Writers in the Storm

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February 7, 2018

A Simple Tip to Help Get Rid of Saggy Middles


Need to tone and tighten the middle of your WIP?

Have a saggy, lackluster character that needs work?

Feel like junking your half-finished, used-to-sparkle story?


Today I have a simple tip for you to brighten your character and/or your plot.

Go another way.

I first heard these words in reference to life's struggles. You know, the ones that hammer you, and you just try to keep your head above water? Instead of encountering each challenge with my lance and sword, I was encouraged to try a different response. 

You've heard the definition of insanity: You keep doing the same thing, but expect a different outcome.

Well, if you keep fiddling with a character or a plot over and over, approaching it from the same perspective, you're going to get the same probably-not-acceptable fix.

Go another way.

More specifically, have your character go another way. Have them do something that surprises or intrigues the reader to want to know more.

You've spent time building the layers of your characters and your plot through motivation, back story, dialogue, inner thoughts and emotions. Your readers know your character, know what makes her tick, know how he'll react in given circumstances. What if your character responds to some stimulus in an unexpected manner?

I'm not saying to have her do something wild and crazy that will make readers throw your book across the room, but you can seed the necessary backstory or plot elements earlier, maybe in another character's POV.

For example, in my debut book P.R.I.S.M., by the end of the book Jericho has fallen in love with O'Neill and asks her to marry him. She says yes, in a rushed setting, thinking that for the first time she'll spend the night with him later. But during the day he discovers a secret that puts both of them at risk, making even his friendship dangerous for her. She doesn't understand why he treats her differently and will barely talk to her. The end of the book is a twist that, I hope, the reader never saw coming, supported by a character acting a different way than he had for the majority of the story. In this case, his change was explicitly motivated by his discovery. And we see, and understand, his agony in dealing with his feelings as he tries to lessen the impact of hurt to O'Neill while acting as if nothing else has changed.

Not all instances of a character doing something, well, out of character, work best with well-defined motivation. Sometimes, you want the reader to question why your character said or did something. Or why they didn't. In this case, you'll slowly lead out clues to motivation or backstory. In fact, a character explaining why he did something can be a great opportunity to reveal a bit of pertinent backstory. But not too much...keep your reader wanting more. You're the artist layering the paint on the canvas to create a more complex character, even if you allow other characters to wield the brush.

Going another way is a relatively simple way to layer emotion into your story as well. Nothing can cure a saggy middle like the impact of authentic emotion.

Perhaps one of your characters suspects the other of cheating. A normally easy dinner conversation becomes stilted, awkward, snippy. But the supposed cheater doesn't know about the "evidence" and can't figure out what's going on. Anger and frustration would be natural on both sides, but it would take on a different spin, especially if the subject of cheating is never broached by the "injured" partner who is usually honest-to-a-fault when communicating.

You probably are realizing that you already use these strategies in your writing. But look at go another way differently. You can use it as a tool to strengthen motivation, plot, and character arc. Just like exercises that strengthen your core stabilize your balance, your character's conscious—or subconscious—decision to go another way can strengthen your story in many ways.

Have you come up with a possibility that a character going a different way can take care of your WIP's sagging middle?

Have you already used this technique and have something to add?


Fae Rowen discovered the romance genre after years as a science fiction freak. Writing futuristics and medieval paranormals, she jokes  that she can live anywhere but the present. As a mathematician, she knows life’s a lot more fun when you get to define your world and its rules.

Punished, oh-no, that’s published as a co-author of a math textbook, she yearns to hear personal stories about finding love from those who read her books, rather than the horrors of calculus lessons gone wrong.  She is grateful for good friends who remind her to do the practical things in life like grocery shop, show up at the airport for a flight and pay bills.

A “hard” scientist who avoided writing classes like the plague, she now shares her brain with characters who demand that their stories be told.  Amazing, gifted critique partners keep her on the straight and narrow. Feedback from readers keeps her fingers on the keyboard.

P.R.I.S.M., a young adult science fiction romance story of survival, betrayal, resolve, deceit, lies, and love.

When she’s not hanging out at Writers in the Storm, you can visit Fae at http://faerowen.com  or www.facebook.com/fae.rowen


29 comments on “A Simple Tip to Help Get Rid of Saggy Middles”

  1. As a non-plotter (I prefer to think of myself as a Planster), I'm always changing direction. In fact, I'm at the 62K word mark in my WIP and a whole new character showed up to throw a monkey wrench into my heroine's life, which will impact the hero as well. No surprise for the author, no surprise for the reader.

    1. I've been a non-plotter, Terry, but I turned the corner last year and I've moved into "Planster"--love that term! Isn't it amazing what our unconscious brains deliver through our fingertips?

  2. Printing this one out! I tape these motivational posts up as I work through a WIP. I admit, I need all the help I can get when it comes to the middle (or The Pit of Despair) as Laura so eloquently tagged it. This one is going up as we speak.

    1. I'm honored, cwolffe. I thought I was writing a craft blog. "Motivational post" never hit my radar.

  3. I've been mucking about in the sagging middle of WIP for weeks now and just last ight I realized it's because I took a wrong turn a few thousand words back. So, it definitely is time to 'go another way' only I need to go back first and figure out where the story stopped being about the story and more about the depressing gray winter in my own life. Reading this post first thing this morning after making the decision last night that I'd chuck the last few weeks work and 'go another way' seems like divine reassurance. Thanks for that!

    1. I love when I get confirmation, Cara Sue. Save the scenes you cut. You never know when they'll work for something else. No effort is wasted.

  4. Love this, Fae. I actually did this a few months ago on a novel I was struggling with and it opened the gates for me. It was after seeing the movie version of "The Girl on the Train" that I realized you could play more with perspective through your main character's eyes. I brainstormed how to do that with my main character and it opened up a lot of new opportunities for tension. But I like the simplicity of "go another way." For life, as well! Thanks for the great tip. :O)

    1. Thanks, Colleen. Since it works in real life, it works for our characters! Thanks for sharing with us about playing "more with perspective through your main character's eyes."

  5. Glad I could help you out, Julie. Even small tweaks can make a huge difference..think rocket trajectory.

  6. Thanks Fae, I will be ruminating on the idea of having a character do something unexpected. New directions are bouncing all over in my head. Much appreciated!

    Also, I'm game for sending a first page.

    1. Anything that happens in real life is "legal" for your story, Debbie. I used to be "plot driven" but I'm coming around to the idea that stories are driven by character actions and feelings. Harder for me, personally, to write, but I think it's a much more powerful approach.

  7. Thanks, Fae! I needed to read this today, especially the part about the impact one character's abrupt change of behavior has on other characters. I'm always so into the head of my POV character that sometimes I forget to include the impact of changes on other characters. Great, great post.

    1. Thanks, Jacque! Even though our secondary characters don't get POV time, they impact our main characters through action and feelings. I used to "garage" them, then let those friends, relatives, and co-workers out when I needed them. Not good for the story.

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