Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Writers' Wednesday - Sagging Middles

Today, Fiona Harper, moans about sagging middles (hers, mostly) and wonders why there isn’t a Weight Watchers for books to help her out when they go all soft and soggy in the middle.

Unfortunately, not every diet works for every person. Stories are much the same. They can be just as moody and temperamental as a cranky dieter as we try to bash them out on our keyboards. Similarly, not every writing tip works for every kind of story, but I have one trick up my sleeve that seems to help me when I’m stuck in a saggy-middle type rut.

Acting up
First things first. When I say ‘sagging middle’, what do I mean? I tend to think of the middle as the second act in a three-act story.

Act one is the set-up – your hero and heroine are introduced to the readers and usually meet by the end of this act, if not before. There’s plenty of things going on in Act One, so there’s not really much time for it to get boring, unless of course, you break the one of the writerly ten commandments and fill it with backstory – but that’s another blog subject all together!

Let me jump to Act Three. This is the end of your story. The final goal is in sight and the hero and heroine are almost certainly in love with each other by now. All they have to do is clear away the final obstacles so they can reach the climax of the story and fall into each other’s arms.

In between these two action-packed sections is Act Two and, somehow, you’ve got to get these two people from maybe only just having met each other to being on the verge of embarking on a future together before the act closes. This is why the second act is normally quite a bit longer than the first and the third acts – and I think this extra length is why it has a tendency to lose its way occasionally.

Keep on turning…
At the end of each act there is a turning point that sets the story going in another direction and keeps it moving. I find it much easier to keep my second act rolling along if I have a turning point in the middle of this act too, which also tend the be the midpoint of the story as a whole. Having said that, it’s not always exactly 50% of the way through the story – I often find my turning point scene happening somewhere between half way and two-thirds of the way through this act. Different stories may require different approaches, remember?

Some books on story structure actually divide the second act into two individual acts, with the mid-point as the turning point between them. I don’t actually think it matters how you think about it. Just remember this: putting a high point in the middle of Act Two keeps your readers interested by building towards a dramatic peak before everything starts rolling towards the final act.

In his book The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler calls this mid-point The Ordeal, a central crisis that is an important emotional high point in the story. It’s the hero’s big test where he gets a chance to realise the goal he’s been chasing. Vogler calls the place where the ordeal happens the ‘Innermost Cave’. Often at this point in folk tales and fairy stories, the hero must venture alone into a dark and dangerous place to find whatever he is searching for—a prize, the treasure, a magic potion.

The Big Romantic Scene
And what is the prize for hero and heroine in a love story? The love of the other character! Therefore, this scene often has some kind of romantic significance – they must cross a threshold and their relationship must take on deeper significance. Sometimes, after this deeper commitment on the part of your characters, a love scene will follow - as a kind of reward for their courage.

After I read Vogler’s book, I thought about the books I had already written and realised my mid-point scene almost invariably found the hero and heroine alone together. Maybe not in a cave, but things got intimate. Funnily enough, I often find that I instinctively lower the lights at this point, or have my hero and heroine away from the rest of the world – an office after everyone else has gone home, or a ghost train that has broken down and they’re the only ones left sitting here.

In one book, my hero and heroine were in an orchard at night, but the moon had gone in and they were totally in the dark. What should have been a wide open space was suddenly a very intimate setting where they could concentrate of the senses of touch and hearing and smell, rather than be distracted by the world around them.
In other words, the mid-point is often a great place for a romantic scene, a moment when your characters stop struggling with each other (or with themselves) and get a glimpse of what life might be like if they were brave enough to let go of their fears and love this other person.

And when I say 'romantic scene', I’m not talking champagne and flower and sunsets – those are external things, window dressing. What you want is a moment of deeper connection between hero and heroine. Without that, your big romantic scene will lose its impact and no amount of roses and pretty scenery will save it.

Script consultant and screenwriting lecturer Michael Hauge calls this mid-point of the story the Point of No Return. And, when he teaches on love stories specifically, he says this Point Of No Return is a place for a deeper commitment to the relationship – a time for ‘firsts’. First kiss, first date, first time they make love or declare their feelings. Sometimes the love scene just doesn't follow the turning point; sometimes it is the turning point.

Here are some movie examples to illustrate what I mean (because we've probably seen more of the same movies than read the same books...):

Pretty Woman: deeper commitment, followed by a love scene:
Vivien is cross with Edward for telling his friend she is a hooker and she seeks to end the agreement to be his 'beck and call' girl by leaving. Edward pays her, but she’s so upset she doesn’t take the money. He comes after her and apologises, and begs her to stay. At this moment, their relationship moves firmly from a business relationship into something more personal. And, not long afterwards, their lovemaking takes on a new dimension as they finally kiss each other.

Titanic: love scene as the turning point:
At the mid-point of the film, Rose and Jack make love. They are now joined together in a way they never were before and we know that Rose is fully committed to pursuing a life of passion and adventure – if she can get off the darn boat alive, that is…

Fiona's upcoming book, Blind-Date Baby is part of the Blind-Date Brides mini-series that will be launching in Harlequin Romance this April with Nine-to-Five Bride by Jennie Adams. Fiona's book is out in May, and the trilogy finishes in June with Melissa McClone's Dream Date with the Millionaire.

Three women, three countries, three exciting love stories...


  1. Fiona,

    Thanks for this, it's been a big help to buck me up... I'm already in a sagging middle and I'm only on chapter four, surely that's a record. Now, where did I put that darn turning point...

  2. Yes, turning points need to relevent to the story.
    The other great piece of advice I read recently was that in a romance, there must be something more than simply yearning for the romance to work. Just yearning can make a book feel shallow -- it was a YA editor explaining why Twilight did not work for her as there was an over reliance on external conflict.

  3. I think you're right, Michelle. Yearning for a romance to work just isn't enough. I like to not only hope the hero and heroine will get together, but know why each of them have fallen in love (or should fall in love) with the other. Sometimes, as a reader, you can know the couple are right for each other, even if they don't know it themselves yet and then you start to cheer them on...

    Coming back to turning points, I think a great mid-book turning point is when the hero and heroine get a glimpse of what I just mentioned - they start to see what the reader sees and it normally blows their mind/scares the socks off them.

  4. Hi Fiona,
    This is soooo helpful! Have also got to a sticking point and you have verbalised it brilliantly. The odd thing is that when I am deep in the creative cave and am struggling to move the story forwards, sometimes all that happens is that my mind seems to get more and more confused. I forget all the things I 'should' be doing, everything is literally chaos. There can be a tendency to rush to impose order on this chaos because it is uncomfortable, but better things can emerge if the chaos is endured. Perhaps this is another way of saying I never know what I am going to write until I have written it. Turning points won't always be clearly articulated till they are down on that page. Oh, dear. You can see what a state I am in. Clearly my unconscious is well in charge at the moment! (And a good thing too, it knows far more than I do!)
    All best

  5. Ah, Carol - I can remember all this helpful stuff when I'm not writing a book, but sometimes it escapes me when I'm in the thick of it (like now). I sometimes plan a scene as my turning point then find a completely different scene steals its thunder and declares itself something special instead. Then I sit back and mutter, "ah, so that's what this story is all about..."

    I find, once I've hit this mid-story high-point, I know where I'm going, the conflict sharpens and it's soooo much easier to write the second half of the book than it was the first half. I struggle with beginnings, where - despite my totally obsessive planning - I run into multiple dead ends.