The Sagging Mid-Section: Is Your Novel a Swamp In the Middle?

Does the middle of your novel look like this? (Photo credit: chuckyeager)

One problem that amateur novelists face is what I call the sagging mid-section.  They might have three to five chapters at the beginning that do everything that yesterday’s post mention, and the ending of their novel is fantastic and wonderful, full of interesting plot twists, but the middle of the novel bogs down in a quagmire of long explanations or is completely devoid of action or conflict.

Here are a few ways I combat this:

1.  The Delete Button – Sometimes there are chapters in my novel that do not work at all.  For example, I had a chapter in WIP last night that had to face the delete button.  My novel is shown through the eyes of several narrators, with each narrator claiming their individual chapter to tell their side of the story.  This takes some work on my part because I have to maintain a good flow of plot without bogging down in the fallacy of allowing too many characters repeating events that have already been shown.  Each character has their own part of the plot to relate as we move through the novel.  One of my characters, an angel named Howard, often relates the spiritual nature of the world to the reader because the other characters in the novel are mortal.  Howard’s chapter was not necessary because I had shown the spiritual nature of the scene he would have described in the previous chapter where the spiritual realm bled over into the physical through the eyes of another character.  It would have been redundant.  I know novelists feel attached to certain scenes, and they may have written a scene of which they are extremely proud, but if that scene bogs down the flow of the novel, get rid of it.  We can always change it up and use it in another novel someday.

2.  Even Out the Pacing – My novels are full of peril and suspense, but too much of that can cause the novel to pace strangely.  Pace in a novel is key to keeping the reader interested.  If we use too much peril and danger or too much smarmy romance without throwing in some comic relief or short paragraphs of backstory or simply down time for the heroes, the reader will become exhausted and need a break.  Shakespeare was a master of this.  In Macbeth we have the Porter who just after a long string of gruesome scenes stumbles out to make the audience laugh.  In Hamlet we all laugh at the banter that Hamlet shares with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the poking fun at old man Polonius, and the little scene at the beginning of Act V where Hamlet plays around with the messenger who comes to tell him of his duel with Laertes.  I am writing a story about the end of the world where my characters face horrors beyond imagining but I have made sure to sprinkle bits of dialogue, interaction and entire chapters of comic relief to lighten the load on the reader.  There is really not any formula for this.  It takes practice, critique and more practice.

3.  Build the Perfect Beast – One of the greatest problems that most amateur novelists face is that they don’t spend enough time in the planning stages.  Planning the novel out through an outline, some notes, or even a list of things that must happen in the plot can ensure that we find the sagging middle and trim it down.  I feel that outlining is probably one of the most important steps to writing a long form novel because good novels have multiple plots and sub-plots, connections between characters that change over time, extended metaphors, symbolism, and truth statements about the human condition.  How else can a novelist ensure that all of these things take place without proper planning?  It is essential in my eyes.  Even Stephen King who writes his novels “as he goes” without an outline has made countless notes on a yellow legal pad before he ever starts writing.

How do you slim down the midsection of your novel?  Post your comments below.

Published by Roger Colby, Novelist, Editor

Roger Colby is a novelist and teacher who has taught English for nearly two decades. He is also an avid reader of science fiction who feels, like many other sci-fi readers, that he has read everything. He writes science fiction for the reader who is looking for the next best thing, something to excite them into reading again. This blog is his journey as a writer and his musings about writing. He also edits manuscripts for a fee and is an expert at helping you reach your full potential as a writer.

2 thoughts on “The Sagging Mid-Section: Is Your Novel a Swamp In the Middle?

  1. I like your picture and swamp analogy and you are so right. Leaving every chapter as a cliffhanger might be great to keep the reader motivated to keep reading, but it can be exhausting. On the other hand, you don’t want to spend several chapters describing the landscape. Achieving that delicate balance without the middle ‘sagging’ is challenging, but it’s important to keep your reader interested between the beginning and end without redundancies, without an excess of danger, without losing the reader. 🙂

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