Thursday, March 24, 2011

No More Sagging Middles

Right now I’m in the middle of my fourth book and I’m getting nervous it’ll sag. And unless I think this through logically (and then write emotionally!) it will sag. That’s my experience with middles. I seldom have a problem dreaming up a beginning or even an ending. If only they’d come together I’d whip right through my manuscript. But the middle consists of about half the story, so I absolutely can’t neglect it. In Gone With the Wind the middle takes up 86% of the book. Margaret Mitchell obviously conquered the technique of writing fascinating middles. Right, Julie?

Here’s a true, but not a terribly helpful definition: The middle can be defined as everything after the introduction of the main characters/conflict and before the climax.

Another definition that’s a little better: The function of the middle is to develop the implicit promise made by the story’s beginning. You do this by dramatizing incidents that increase the conflict, reveal character, and set up all the different forces that will clash at the story’s climax.

The middle is a bridge. As your characters move across the bridge they probably will change—or at least some of them will. In a romance I think it’s safe to say both the hero and heroine will change, maybe drastically. Conflicts deepen and characters become more emotional especially as they get involved in difficult situations. The stakes will rise.

When you come to the middle you might want to answer these three questions. You probably already have at the start of your manuscript.

1. Whose story is this?
2. Who is the point-of-view character?
3. What is the throughline?

In a romance the story often belongs to both the heroine and the hero. His part may be smaller than hers. So usually the story is written from both POVs. But some stories are written in first person so we only get one POV.

The throughline answers the question: What happens to the protagonist?
In Love on Assignment the throughline is: At the turn-of-the-century an ambitious lady reporter goes undercover to find dirt on a professor and quickly falls in love with him.

In my new manuscript, An Imperfect Match, the throughline is: A young widow returns home to discover she can’t outrun her past. Obviously, the story is a lot more involved, but I think if I remember this it’ll be easier to stay on track.

Hopefully you’ll have answered these questions in the beginning. But it’s good to look at them again and reevaluate.

Then list chronologically all the events that take place in your story. I use my synopsis for my guide. Then I divide the events into beginning, middle and end.

Here’s the partial list for Cinderella:
1. A man has a wife and a daughter
2. The wife dies.
3. After a while the man remarries a miserable woman with two daughters of her own.
4. The stepmother and stepsisters treat Cinderella badly.
5. The father dies.
6. The stepmother and stepsisters treat Cinderella even worse.
7. The king is distressed because his only son isn’t married.
8. The king decides to hold a ball and invite all the eligible young ladies.
9. Etc.

You wouldn’t dramatize the first three events in my Cinderella list. You’d summarize them.
You could either dramatize or summarize event 5. It’s your choice. But you might give event 6 several scenes because it’s interesting and important.

After you’ve listed all the events you can think of, go back and cross out those that aren’t happening to any of your POV characters. You’ll have to discover another way to let the reader know about them.

Decide which events should be dramatized and in how many scenes and which can be summarized. Think in terms of scenes because most of your story will take place in scenes.

The scenes you spend the most time on should be those that relate directly to your throughline. If you remember this you should stay on track.

Using the event list, make a scene list. Now eliminate any scenes that don’t seem important and possibly combine a few.

Another thing I do now is look at my story threads. I make sure I don’t forget to include any of them. It’s so easy to drop a thread, especially if your story is complex.

Here are a few of my story threads:

Romantic threads for both hero and heroine
Spiritual threads for both hero and heroine
Family threads
Mystery thread
Theme thread

I’ll write a few sentences or a paragraph for every thread in the each section of the book—beginning, middle and end. The story has to advance and no thread can be dropped accidentally or just fade out. Make sure all your threads are incorporated in your scenes. If you see you have too many threads to handle, you might consider simplifying your plot.

Writing certainly isn’t as easy as it looks!

Much of my information came from the book Beginnings, Middles and Ends by Nancy Kress.

If you’d like a chance to win a copy of Love on Assignment, please leave your e-mail.


  1. At the conference I went to this past weekend (Carolina Christian Writers Workshop), I attended a class on sagging middles. The speaker referred to the middle as the part of the story between the protagonist's first change and the dark moment. A writer can set three tasks that chalenge the hero. Each one ups the tension and the characters should have no time to breathe.

    Yes, I'm up for Love on Assignment. [wmussell(at)hotmail(dot)com]

    - Walt (who's up at this hour as he and his wife have brought the kids downstairs to ride out the storm now passing through)

  2. Coffee's been taken care of.

    You got it right, Cara. Writing certainly isn’t as easy as it looks!

    Every time I think I've got something learned, I find two more that I need to conquer.

    Thanks for an excellent mini-workshop.


  3. Ok im going to get thrown out of her especially by Julie and I have only seen the movie not read the book but I think in gone with the wind the 86% of middle most could have been got rid of. Ok I said it I found the movie way to long and annoying and would have liked to have seen maybe half of it if that.
    But being a reader I do appreciate middles and a couple of books I have read they seemed to be trying to fill the middle to make it a bigger book but it felt like it was there just to make the book longer. after a stage nothing happened for several chapters nothing moved on and it just stagnated for awhile then it picked up was really good but those 50 or so pages could have been left out and the book would have been great. Thankfully not alot of books I get to read are like this.
    I finished Love on a Dime a week ago and would love to read Love on assignment
    ausjenny at gmail dot com

  4. Wow a lot to think about. I do often feel overwhelmed at times trying to make sure all those threads are included in my story. I like how you write a sentence for each for each part of your story.
    Thanks for the chance to win a copy of your book.
    cynthiakchow (at) earthlink (dot) net

  5. Ooh! I hope that storm went past! Anyway, I'd like to be up for the book- and loved this post! In the middle is where I get lost... wander... chatter... introduce new characters... Ha!

  6. Ausjenny, I agree! I could never make it through the book or the movie! And I love your new profile pic. :)

  7. Thanks Virginia it was taken in Hawaii after I made my own Lei. it was actually a Japanese business and they have a blog. They took the photo and I am on there blog but of course couldn't read what was said. it was fun and nice to make my own ribbon lei and it was really relaxing to do.

  8. Cara, I do that too--I think in scenes and I write a thorough scene index for most of my books. It really helps me, although I am a die-hard plotter--a die hard pantser would probably have a heart attack at seeing my scene index! LOL

  9. I used to be a diehard panster...until I started having to sell from synopses---and then write the novels on deadline from those synopses. I'll never be the kind of plotter Camy is, but I'm at least a hybrid now.

    The tool I've been using most is the Seven Story Beats from Billy Mernit's Writing the Romantic Comedy. It's a great general outline for plotting the romance thread of the story. Of course, one of the beats is "Rising Conflict"---which, basically, is "the middle," so there's still a lot of opportunity there for sagging.

    I've decided to throw caution to the wind and forget the carbs and bring lemonade-icebox pie today.

  10. Virginia and Ausjenny--you're lucky that you've been able to walk away from GWTW. I've never liked it, but it's my sister's favorite movie, so I was "treated" to it at least once a week when she and I shared and apartment in college. At one point, I'm pretty sure I could quote the whole movie. Blech! ;-)

    (Sorry, Julie!)

  11. I tell myself if I were reading the book, I'd want something that made me keep wanting to turn the pages to find out what happened next, something that'd make me not want to put the book down :)
    BJ Robinson

  12. Wow Cara, you've once again held up the Seeker end of the bargain. This is another printer-offer. (And a great "offer" too. Yes, please! May at maytheK9spy dot com)

    Good info, and what's more, ideas on how to solve. Helen, our wise coffee mistress said it. So much more to learn.

    AND!!! Congrats on book four!

    AusJenny - that is just funny and look how couragous you are, and what you started! May thinks you two would get along famously!

    Walt, we had the storm in TN too. Hope all's OK? Sounds like a super conference.

    Camy, I'm trying to mend my wicked ways (pantster) on book 2. :). We'll see how it goes! So far, not very quickly, which is why yesterday's post was good!

    Seekerville rocks it!

  13. Walt, I hope the storm wasn't too bad!

    According to Michael Hauge the middle (hopefully not the sagging middle!) comes around the 25% mark and continues to the 75% mark. It's a long way to slog through if you haven't thought out your turning points!

    The conferences must have been really good. I really like craft workshops.

    My internet has been off for the last few hours. I'm glad it's back on!

  14. Thank you for this post. I have a book I started writing but abandoned because I couldn't figure out the middle. I'm going to print out this post and use it to help plot out that storyline.

    Reading this over again, it occurs to me that in all my years of teaching I teach by outlines or at least bullet points. But I don't plot out my stories. I just write. I'm going to have to take some time to process why I do that. Perhaps I need to switch to a plotter instead of a pantser. (Somewhere, I just heard a voice beckoning me to "come to the dark side.")

  15. Helen, thanks for bringing the coffee. I'm bringing chocolate chip muffins. Chocolate is for any time of the day or night.

    Jenny, I have to laugh about GWTW being too long. I've never read anything as long, but I loved it! The beginning was really interesting, but Margaret Mitchell dropped a lot of the threads like the Tarleton family etc. I read that her publisher was so anxious to get the book into print he didn't ask for much editing. But the story was great anyway IMHO.

    I wouldn't suggest anyone write a book as long as GWTW these days!!!

  16. Kaye I feel for you. My mum went to it when it was first released at the cinema and being such a long movie it had an interval she left at interval thinking it was over and really didn't like the movie. Wasn't til someone came home and asked why she left that she realised she missed half the movie. Maybe the book was better although I dont think I could have coped with Scarlett she really annoyed me no end.

  17. Cara,
    Middles are tough for me. Like Cara I often think mine will sag. Thanks for the post.
    I'll have to stick up for GWTW here. I loved it. All of it. But I do agree it had a very long middle.

  18. What a wonderufl post, Cara! I really enjoyed reading this - and have to agree with what you've said about sagging middles.

    Congrats on writing book four - can't wait to hear more about it. :-)

    I'd love a chance to win your book, Love on Assignment. I've heard good things about it.

    ~ Katy

  19. Great post, Cara! Even when you have a strong synopsis hammered out in advance, it's tricky making sure that in reality the middle isn't muddled, that you're keeping it a page-turner, that each scene isn't just "filler" but integral to the story.

  20. Loves 2 Read Romance - LauraMarch 24, 2011 at 8:20 AM

    I loved Gone with the Wind! And middles are very important. Thanks for all your advise and I would love to be entered for Love on Assignment.


  21. Did anyone bring breakfast yet? I've got scrambled eggs, bacon and biscuits and gravy over by Helen's coffee!

    Yep. Another printer offer.

    And sorry Julie :(. Not a big fan of GWTW either...

    I'm a pantser. I may be sliding slightly towards plotser but I wouldn't count on it.

    I had something I was going to say about middles. But I'm tired and need to get ready to go and can't remember :(. I'll look again between classes and try to remember...

    I think it had something to do with the mentoring call I won from Camy and the RS that turned out to be not RS...

    carol at carolmoncado dot com

  22. Thanks Cara:) You are definitely helping me through my 'muddle' right now:) Thinking through my scene list and figuring out which scenes to summarize and which ones to dramatize!

    I would love to be entered for a chance to win your book them by the way!


    lornafaith at gmail dot com

  23. Cara, excellent tips for writing the middle of our stories! Wish we could just plop a corset on those middles. Instead we have to tighten characters' muscle with conflict and action. Like situps on the page. ;-)

    I'm sharing my cold cereal and blueberries this morning.


  24. Thanks Cara. I loved your suggestions. I borrowed the Nancy Kress book a few years ago. I think all good craft books deserve a few read-throughs because now I can absorb a few things more this time.

    Writing is so much work, it should burn a fair amount of calories.

  25. I'm excited to read Love on Assignment. I'm looking at it on my shelf right now! As soon as I finish the three books I'm reading now, I will grab it. :-)

    You know, I think of the beginning as the hardest part, by far. The middle is where I have to fit in all the action and angst and romance. That part usually goes well. Sometimes the ending is hard too, if I don't have it clear in my head how all the loose ends get tied up. Honestly, I haven't struggled with a sagging middle--except physically, and I don't want to talk about that! It's the beginning and ending that give me grief.

    But Cara, you have done a great job of explaining how to make it all work. I am so not an outliner, but you sorted out the why's and wherefore's very well. I do these things, I'm just not good at understanding HOW I do them or the reasoning behind them. I focus on getting from Point A to Point B and concentrate on all the things that have to happen to get there.

    That's not really a method, but that's how I think. :-)

  26. Cynthia and Virginia, for me the hardest part is not dropping any threads. If I don't remind myself every part of the story has to advance, I'd run with some threads and forget others.

    Camy, for me some kind of scene index is necessary. But I bet yours is better organized than mine!

  27. Kaye, thanks for bringing the lemonade-icebox pie. I'm sure it's calorie free. lol. And thanks for mentioning the book Writing the Romantic Comedy. I might be a romance writer, but I have more trouble with the romance than with the external plot.

  28. I'm working on my middle right now, and this post is MUCH needed for me. MUCH. Gotta sit down and do JUST this.

    And I REALLY want Love on Assignment. If I don't win, I may actually have to break down and BUY it (LOL) - but then it wouldn't be autographed!!


    thanks, Cara.

  29. Even with a popular book and movie like GWTW lots of people don't like it. So authors take heart--not everyone will love every single book we write! (Hopefully, many others will!!!)

    BJ, I love page turners, too. It's hard for me to finish a novel if it doesn't grab me from start to finish. It's especially difficult since I have 1000 more books beckoning me.

    Hi, KC and Christine! Glad you found the post helpful. I used to be more of a panster, but now I don't have time to meander down blind alleys. I hope I'm not missing good scenes!

  30. A very wise post, Cara, and yet I'm left with the desire to go do sit-ups. Which isn't really your point.

  31. CARA ... great post, sweetie, and YES, I'd say ol' Maggie got it down cold in GWTW!! :)

    You said: "Decide which events should be dramatized and in how many scenes and which can be summarized. Think in terms of scenes because most of your story will take place in scenes."

    Oh, AMEN TO THAT!! Although I am a die-hard pantster, I have been forced into becoming somewhat of a plotter Since I write an ongoing-family saga romance. It has become absolutely ESSENTIAL for me to keep a "Scene Plotting" sheet that gets me through at least half of the book until momentum takes over.

    Just the other day, I encountered the problem in a scene of what should be dramatized and what summarized. It's a lot of work writing a dinner scene with the whole family because there are so many personalities and quirks/dialogue tendencies to pull in and still keep the point of the scene. So I had some fun verbal antics going on in the kitchen before dinner and instead of carrying it all the way through dinner and parlor games to get to the end of the scene where the hero drives the heroine home (which was the main thrust of the scene), I dramatized pre-dinner in kitchen, then post-dinner in parlor with a bit of flashback to "summarize" the feel of dinner. I find I really do have to pick and choose what dramatization will give me the most bang for my buck (i.e. show hero in setting of family, endear family to reader, drop hints about hero and heroine in family conversation, etc. AND still accomplish the main thrust of that scene).

    Sagging middles are DEATH to a book, as far as I am concerned and of course, the longer the book, the more danger one is in of sagging in the middle. I think a good solution might be shorter books ... :)

    Okay, this message is to the following people:

    CARA, LINDI AND LAURA -- GWTW-ers UNITE!!! We are OBVIOUSLY women who have good taste in novels ... that, or we're gluttons for punishment since GWTW was over 1,000 pages!!

    Okay, THIS message is for JENNY, KAYE AND CAROL: Please keep in mind that GWTW won a Pulitzer Prize, so SOMEBODY besides us thought it was wonderful, right??? Nuff said.

    And I forgive you. :)


  32. I still haven't read GWTW! I've seen parts of the movie but could never understand why she wanted that wimpy Ashley when she had the better man all along...

    no comment on the topic though LOL - I don't write and if I did I'd be going off on so many tangents the middle would be a spiderweb instead of a bridge!

    I have some breakfast tacos - they had everything but chicken...beans, cheese, sausage, bacon, potatoes, ham..and of course eggs!


  33. Just what I needed for today.

  34. Wonderful and helpful post. Thanks, Cara! :-)


  35. Hi Cara,

    I definitely suffer from the sagging middle syndrome. In fact, I usually it a brick wall and give up for a month or two.

    Except for some reason this time I didn't, and I think it had a lot to do with doing a scene chart. I cheated a little, b/c sometimes I filled it in AFTER I'd written the scene. But still, the chart kept me on track and the next thing I knew, I was at the end.

    I'm excited that maybe I've solved the sagging middle problem (well, at least for this book. LOL).

    Don't worry about me for the draw. I already have your book in my very large TBR pile.

    Hope everyone survived the big snowstorm and that it's the last one of the season.


  36. Waiting Out the Storm, Walt!

    Hey, that would make a GREAT BOOK TITLE....

    Oh, wait! It already did, LOL!

    Cara, I bet most of us struggle with the middle, so I keep Mary's sagacity in mind as I go:

    Shoot someone.

    And oddly that works. Not because I necessarily shoot anyone, but it gives me the boost to say: OH MY STARS, ACTION, ACTION, ACTION WOMAN!

    And toss in a reaction or two while you're at it. And some snark humor. And maybe a dog. Or a kitten. Or a dog chasing the kitten up the neighbor's prize-winning climbing rose and knocking off all her blossoms in their frantic tug of war the day before the Garden Club is supposed to come and judge the "Most Abundant Climbing Floribunda" award.

    And all from remembering Mary's advice to shoot someone.


    Hey, fresh coffee. And we're making M&M cookies because the NON-ERSTWHILE SIL's parents are coming into town for 'Lijah's first birthday. I brought a ginormous plate to share.

    Love this, Cara. And when I read your books, I would never know you struggle. It all seems effortless and natural.

    But that might be my medication talking, honey.

  37. Great post about middles. I'd love to have a sagging middle. That would mean I had a middle. So far, just a beginning.

    I'm noticing a pattern for me. The thing that sucks me into a story idea is the backstory. One character, or more, has a past that I find completely fascinating. So I decide, "I've gotta write that story."

    Someday I'm gonna need this post to help me sprinkle all that amazing backstory through the middle of the novel.

    Thanks so much, Cara! I enjoyed reading Love on a Dime, and I'd love to win Love on Assignment.

    andeemarie95 at gmail dot com

  38. Great post, Cara!! And very timely for me right now as I'm at the middle of my WIP and trying to keep it from "sagging" *sigh*. I like a process broken down into steps (and ideas)--so thank you for these lists you've provided (using the example of Cinderella worked great for me--especially since I used to be a Kindergarten teacher, LOL). ~ I already have your wonderful book, and it's next on my TBR pile! Blessings from Georgia, Patti Jo :)

  39. Lack of plot points must be why my senior thesis paper had a good beginning, lots of middle pieces, and an end, but never got tied together. Thankfully it didn't have to be a finished work.


  40. Excellent post, Cara! I love the way you break this down.

    I usually hit chapter 5 and flip out because And even though I have a synopsis written, I have no idea how to get to where I'm heading. I like how you handle your middle and may give that a try. Thanks for sharing!

  41. Oh, I loved this article! Thanks for the help! I keep thinking of what I should do - I need to just do it - like the outline of events. After reading just a blog, I would love to read the book!

  42. I've been AWOL for several hours. I had errands I couldn't put off.

    Lindi, Glynna, Katy, Laura, Carol, Virginia and Lorna thanks for stopping by today!

  43. Helen, it's early afternoon in nw Florida and I would love another cup of coffee. Thanks in advance for putting the pot back on.

    Thinking about middles some more, I suspect one of my problems is by the time I come to the middle I start repeating myself. All the problems are on the paper and I'm ready for H&H to solve them. Maybe the beginning and the end of the character arc is easier to write about.

  44. Hi Cara--

    Great post! Wonderful suggestions. Raising my hand--I have a manuscript under my bed that expired due to saggy middle syndrome. Instead of plot points, I diverted my characters into a travelogue--and a fine one it was, too. But alas, it didn't push forward the plot.

    From reading your excellent novels, I would never have known saggy middles gave you fits.

  45. Hi Cara,
    When I first read the title, I thought we were talking about my waistline. :)
    Seriously, a fantastic article - very helpful!


  46. Ruthy, I love your idea of killing someone off in the middle--just like Mary. But I'm sure my editor wouldn't find it appropriate! I should try it anyway.

    Debra, I really learn a lot from craft books. I think the Writers Digest books are great.

    Janet, I'd like to tighten the middle too--mine and my story's.

    Melanie, you must wright well by instinct. I just get lost and then have to figure out why.

  47. Hi Cara, Wow, I love, love, love this post since I am struggling with a sagging middle at this very moment. Your threads concept will really help.

    Thanks again.

    I brought some chocolates for a late afternoon pick me up. I'd go for a glass of wine, but that would put me to sleep. LOL

    Thanks again. Great post.

  48. Ooops, didn't see Ruthy's plate of m & m cookies. I'll take some of those too. smile

  49. I have a sagging middle, too, but it's nothing an industrial strength girdle can't handle!

    Great post, Cara! Printing it out so that I can keep it by computer as I write. Would love to read your book. jan at janiceeileen dot com.

  50. Well, the storm did pass. However, a tornado passed by here about a month ago and we were concerned.

    The speaker at the craft workshop defined the middle as the part between the 40-50 pages in the opening and the 20 pages at the end. So, it takes up a lot.

    I'm not big on GWTW, but I do adore Melanie.

  51. Hi, Cara! Don't include me in the drawing. I already have it. :D It's in my ever growing tbr pile.

    Great post, btw! Very helpful. I never thought about the listing the events and then crossing out the ones that don't directly involve the hero and heroine. I kind of winged it with my middle. I had my beginning and ending and had ideas for the middle, but I kind of ended up being a bit of a pantster for my middle. Now, I'm in revisions and hoping big time to finish them by the end of April! It's a line by line revision, so its very time consuming. I think it will turn out good, though.


  52. Cara, don't include me in the drawing as I have both books and read them in 4 days!!! Loved them!! Can't wait for #3 in July!!

  53. that was great advice Cara! Middles are so hard. It's where you the most important things happen, which make that ending that much more meanlingful.
    I read your book "Love on a Dime" and loved it. Hoping to get to Love on Assignment soon!
    Keep writing for Jesus!


  54. Please enter me into the drawing. I would love to read the book.

    You make it seem so simple. I love to write the beginning of stories but struggle w/the middle scenes. Many times they fall flat.

    I'm going to try the list thing and see if it helps.

    bcountryqueen6 at msn dot com

  55. Great post, Cara. Middles can be tough if the writer isn't prepared.

    Love your list of events. Excellent way to lay out the middle on paper. Good resource to keep close as you write.

  56. Awww, thanks, Walt. ;-)

    I was named after Melanie in Gone With the Wind, BTW.

    And I love GWTW, Julie.

    (I'm not ashamed to suck up. Plus, it's the truth.)

  57. BLESS YOU, MEL!!! Telling someone you love GWTW is NEVER sucking up ... it's just revealing your good taste in books ... :)

    Somehow I figured you were named after Melanie Wilkes ... you're just as soft and Southern and refined as that lady ...


  58. Thanks for this post, Cara. I think this is where I have problems in my writing. Your technique should be very helpful.
    I'd like to win a copy of Love on Assignment. My email:

  59. wow, what a lesson I need.Sign me up for a book.Bevschwind at hotmail dot com. Sagging middles covers many areas. I love the great breakfast....and I certainly agree writing should burn calories.No storm damage here, but a bluebird keeps trying to get into our house.This post has been so helpful to me, I am going back to a manuscript that has been sleeping for too long.

  60. I may have to send Seekerville my bill for my printer toner. :) This is certainly another post to print, Cara. The title makes me giggle..none of us want "sagging middles" whether we are writers or not. :) I would love to read your book.

  61. love this book cover. sounds like an interesting book. I'd love to win thanks

    ABreading4fun [at] gmail [dot] com

  62. Would love to read Love on Assignment!! Thank you so much for the chance!! :)