How to Cure the Sagging Middle

Subplots. There. That was easy. Oh, you want to hear the whole explanation? Fair enough.

For those of you who read my personal blog, you know the obstacles I overcame to win National Novel Writing Month this year. For those of you who don’t, it was an insane combination of two kids under 3, out of town guests, and several emotional breakdowns. Yet, I would call this year’s NaNoWriMo the most successful yet and not just because I overcame those obstacles, but also because I regularly hit word counts I’ve never accomplished before while fighting through that “sagging middle.” How did I do it?

The Power of Subplots

The problem with most of my outlines (and all of my first drafts) is that I have only a few scenes planned when I start writing. I know the major plot points and the first act is always crystal clear. But after that, things get fuzzy and I have a hard time getting from Point B to Point C, which means I’m clueless as to how I’ll ever get to Point D. Usually I do it with a bunch of random scenes like dinners–lots of them–and my characters doing dishes (you can’t have one without the other, right?). But then I get to the end of that outline or draft and realize there are a lot of boring scenes I’m not interested in writing (or rewriting), which means there’s no way anyone is going to be interested in reading them.

It took me a while to figure out why I was flailing and then it hit me–I’m not digging deep enough. Not digging deep enough into the story, into the character’s lives, into their friend’s and family’s lives. I was only thinking of the main plot. But if you’re writing a full-length novel, your main character is about more that just that single conflict. Just like you, he or she is juggling relationships, family, friends, work, personal goals, and more.

Breaking It Down

I’ll use my novel as an example.

The main plot/conflict is between my main character and her failing relationship.
But my main character also has issues with the expectations her mom still has for her.
And her father, who she hasn’t had a conversation with in seventeen years.
And then there’s the damage her career is doing to her personal life, no matter how much she loves it, as she reaches a crossroads in her professional life.
And her closest friends are getting divorced.

And to think–when I first thought of this novel, I only had the main plot in mind.

So think of it this way: My novel has about 60 scenes. Since my main conflict is the most important, let’s say it fills half the scenes–30. These scenes include things like the issues my heroine and hero have that are keeping them apart, the one major issue that is the catalyst for their growth, the scenes my main character spends trying to come to terms with it, the scenes in which they take turns trying to fix it, and the scenes where they’re sure it’s over. My MC’s career is also important so we’ll say that’s 10 more scenes. Then, take the other 20 scenes and divide them by the 4 remaining conflicts and we have 5 scenes each.

Now we’ll do the math. And remember, this is just a rough idea just to illustrate my point, not a concrete outline.

Act 1
8 scenes for the main conflict
3 scenes for the secondary conflict
1-2 scenes for each remaining conflict

Act 2, Part 1
7 scenes for the main conflict
2 scenes for the secondary conflict
1-2 scenes for each remaining conflict

Act 2, Part 2
7 scenes for the main conflict
2 scenes for the secondary conflict
1-2 scenes for each remaining conflict

Act 3
8 scenes for the main conflict
3 scenes for the secondary conflict
1-2 scenes for each remaining conflict

Some subplots won’t require 5 scenes, while some will require more. Sometimes you’ll have two or more conflicts within a single scene. But try to come up with at least 5 situations to put your character in which will show the story arc for each subplot. For instance, the conflict my MC has with her father would go like this: them not speaking, revealing why, show the misunderstanding, exacerbate the misunderstanding, and then resolve the conflict. Once you have similar snapshots in mind, sprinkle them throughout your novel, weaving them with the other plots, and you’ll never be short on scenes to write.

A Well of Scene Ideas

It may not always be clear at the beginning of your novel which conflicts your character will battle (mine don’t usually make themselves known until after the first draft) but if you’re having hard time coming up with them, start by thinking of your own. If your life was a novel, what would your plots and subplots be? And then, go from there. Because your characters are just people too (for most of you).

What techniques have you used to get through Act II?

Photo by barockschloss

I am an author and a writing business teacher. I am also a mother of two, a wife, a businesswoman, a nature-lover, and a wannabe yogi. My debut women's fiction novel, PERFECTLY UNDONE, will be released on October 3, 2017. Here, I blog about my journey in publication in the hopes of inspiring others to follow their own dreams.

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