Tighten Up Your Story’s Sagging Middle by Tinthia Clemant
Let’s welcome back monthly columnist, Tinthia Clemant as she shares with us “Tighten Up Your Story’s Sagging Middle.” Enjoy!
I’m not referring to the end result of inviting Ben and Jerry over every night of the week.
I’m referring to fixing your manuscript’s middle sag.
No readers wants a story that sags in the middle.
Writing Middles is Hard!
Many writers will be quick to state that the hardest part of writing a story is to write the middle.
I get it. Act II is the longest section of our story and, at times, seems endless.
We all love writing hooks, that part of Act 1 where the party gets started, launching the main character on her, or his, journey. And Act III? It’s a blast to write. The heroine gets to confront her nemesis, be it a real person or some inner demons. But Act II? Yawn.
Even Action Movies Can’t Escape Sagging Middles
Think of the most recent action movie you’ve seen. I’ll use Marvel superhero movies in honor of Avengers: Endgame hitting theaters real soon. (Don’t worry; no spoilers, promise.)
The opening scene in a Marvel superhero movie is often an amazing action sequence where we get to witness our hero(s) doing what they do best — kicking some CGI butt.
In Act III we’re treated to another CGI battle only on a grander scale, and in most cases, experience a happy ending, or at least a great post-credit scene. But the middle of a Marvel movie is where the story often slows down to a tedious crawl, i.e. Hawkeye’s farm in The Age of Ultron.
Act II in a Marvel movie is often where the exposition happens, boring stuff where characters we’ve paid good money to watch fight stand around and talk. It’s a great time to hit the bathroom, and get a refill on your popcorn.
How can you avoid having a middle that sags?
If we revisit our plot line for the three-act structure we see that Act II moves in an upward motion toward the story’s second turning point. This movement, called the Middle Build, is where you, as the author, get to increase the tension in your story.
How do you know if your middle is sagging?
If you find yourself writing mostly about your characters sitting around and talking, there’s a good chance your middle is sagging.
Saggy middles are filled with, dun-dun-dunnnnnn, exposition.
Nothing says an authors lost her or his mojo for the story like talking heads.
I’m not implying that characters engaged in conversation is necessarily boring.
If we’re writing a story about Mary and Charlie Beaker, Charlie telling Mary he’s cheating on her with the neighbor is fine.
But what if Mary discovers Charlie climbing through the neighbor’s bedroom window?
That’s a more exciting way to introduce the information.
My favorite quote from the movie, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly says it all.
Fixing a Sagging Middle
The easiest way to fix a sagging middle is to keep it from sagging in the first place. It’s kind of like our own middles. Keeping a stomach toned is a helluva lot easier than losing a belly of fat.
The same thing goes for your story.
Keeping the conflicts and goals you’ve established for your characters front and center will make a big difference in the strength of your middle.
The first thing you can do to tighten your story’s middle is to search through Act II, heck, search through your entire MS (manuscript), and replace lazy, flabby words with strong alternatives.
Writing that Mary is mystified as she watches George has a lot more punch than calling her confused.
Next, show instead of tell.
Telling tends to weaken scenes that need tightening.
If I were to write that Mary, upon seeing Charlie’s feet disappearing over the neighbor’s windowsill, stood and stared with a look of disbelief on her face, that would be telling.
Instead, I could write that Mary’s breathing rate skyrocketed as she clenched her hands. Add that her fingernails break the skin of her palms and blood drips on the patio bricks as she swears to get revenge on her cheating husband’s ass. Maybe insert a little hysterical laughter. Get the picture?
Too much telling can sag a middle. Show instead!
Another way to tighten your sagging middle is to take the scenes you’ve written and place them on a plot line.
Cut, cut, cut any scene that doesn’t move the story forward. Even if you absolutely love the scene.
If it stalls the story, get rid of it, or rewrite it. You don’t have to kill all your darlings, just give them a radical makeover.
My last suggestion to tighten your saggy middle is to throw some land mines in front of your characters.
If Mary, after discovering Charlie sneaking into the neighbor’s house, goes home and returns to her life, you don’t have a very interesting story.
But if Mary drives to the local hardware store and buys some rat poison, now things get interesting.
What if a Chad, a local cop who’s had a crush on Mary since high school, is in the store and notices the box of rat poison? Oh baby, the plot thickens.
Raymond Chandler, the master of tight middles, said it best.
Guns, rat poison, emotional turmoil, they all work wonders at tightening a sagging middle.
You’re the author. Have some fun. Play around with different ideas that will challenge your characters. Before you know it, you’ll have a six-pack middle your readers will love.
I’d love to learn your techniques for tightening your sagging middles. Until next time, blessed be.
Editor’s note: If you’d like to know more about story structure including the three-act structure, check out our course, “How to Choose Your Story’s Structure: Learn the ins and outs of five powerful storytelling structures,” here: https://school.bethbarany.com/p/how-to-choose-your-story-structure.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Author of The Summer of Annah series, Tinthia Clemant lives in a secluded spot on the Concord River in Massachusetts. Her companions include a black Labrador/Coonhound named Harlee; Shadow, an elderly black cat who still rocks at catching mice that have wandered into the house; a few hundred wild Mallards; assorted turtles, songbirds, snakes; and hawks, two Great Blue herons, and an American bald eagle.
Besides writing, she enjoys baking, gardening, reading (of course), painting and photography, laughing, and movies (the more explosions the better). Tinthia is an ice cream aficionado and insists that Ben and Jerry are the most perfect men ever created. She inherited my father’s temper and her mother’s view on life: It’s meant to be lived, embraced, savored, inhaled, and not given back until every last drop of wonder is claimed. If you visit Tinthia, make sure you bring a bottle of bourbon and, of course, ice cream. Her favorite flavor is Chunky Monkey.