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Techniques for Punching Up a Sagging Middle

December 8, 2005 by in category Archives tagged as

By Jackie Hyman w/a Jacqueline Diamond

I’ve been thinking about sagging middles, probably because of eating too much holiday food. Well, never mind my pathetic waistline. We’re talking about books.

I HATE sagging middles. When I write. And when I read.

What’s a sagging middle? Picture this: You create a dynamite situation, building to a killer climax. In your mind and your synopsis, it’s a can’t-miss storyline.

Now comes the hard part: writing. You blast through fifty, seventy-five, maybe even a hundred-some-odd pages. Suddenly, you stop.

Look at all the rest of the pages you gotta fill before the climax. Scary.

It saddens me when authors let the tension drop at this point, regardless of whether they’re writing suspense or strictly relationship novels. The characters mill around, have way too much sex (unless you’re writing erotica), talk things over repetitively, and worry.

Potentially interesting incidents may occur, but they’re episodic, springing out of nowhere and leading nowhere. Where’s the momentum? By the time that exciting and/or heart-tugging climax comes around, the tedium has claimed half your readers.

The good part is that, in the course of writing 80-plus novels and novellas, I’ve learned steps you can take to strengthen that sagging middle and make it fun.
Here’s what I do:
#1. Reread what I’ve written. Pick up the emotional thread.
#2. Reread my notes and bio sketches. Jot down lists of backstory and traits to include, and points to make.
#3. Look at the proposed climax and figure out what needs to happen to get there.
#4. Examine the proposed character arcs, and make sure they’re strong enough..
#5. Review the main relationship and conflict.

I develop a subplot or subplots that interweave all of these issues with the main plot. Ideally, the subplot (s) create an interaction between the external action and the characters’ internal development.

In Nine-Month Surprise (February), the second book in my Downhome Doctors miniseries for Harlequin American, the main storyline concerns the heroine getting pregnant by a man she met on an out-of-town trip, a guy who abandoned her while she slept. Then he turns up as her town’s new obstetrician, divorced with 6-year-old twin daughters who enter her first-grade class.

So they’re thrown together. She’s teaching his kids – and she’s pregnant by him! Naturally, I created reasons for his emotional withdrawal and her emotional neediness. When they start to resolve their issues, there’s additional conflict because she’s determined to leave Downhome and take her dream job in Seattle..

BUT I don’t write pages and pages of sex – I need other interesting things to happen! And I preferred for them to involve his position as the town’s obstetrician.

In reviewing my notes, I spotted some interesting secondary characters who were important in their lives. That’s when I got a subplot idea.

The heroine’s fortysomething aunt, a widow with a grown son, gets pregnant too, by a guy who thinks he’s in love with someone else. This infuriates her son, a police lieutenant. Before he can start shooting, the obstetrician gets dragged in as mediator, with the heroine’s help.

One more trick: I make sure that each scene sets up the next scene, so the story never stops dead. Little plot reversals, surprises, bits of suspense keep building to the turning points, which is when we get major reversals and kick the plot into a higher gear.

What I did with Nine-Month Surprise is NOT the kind of stuff that keeps my mystery/intrigue novels pumping. No dead bodies, no threats, no bumps in the night. But in a category romance, subplots should spark enough interest to keep the reader absorbed.

So if your book’s middle is sagging, look for storylines that will deepen and extend the main conflict and expand on the characters. Also, don’t forget to build expectations and then twist the story so the reader gets a pleasant surprise.

The best part is, the writing goes faster when there’s forward momentum. Because I can’t wait to find out what happens, too!

From: Jackie Hyman w/a Jacqueline Diamond
author of the Downhome Doctors miniseries from Harlequin American Romance
December ’05: The Police Chief’s Lady, ISBN 0-373-75098-6
February ’06: Nine-Month Surprise, ISBN 0-373-75105-2
April ’06: A Family at Last, ISBN 0-373-75113-3
June ’06: Dad by Default, ISBN 0-373-75122-2
August ’06 (tentative): TBA
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