the excitement of it all, your nerves are tingling and you’re full of hope and expectation. Unfortunately, after several months the gloss may begin to wear off.
Life isn’t all red roses and romantic summer holidays. Instead you may have to deal with your partner’s boring friends every Saturday night and it turns out he’s a control freak around the house while you’re more relaxed.
At this point you have to renegotiate the terms of engagement. I’ll leave you to do that with your partner and tell you how I cope with a flagging novel. Over time I’ve learned that problems usually arise because I know subconsciously that something is wrong and very often it’s the structure of the novel. But all is not lost.
Although I’m a planner, preferring to write a detailed outline before I begin, I rarely follow it completely. And I’m guilty of treating the outline like buttering a war-time sandwich – ‘Take care of the edges and the middle can take care of itself.’ You can’t do this with a novel.
However exciting your opening and whatever wonderful ending you’ve planned, there has to be sufficient structure to sustain the reader’s interest all the way through.
Nearly always it pays to take a breather at this point and stop beating your head against the laptop.
Take a walk. Go to the gym. Visit friends.
When your head is clear and you’ve stopped panicking, write down the salient points of your plot and then try and fathom out what is missing.
Does every scene move the story forwards? Is the plot so fast paced that there’s no time for the reader to get to know the characters? Perhaps you need to allow some time to discover your hero’s inmost thoughts and dreams? What is it he really, really wants and what’s stopping him from getting it? Is this enough?
Sometimes I skim through the manuscript at this point and find loose ends I can turn into an intriguing secondary story. A subplot woven through the main story is a useful device to allow you to manipulate the pace and tension. Or perhaps it’s time for something dramatic to happen? Maybe you need to knock the reader sideways by killing off one of your characters or adding an unexpected twist to the plot? Whatever it is, it must move the plot towards the final climax.
- Don’t panic, saggy middle is normal!
- Do something different for a while
- Check the structure of the novel
- Consider a subplot or a dramatic event