Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Exercises to Reduce the Sagging Middle

You have a great idea for a story. You know how you’ll grab the attention of your readers and you have an idea how the story will end. Good for you! Now you have to write everything in between.

The “in between” is where a lot of writers run out of steam. I’ve talked with many would-be writers who gave up in the middle of the story because they became bored with it. What happened to that great ending? It, too, got lost in the “sagging middle.” Trust me. If you got bored writing it, your readers will get bored reading it.

Better to write a shorter story than one that drags on and on. No need to worry. With a little exercise, you can eliminate that sagging middle.

Photo Credit: Nancy Lininger
Here are five tips to get rid of that sagging middle:

1.       Flex your literary muscle. Write. The more you write, the better you will write. Read. The more you read, the more in tune you will become with techniques other writers use to keep the story moving. The middle is a great place to develop characters and subplots. It is a wonderful place to ramp up the tension you hope to resolve in your spectacular ending.

      Build on your core strength. What is central to your story? Don’t lose sight of your purpose. One way to do this is to write a single sentence that captures the essence of your story. If you start to wander off target, read that sentence. Remind yourself what this story is all about. Then ask yourself how you can get the story back on the right road.

Cut to the lean. Edit. Look long and hard at the story. Evaluate each section. Are you padding the story to get a word count? Is the story meandering or staying focused and on track? Is it moving? Edit. Cut. You don’t have to dispose of all those precious words you wrote. Put them in a file. Use them elsewhere. But don’t let them add fat to your already sagging middle here.

Avoid empty calories …uh…that is ….empty words. Make every word count. Read each paragraph. If you wrote ten sentences to say what you could say in three, you may need to join OverWriters Anonymous.

Okay, I made that up. There is no OverWriters Anonymous. If it existed, I would be president. I love words. I love descriptions of people and places. When I’m writing, I think about all the details. I ask questions like, “How could my character do that? She works.” Then I launch into explaining how my character was able to get the day off. Who cares? Say “Since she had the day off…”

Add a little weight and increase the tension. Keep your story interesting by ramping up the tension. Your characters disagree on an issue. Your protagonist receives bad news of impending doom. Your antagonist can rear his ugly head. The point is this: make sure the tension is going to make a satisfactory solution seem questionable and elusive yet all the more needed. You want your reader to feel what your characters feel and root for them.

I’m working on my own sagging the book, that is.  If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know this book is about a woman juggling the role of wife and mother while working as an assistant principal at an elementary school. When her aging mother begins to show signs of dementia, Karen struggles with what to do.

About 15,000 words in, I realized I was beginning to wander. I didn’t even know where I would go next. So I stopped writing for three days. I put the manuscript away. I read two novels. As I read them, I realized where I had gone awry.

I got bogged down with the details of Karen’s work. It was easy to do. I worked in an elementary school for twenty years. I had stories. But they don’t all need to wind up here.

I revisited my one sentence summary. I took it apart piece by piece. These are the details I need. Everything else is superfluous.

Karen is successful as a wife, mother, and assistant principal at Northbridge Elementary, so why is she indecisive and unsure about what steps she and her siblings should take to care for their aging mother?

I can explore the inner conflict Karen faces: selfishness vs. selflessness. I can explore the conflict she has with her older sister and younger brother. I can explore the progression of dementia and the steps available to caregivers. I need to look at the scenes in the middle. If they don’t feed those areas, they probably don’t need to be in the book.

After my three day hiatus, I read through my manuscript with fresh eyes. I began cutting the fat and adding to those places where the tension provided hints of events to come. I tightened and recast sentences to make the story more powerful. I don’t want to sound cliché and I don’t want to ramble. I want my words to count.

What do you do to avoid the sagging middle?

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