In part 1 we looked at three of the various ways a story can sag in the middle, what is commonly referred to as the ‘mid story crisis’, things like running out of steam, not knowing what goes in the middle section and the characters running out of things to say to move the story forward, so in this concluding part we’ll take a look at some more reasons and the ways that writers can avoid these common problems.
If you find that your story struggles with what to do next, this is usually because you have run out of ideas – the kind of ideas that should push the story forward. Many stories tend to start off with plenty of momentum and fire, but then they start to trundle after ten or eleven chapters and eventually they become a chore because the zest of those first ten or eleven chapters has worn off.
And the magic reason why? The writer hasn’t planned anything. They haven’t outlined chapters or thought through scene scenarios, nor do they truly know what the main character’s goal actually is. If a writer can’t be bothered to outline the novel – a complex piece of work – there is no point trying to ‘wing’ it.
It doesn’t work.
Another common problem is when the story begins to wander off on a tangent or it meanders aimlessly so far from the plot that it bears no relation to the actual story or has little connection with the characters. This kind of problem isn’t always noticeable straightaway and only becomes apparent when you do a read through once the novel is complete.
It’s common for writers to drift off course – we’ve all done it, but sometimes our focus shifts from one thing to another, or a subplot or thread takes our attention away from the main plot and we don’t realise we’ve drifted from the original story path. The good thing is that during the read through, the problem will become very apparent and it’s easily corrected with re-writing.
This problem happens because there has been no planning as to where the story might go and how it might get there. This is why, unfortunately, a lot of novels are rubbish – the writer has simply gone with the flow in the hope that all those tangent strands kind of knit together and make sense by the end. That rarely works.
Always know where you’re going and how you’re going to get there. It will save a lot of time editing and re-writing.
Another classic symptom of a sagging middle is padding. Huge wads of it. This is when the writer ‘pads’ out the story with all sorts of extraneous stuff in order push up the word count and inch towards the ending, without the need to form ideas or be creative. In reality, the padding isn’t pertinent to the story, it’s just unnecessary wordage when ideas and creativity – and everything else – is lacking, and readers won’t thank you for it.
Unfortunately, padding is a huge problem and a serious symptom of desperation in the face of no fresh ideas, a lack of planning, not knowing where the story should go, or being unsure of what to do with the characters. It’s like trying to put together a broken teapot – nothing quite fits exactly as it should.
If you start padding the story with the superfluous, then you know there is a major problem. To correct it you will have to go back through the work to identify the problem areas – and examine why you’ve used padding – then you need to get rid of it. You may end up doing more writing in the end to compensate for the padding.
More experienced writers will recognise when they’re padding and will do something about it before it gets out of hand, however, the best way to avoid all these problems and avoid the mid story crisis is to plan, plan, plan.
Before you even start to write, know exactly what the story is about and whose story it is. Know why the story is taking place, and make sure that the main character has a clear goal to achieve, plenty of dilemmas to face and problems to solve. You have to know how their journey begins and how it might end.
You must know roughly what happens at each stage of the novel, and what subplots and themes there might be, rather than trying to write with virtually no ideas or clear vision in mind, because this type of writing simply doesn’t work.
Of course, there are no golden rules in this instance and writers can do as they please, but if a writer wants to avoid that mid-story crisis – and the problems associated with it – then the best way to produce a quality, solid piece of work is to plan and plot in advance.
It’s one of the smartest things any writer can do.
Next week: The art of captivating first lines