You’ve Got a Saggy What?

Sagging middle- The lame part of your book between the beginning and the end.

Ok some of you might want a better definition but that one is pretty accurate. Have you ever read a book and thought, “Just get on with it already!” ? Well, you’re probably smack dab in the middle of the book, the part where not much is happening. Writers use this part to develop characters and explore plot points, work on their witty dialogue etc, etc.  But sometimes the middle of a book can be downright boring if it’s not executed correctly. Now if you’re thinking you’re going to get advice from me on how to fix the sagging middle of your book. It ain’t gonna happen.

Ever felt like this?

The only thing I can say about it is this… If your work bores you when you go back and read it, it might be time to rethink it. Throw a monkey wrench in there. Kill off a main character. Do something big. I don’t know, do whatever you need to to feel good about your work.

Believe it or not I hadn’t heard the term Sagging Middle until I joined my local writers group and I had been writing for a good four years at that point. Sagging middle, I thought. Eww, get some spanx. But when I listened I realized that a saggy middle was something a lot of writers face. For me it’s the point in my book where I hate everything and every character I’ve written. It’s the part where I want to give up and move on to something else. Any of you out there have lots of uncompleted novels? I bet it’s because you got caught up in the sag.

But you can’t give up! This is the part where a trusted critique partner comes in handy. You might be a little biased or a little hard on yourself when it comes to your work. Fresh eyes can be helpful. Or if you are somebody who doesn’t like their work checked in progress, then take a little break, suck it up the best way you know how and muddle through to end. Easier said then done, right? But writing is hard. If it wasn’t then everybody would do it.

The way I avoid a sagging middle is to edit as I go along. I tried it the other way but for me editing 80 to 100,000 words at once is too daunting. I can’t rewrite scenes or add scenes or create characters or subplots after I’ve already gotten to the end. It’s just not how I work. Because when I type the end I’m ready to move on to the next project. I also have to write scenes in order no matter how great the one that just popped in my head might be. I don’t know how some people can jump around. (Madness!)

I also wonder if our writing process is directly related to our personality traits. Are plotters generally control freaks? Are pantsters more fun at parties? I don’t know. If somebody wants to tackle that subject I would be interested in knowing.

So to sum this post up, Don’t let the sag get you down!

I would also like to know how you work. What’s your process? Ever get caught with a sagging middle? How did you fix it? Got any tips to share? Any and all comments are welcome.

10 thoughts on “You’ve Got a Saggy What?”

  1. Great post, Jamie. We have similar writing processes. I’m generally a pantser, write and revise as I go, and write in linear fashion. I used to suffer from the “sagging middle” syndrome, until I took Michael Hague’s “Story Structure” workshop. The simple answer was “Turning Points.” There are usually three or four major turning points for your character throughout a novel. The first big one happens at about 25% of the way through. This is when the character “answers the call” and their life takes a turn away from their life as they know it. The second turning point happens at about the halfway point of the story. In a romance, it’s usually the first time the two characters get together. In an action/adventure/suspense/thriller, this is the point where something blows up, someone gets killed, another body is found, etc. It’s the point where the character has committed to being someone else from who they were when they started out.

    If there is a sag here, maybe this is the time for a pantser to step back and make sure they know their character and examine what the major internal conflict is that they have to overcome. What is the fatal flaw that is holding them back? Make them face it for the first time. Do they not trust? Make them take a leap of faith. Do they doubt their abilities? Give them a hurdle. If nothing is happening, raise the stakes. Force your character to step out of their comfort zone. Conflict will drive your story forward. I think we run into a “sag” here because we don’t want to hurt our characters. We love them. But this is time for tough love. Pain is a great motivator and usually it’s the only thing that forces us to grow.

    The next turning point at about 75% of the story is when your character tries to go back to who they used to be and finds that they can’t. This is around the time they face the black moment. There’s no going back, and unless they face and overcome their fatal flaw, they won’t reach their final goal. This is the “all hope is lost” moment. It requires a sacrfice on the part of your character. They have to give up whatever they’ve been holding onto to grow beyond their worst fear, fatal flaw…the thing that hold them back. This is followed by the big push, climax, or final epic battle…and of course your happy ending. Which will only be satisfying if your character has reached thir goal, overcome their conflict, and has grown into a new person that we can love and respect. After all, we were rooting for them right through that sagging middle.

  2. Sharon, so well put!

    I find stepping away on a regular basis is helpful. Then a word will inspire me and urge action, an image emerges that makes me rush to the computer and revisit–and then I’m off! The flow begins, one scene following another, almost on its own.

    Being a plotter and a pantser works for me, following some deep-seated instinct, trusting it, guiding me as to which to be when.

    Characters who find the courage within to keep re-birthing themselves are exciting, as real people who do so. (Oops, did I just say our characters are not real? So sorry!)

    Thanks for the topic!

  3. First off – I agree with everything PJ said (very nicely done!). For some reason, my issue is always the beginning. That is where the Doubt Monster preys on me the fatest! As to your question – I’m a reformed pantser. I have to plot the story, which means including all the major decision/turning points. I’m guilty of writing scenes and tid-bits and threading into my work as I go along. Even though I plot, there are gaps and sometimes the answers to those gaps happen at the weirdest times (like while I’m in the middle of a different scene). So I write the scene, then figure out where it needs to go in the larger narrative (usually before I hit the end of the book). I know it seems like madness, but its more like a puzzle to me. It makes sense in my head (or at least at the time I’m doing it).

  4. Hi Jamie,
    Steven King always says, ask yourself “what if” such and such were to happen to my characters. Then, make it happen. Although I don’t write in his genre, I can’t argue with his success. So for me, as I write and as my characters travel down the road from the beginning to the end of my novel … somewhere around the middle, I give them some major car trouble.

  5. Jamie, the advice from Paula is perfect. I took Michael Hauge’s workshop. He clearly explains those turning points and black moment, just like Paula listed in her comments. I loved this post, it was fun how you used “sagging middle.” Michael Hauge is not as painful as “spanx.”

  6. “Ewww, get some spanx” is my new mantra! When things get boring as I’m writing, I try to have my character do something, well, out of character. For instance, I once had my law-abiding, play-it-by-the-book heroine peel out and take off, while a hot state trooper was running her license plate, then ditch her car and continue on foot. Or, you can introduce a new character/suspect. Or, as PJ said, blow something up. Or kill somebody. Writing can be a lot of fun 🙂

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