I find beginnings and endings fun to write. Usually, I know how I want to begin and how I’d like my manuscript to end. Middles however can be bothersome. A real pain. And I don’t think I’m alone with that problem.
Most of the time, slow middles are easy to spot-at least in the work of others. Have you ever read the flap copy of a library book, scanned the first chapter, and knew you had a winner in your hands? You rushed home planning to read it stretch out on the sofa with a glass of iced tea. This book was so hot, you would spend the night on the sofa until you read the last page.
Then, somewhere in the middle, the momentum slowed. The tension stretched into limp elastic. If it wasn’t for your caffeinated tea, you would go to bed. What happened? Are there times when your writing suffers from this dilemma? How do you know?
Author Barbara Lowell turns to her critique group for answers. “You have
completed your first draft and done some revision. But you hear from your critique partners or beta readers that the middle of your manuscript is sagging. You know that you need to keep your story moving forward. And now it’s stuck in the middle. What can you do?
Try cutting. Cut anything that stops your story – unnecessary details, description, backstory, narrative, internal dialogue that will make the reader want to skip ahead. Every word in your manuscript needs to serve the story. It’s difficult to cut what you love, but if it has to be done to make your story work, then do it. To test this, put brackets around words, sentences, paragraphs, sections you think need cutting, and reread the manuscript out loud without them. A tighter story often solves the problem of a sagging middle.”
If not, what can you do to fix it? I’m a firm believer in the power of mentor texts. I love picture book biographies and I admire those who write them. As I read, I try to identify their “keep them reading” technique. Sometimes, it’s a question the author asks throughout the book. Keep reading to learn the answer.
Chris Barton uses this technique in WHAT DO YOU DO WITH A VOICE LIKE THAT? THE STORY OF EXTRADORINARY CONGRESSWOMAN BARBARA JORDAN. His middle never sagged.
Another book that used a similar technique is
by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. She uses the refrain, Someday Is Now when Clara Luper’s
group of students start to plan sit-ins. The author switches to Someday Was Now
when they actually sit-in. What happened during the sit-ins? Where the students hurt?
Readers will want to know the answers.
I asked author, Kim Ventrella how she handles middles in her novels.
“Oh the horror of the saggy middle. It’s almost as bad as the dreaded ’soggy bottom’ in British baking. So how do you avoid it? Of course, every story is different, but in general, it's around this time in the story when your character moves from simply reacting to external events to driving the action. If you get to the middle and your character is still being ping-ponged around by external forces, see how you can change that. Challenge your main character to make her own plans and take control of the action.”
Alice Faye Duncan uses another technique to keep readers engaged. “Before I begin a writing project, I often identify some symbol as my reoccurring motif. When the middle slumps, I brood over the many facets of my symbol and in due season, I find overlooked elements to support the middle. While writing A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS, my reoccurring image was a flower. As the middle slogged along, it came to me that a bloom is a bud before maturation. This metaphor was just what I needed to precisely express the poet's development between childhood and her Pulitzer Prize writing career.”
As I read Alice’s comments, I immediately connected with them. I had a symbol at the beginning of a story, then I let it disappear and I was stuck. Now, I can see a way to pump up my middle. I challenge you to think about the above ideas. Try them with your writing projects.
Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks