We’re all aware of the saggy middle
The story that can’t get out of its own way.
Common techniques to eliminate this conundrum include increasing the conflict, changing the scenery, introducing new characters, or presenting a twist, among other complex tricks. But what if you’re writing a quiet book and these old standbys don’t seem to work?
The protagonist in one of my current WIPs has an obsession. An internalized problem that is not openly shared with other characters. It is so much of an obsession that it colors everything my protagonist says and does.
It has been challenging to present this without being redundant. I’m not quite there yet, and this redundancy is bogging down my story.
What do I do when I can’t write my way out of a problem? I research. I research more than I probably need to before getting back to writing, but I’ll procrastinate a bit longer and share what I uncovered as I know I’m not alone with my heavy girth.
Techniques to help spot redundancy
- Color Coding different topics within your manuscript is my favorite method. I love color, and repeated themes blatantly scream off the page.
- Reading aloud also accomplishes this if you can do so within a reasonably short time frame.
- You can also use your word processor’s “find” feature to search for keywords. (And then I find myself wanting to color code those once I’ve identified a problem.)
- Although I haven’t tried it myself, I’m intrigued by the concept of reverse outlining, i.e., outlining after the text is written. In the left margin, summarize the topic of each paragraph in as few words as possible. Then, describe how this moves the plot/theme forward in the right margin. This may be a powerful tool for more than simply identifying redundancy. Have you tried this? Let me know how it worked for you in the comments below.
Once we know where we are repeating themes, here are some great pointers I garnered from the sites and posts I visited which focus on writing an obsession without being redundant.
First, as the author, try to relate to this emotional truth. Is there an experience you can draw from to bring depth to the character’s situation? Draw out the emotion and make the reader feel it.
Next, Present the obsession each time (even in the character’s own mind) in a unique light by answering different questions, such as:
- What are they gaining from this obsession? Confidence, trust, love – even if imagined.
- How is it impacting other relationships? What is at stake? How do others respond?
- Can you present the object (or person) of the obsession with more detail and define it beyond the protagonist’s POV? Allow the reader to understand the rationale behind this emotion.
- How far will the character go to maintain or protect the obsession? Can you show their behavior?
- Where/when/how did it originate? Give us insight into its power over your character.
- Is this a unique motif? i.e., each theme occurrence can’t be (or result in) a fistfight or a conversation. Vary the presentation and the terminology.
- Are they facing different obstacles? Avoid the character facing the same specific problem in scenes that evoke the memory/obsession.
- Also, presenting supporting character’s unique viewpoints on the same topic will add new perspective.
When faced with multiple scenes featuring the same incident (in my case, the origin of the obsession was an accident), also ask yourself:
- Does this presentation change something? Is it truly advancing the story – how? If not, cut those beautiful words.
- Is the protagonist’s goal the same as last time? Are they getting closer to or farther from achieving their goal? If yes, show us how. (if not, that’s okay).
- Can you introduce new information to either the character or the reader? Be sure and ask yourself if this information matters to the story.
And finally, if you can’t maintain realism without repeating the scene, settle for telling…i.e., instead of repeating the details of a character’s accident – just state that his Mom shared all the gory details with his boss; the reader will appreciate the shorthand.
“To put it bluntly, driving home a single point does not mean your writing has to be monotonous. You can repeat creatively.” From the Writing Guide by Damen, 2002.
Please feel free to share your tips and thoughts. Thanks for reading.
My research sites:
Kiare Ladner, Writer’s Digest 2/17/2022. K. M. Weiland Blog posts 10/25/2021 & 10/5/2014. Andrew Noakes, The History Quill.com, 2/2021. Glen Strathy, https://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/sagging-middle.html
Saggy footbridge image by Marjon Besteman from Pixabay
Interesting post, Marti. From what I’ve seen of your writing, redundancy is usually not an issue. Your tips are helpful.
Great post! I’m revising a MG historical fiction novel in verse that was spread over 2 1/4 years. When my agent asked me why that length of time, I had several reasons, but none that really were show-stoppers. So I’m compressing the book into a year and a quarter, and I’m finding that it’s making the narrative leaner and less redundant, making your post quite timely.
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Great to hear. It’s hard to ‘cut those darlings,’ though. Good for you!
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Great article, Marti. In answer to one of the questions you posed, I have done reverse outlining at various times. It is especially beneficial for those of us “pantsers” who prefer to write freely based on what we feel in the moment, and then work it into a proper structure later. Because you do need to do it, at some point 😉
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but do we tho? Thanks Hilary, a good point.