Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Prop Up Your Sagging Plot Middles

Writing is a lot like building a bridge. Each Scene serves as scaffolding or supports for your entire story to rest on without sagging.

Maybe you’ve made a great start. You have a dynamite hook (some of my favorites: “The last camel collapsed at noon.” Ken Follet, “The man with ten minutes to live was laughing.” Frederick Forsyth). You’ve gotten off to a good strong start. Maybe you know how your book is going to end, and even have the final scene written.

Now, how do you get through the middle part without it sagging and possibly collapsing?

First of all, you don’t need to write chronologically. You can write scenes out of order. (See my article Overcoming Writer’s Block) Pick out some highlights and write those scenes, then see if you can figure out what you might be able to fill in between A and G.

Now, send your inner “nice guy” out for ice cream and figure out just how mean you can be to your character. Conflict is the key to keeping a story moving, to shoring it up. You’ve introduced your character and the problem she has to solve. You know what the goal is at the end.

Let’s say Cathy Character wants to be the first teenage girl to climb Mount Huge. What are her obstacles? Her parents are against the idea. It’s too expensive, too dangerous, she’s not in shape, who else is going, etc. Cathy has to overcome each objection, solve each problem.

Maybe her neighbor is a banker, so she approaches him for a loan. If he smiles and says,” Sure, Cathy, anything for you,” the problem is solved too quickly. The story can get boring and the reader’s interest will sag.

But what if he says no? Now Cathy has to figure out another way to raise money. What should she do - a bake sale, a part-time job, rob the local drive-in? (You can see the various paths this story could take.) There are all kinds of ideas and none of them should be easy.

Every time your character figures out a way over, around or through a problem, throw up another obstacle, within reason, of course. You don’t want her to fail at everything.

But when she solves the money part of the problem, there should be another one waiting. Who, besides her parents, are going to oppose her? Does she have a rival? Or is there a friend who is supposedly helping her, but is actually sabotaging Cathy’s efforts?

Building a story is like constructing a bridge. You need conflict as the pillars that shore up the middle.

For each scene you write, ask yourself:

  • What is the purpose of this scene?
  • Does it move the story forward? (What if I take it out? Does the story flow well without it?)
  • Can the reader identify with the character’s problem and struggles?
  • Have you created suspense? (Will the reader want to keep reading to find out how your character solves this one? What’s at stake for him/her?)

Have fun being mean to your character and building your bridge!


A native Montanan, Heidi Thomas now lives in Northwest Washington. She has just had her first novel published, Cowgirl Dreams, based on her grandmother. Heidi has a degree in journalism, a certificate in fiction writing and is a member of Northwest Independent Editors Guild. She teaches writing and edits, and is working on the next books in her “Dare to Dream” series, and blogs.

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  1. I love being mean to my characters. The poor things never see it coming...

  2. Great tips. Never make things easy for your characters. We appreciate the things we have to work to achieve. Same with your fiction people.

  3. about multiple smaller conflicts within the larger picture! I needed that reminder, so thanks!


  4. What an interesting post! I have written three or four books and I always struggle with the padding. When at school, I was taught to precis everything. Now I want to learn how to "fill out" more. My latest book is floudering a bit because I have quite a few characters and they are all heading off in different directions doing their own thing. I am afraid that the reader will get lost and not know which way to head or turn. Could you please address that problem too in one of your next posts?
    Thanks very much for this one. I will start thinking about being mean to my "dear" characters now!!
    Blessings, Star

  5. My trouble seems to be with endings, more than middles and beginnings. Though I do know what you mean about making sure your characters really have to struggle at times to get where they need to be. Sometimes I get attached to them and feel bad about making their lives miserable, but it quickly passes, and I do my job. :) Great post. This blog is one of my favorites because of different perspectives you all provide. Lovin' it!

  6. Very good advice and the examples help make the points definitive. Great job.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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