This blog was featured on 10/12/2017
Tip Sheet: Saggy Middles & Soggy Bottoms
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I love the Great British Bakeoff and as an amateur baker myself, I am in complete agreement with a fairly popular sentiment on the show:

"I don't want a soggy bottom."

Now, people may ask, “What does baking have to do with writing?” That's an excellent question and one I shall address at length today.

So, what is a “saggy middle” and what does it have to do with baking? Well, “saggy middle” is a term often used to describe a second act/book/movie in a trilogy that's...a bit soggy. Not quite done. You get the idea. Many second acts/books/movies in trilogies tend to be nothing more than setup for act/book/movie number three. There's a whole lot of exposition and character development (and a lot of romance subplots develop here) but not a lot of action or moving the plot forward. Most writers, including myself, get bogged down in the middle. It's less exciting than the beginning, where all the crazy stuff starts, or the ending, when all the crazy stuff reaches its climax. But the problem is, if you have a saggy middle, act 3 is going to be less impactful than if you had a stronger middle.

Going back to the baking analogy, think of it thusly: the beginning is when you're preparing and mixing the ingredients. You're choosing flavors, melting the chocolate, separating egg whites and yolks, and ensuring that the batter is all smooth and velvet when it goes into the pan. The ending is the finished product. It's the result of hard work, ready to taste and divine in its reward. The second act is a bit more humble, but just as important. It's the baking phase.

The baking phase is the catalyst for everything. It's when the transformative magic happens. Chemical reactions build anticipation by releasing amazing scents, changing shape before our eyes, whetting the appetite, and increasing the tension. Sounds amazing, right? If you've ever been in a room with a baking chocolate cake, you know what I'm talking about. The anticipation drives you INSANE and that's exactly what the second act should do.

So what can a writer do to avoid a saggy middle?

Well, luckily this is a tip sheet, so I've got you covered.

1. Make an Outline

For many, many years, I didn't outline anything. I had my stories all plotted out in my head and believed I didn't need an outline. But then, inevitably, I'd get bogged down in the middle, not knowing where to go or how to get my characters and plot to the climax that was just begging to be written. And it always ended the same, with my abandoning the project. So even if it's just the barest minimum, I highly recommend making an outline. Having an outline is like having a recipe. It tells you exactly where to go and how you're going to get there. But, sometimes linear outlines don't always work, which is why I use another trick.

2. Plot Backwards

When I start my outline, I always start with the big climaxes of each act, the ones that will lead into the next part of the story. Then, I sometimes go backwards and start thinking of smaller climaxes that will build up tension/character/stakes/etc and get the reader and the story amped up for the big one. By doing this, it gives the second act its own identity, its own thing to strive for, as well as contributing to the overarching plot. Plus, all those little climaxes really throw wrenches in for your characters, such as:

3. Have a Character be Wrong

The second act is usually devoted to character development, so having a character make a big decision (which path to take, whether or not to trust a certain person, storming a stronghold, pulling off a heist) and then have them proven completely wrong is a great way to not only throw in group dynamics drama, but your protagonist also has to deal with the ramifications of their choice. Readers will get to see how the lead handles the stress/embarrassment/anger/etc of being so wrong that it got the entire group in trouble as well as the fallout of his/her/their comrades' reactions to it as well.

4. Insert a Mini Mystery

Another way to develop characters while still providing tension and action is to have the antagonist lead the protagonist (and their group, if there is one) on a merry chase. The antagonist drops just enough clues to give the protagonist a direction...or lead them completely off course. This scenario can be beneficial in a number of ways. It can showcase the cleverness of the antagonist as well as test the problem solving abilities of the protagonist, for one. For another, it can reveal secrets about the antagonist the reader never knew that the protagonist can't figure out. There can be all sorts of twists, turns, fake outs, and false paths, with truths sprinkled in that will keep the protagonist, and the reader, guessing, and build anticipation for if/when the protagonist will solve the mystery in time for the final confrontation.

5. Raising the Stakes

There are a lot of ways to raise the stakes and make it more personal for the protagonist to achieve their goals. One of the most popular is killing off a character close to the protagonist. While I do agree this can be useful, I personally don't advocate killing a character until that character has had enough time to bond, not only with the lead, but with the reader. Killing a character has to be done right in order to be effective, it can't be done for the sake of drama and still make an impact (looking at you GRRM), and there are other ways to raise the stakes and make them more personal. Have the love interest/best friend be kidnapped, have a betrayal happen, someone goes missing, or have the antagonist completely change the layout of the “game” they're playing. Having bad or unforeseen things happen to the protagonist and the people around them makes the stakes more personal, raises the tension, the character dynamics will change, and you start act 3 with an emotional charge.

 

So there we are, 5 ways of avoiding a saggy middle in your novel/series. Saggy middles are a pain, but they can be tightened up again, with some planning, climaxes, twists, and cliffhangers. Your characters will grow under hardship, the action will continue, and hopefully the reader will continue to be engaged and entertained.

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