Case Studies For Writers

a craft toolbox

Jun 17, 2019

Wringing out that Soggy Middle: What to do when Act II Falls Apart


By Bethany Tucker.

Stuck in the middle of your draft? Already written to the end but that section between the beginning and the end feels stale, limp, or messy? Beta readers giving up in the middle? You might have a case of what’s called a “soggy middle.”

Soggy middles are Act II problems where the tension is low, the plot meanders, or the reader, and maybe the writer has trouble staying with the story. Symptoms are lack of interest, passive shrugging, and dusty pages.

However, the solution is simple. Want the secret? Fall in love.

Seriously. Fall in love with your middle. Never treat it as a part of the book just to get through so you can write that brilliant conclusion. Savor the journey.

If you’re not in love with the middle of your story, then it’s not right. There shouldn’t be a single scene in your story that you don’t like. If you’re bored and having trouble writing the middle, your readers will be even more bored reading it. Boredom is the death knell of a story. Books close, go back on the shelf, or worse, end up in the donate bin. That Kindle Unlimited borrow gets returned with only ten percent of pages read. Readers walk away. You and your book are forgotten. The horror!

What does it take to fall in love with the middle of your story? Clarity. Know exactly what drives your characters. Know what drives your villains. Know the rules of your world. If the middle is soggy, go back to the beginning. Act II problems are almost always Act I problems, or world building problems, or character creation problems.

Once you know what your characters want, what they’re afraid of, what they need, and what is trying to stop them, (either themselves or others, or even better, both!) the plot points and scenes of that previously soggy middle will start to unfurl and tighten up. If your Main Character (MC) wants to get a new job, but her current boss is jealous of her potential, then perhaps that current boss will spill printer toner down the MC’s suit just before she leaves for the interview. Oh no! Now what could have been a boring, yet anxious, trip to the new company’s office is now a mad scramble in the local mall to have something presentable to wear. But if the MC wants this new job because they need money, will they be able to buy a new suit? The tension is suddenly ramped up. Now, they’re on the phone with their estranged mother, trying to borrow one of her suits on their way downtown. Which could lead straight back to another challenge that the MC was trying to avoid. Zing! You have tension.

The rule of thumb to fixing a soggy middle: never, ever give your character what they want the first or even the second time they reach for it. Make it hard. Make them sacrifice. If they’re at the mall to buy a new suit, make sure their size isn’t in stock. Or worse yet, let them recognize the person they’re about to interview with in the food court as they walk in wearing that ruined suit.

If your MC is trying to sneak into a castle, let them fall in the moat the first time. Then when your MC tries a second time, have the antagonist see them on their way in. Let them get captured. Push them. Find that special crucible designed just for them, their fears, and desires, and put them through it. Turn it on its side, put them through again. Have they learned their lessons yet? No? Find another way to evoke that fear and send them back into the dungeon.

Make sure the obstacles are always related to the major problem driving the story or their character flaw. Don’t just put a car accident in the character’s way to make things difficult on the way to the interview, after they finally find a suit. If they’re a superstitious character, let it be a car accident involving their dream car. They walk into the interview feeling like fate is already against them, and they’ll never get the job that will let them buy that car, or even if they do, it’s going to bring them to a terrible fate.

Consider the kind of problems that threatened one of the most famous MC’s of our time. Harry Potter. What kind of problems did he face most often? Was it certain death? Well, to a point, yes. But the most consistent threats were the loss of home and loss of friends. He grew up without any. And then he comes to Hogwarts and makes friends. So what does JK Rowling threaten Harry with for the next six books? Loss. Of home. Of companions. If people find out he’s a parseltongue, he might be expelled. If he doesn’t kill the basilisk, Ginny will die. His name ends up in the Goblet of Fire, and his own house turns on him. He ends up in positions where his home, Hogwarts, is threatened if he doesn’t take risks, but those risks could often get him expelled. By books six and seven, his choices aren’t just losing Hogwarts, but losing his version of the magical world. When Harry makes his final choice at the end of book seven, it’s the perfect accumulation of all his fears and everything he loves. His driving forces are perfectly tied together. He can’t lose anyone else, and he knows how to not be alone. He takes that long walk towards Voldemort. Zero soggy middle, because the threat was always real and the choices were always driven.

There are a lot of plotting styles advice guides and formulas out there, and studying them is useful. I encourage it. My favorite touchstone is the Hero’s Journey concept, brought into focus by Joseph Campell. Story Grid by Shawn Coyne is another one that is useful, if somewhat complex. In the end, however, fixing a soggy middle comes down to knowing your character, your world, and falling in love with their journey through their fears. And never, ever, letting it be easy.

You’ll know you’ve achieved your goal when your readers squirm, yell at you for hurting their favorite character, threaten you with bodily harm for the terrible things you’ve done, but still can’t stop reading long enough to actually chase you down.

Terrify your character, terrify your reader. Scare your character, scare your reader. Hurt your character, hurt your reader. And then they’ll love you.

Don’t believe me?  Go watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe.



-------------



About the Author: Bethany Tucker
Bethany lives on the Kitsap Peninsula in Washington State, west of Seattle. She has been writing fiction for the last twenty years. It’s an urge she can’t escape, nor does she want to. Bethany writes epic fantasy with heavy dalliances in the paranormal under a pen name as an independent author. She is also a freelance editor and formerly an English instructor, though she would point out that teaching English is not actually what leads her to be qualified to edit fiction. She has lived abroad extensively and credits her ability to write diverse fantastical worlds to those experiences.