Thursday, July 07, 2016

When in Doubt, Throw Grampa Down the Stairs

Dan Walsh is the bestselling author of 16 novels, including The Unfinished Gift, The Reunion and When Night Comes. He has won 3 Carol Awards and 3 Selah Awards. Three of his books were finalists for Inspirational Book of the Year (RT Book Reviews). Dan is a member of ACFW and Word Weavers. He lives with his wife, Cindi, in the Daytona Beach area where they love to take walks and spend time with their grandkids. Click here to connect with Dan or check out his books


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I thought for my column this month, I wouldn’t talk about anything related to indie publishing (like I have the last several times). But instead, share some how-to thoughts (as in, how to write better fiction). One of my central goals when writing novels, whether inspirational stories or suspense thrillers, is to keep the pages turning for my readers. I can’t stand to read boring books, so I’ve made a commitment not to write them. 

One of the challenges all writers have when writing full-length novels is how to avoid a “sagging middle.” I’m not referring to one’s appearance, but the central section of our story. Many novels suffer from this malady. It shows up when you read a book that grabs you at the beginning but then, toward the middle, things start to bog down. The story feels adrift. If I’m really hooked by the story, I may plod through these duller chapters to see how the book ends.
 
Usually, the pace does pick back up, and sometimes the ending grabs you just as much as it did at the beginning. But as I close the book, I wonder why the author didn’t put as much effort into the middle of the story as he/she did the beginning and the end. When this happens, I know I’ve just read a book afflicted with a sagging middle.

Can any of you relate to this? As a reader? How about as a writer?

Early on, I decided to be intentional about solving this dilemma, to deliberately work just as hard to come up with something that would cause the middle of my books not to lose the tension or pace I had set at the beginning. My first novel, The Unfinished Gift, was easy. I was riveted by the story myself, from beginning to end. There was no sagging middle.


The test came when writing the sequel, The Homecoming. I had come up with a great beginning for the novel and a very satisfying ending, but halfway through writing the story I realized…I’m boring myself with these middle chapters. To make sure I wasn’t being too hard on myself, I asked my wife to read what I’d written. She quickly confirmed my suspicions. “These middle chapters are boring. I find myself wanting to skip right past them.”

So I deleted the chapters back to where the story had last been tense and interesting, and we began to work on coming up with something to give the middle of the book a sense of excitement and new life. I remember the moment when the perfect solution came to me. I blurted out to my wife, “I know what we have to do. We have to throw Grampa down the stairs.” She instantly recognized, it was the perfect solution. We wouldn’t kill him, mind you. He would just slip and fall, scare everyone else in the book who loved him, and create all kinds of tension and difficulties to work through.

So, that’s what we did. And it made the story nice and tight from beginning to end. That was my second novel. Since then, I have written 14 more. I've faced the challenge of the “sagging middle” more times than I can count. But now when it happens, I know what to do…

Throw Grampa down the stairs.

Now it’s your turn, fellow novelists. Have you ever struggled with a sagging middle when writing your books? If so, did you fix it? How? Did it work? Tell us the tale. 

And...here's your assignment until next month. Here are the covers to my last 2 novels. An inspirational one (Rescuing Finley) and a suspense one (Remembering Dresden). Buy 1 (or both) as an example of a story guaranteed NOT to have a sagging middle (just kidding...well, actually I'm not :).

4 comments:

Normandie Fischer said...

Love your shorthand for the fix: Throw Grandpa down the stairs! I'll remember that one...

CHERRILYNN BISBANO said...

Dan, thanks for the laugh. Although, throwing Grampa down the stairs may land me in jail.
My son is homeschooled. I want to purchase your book, Rescuing Finley & Remembering Dresden for his mandatory reading. He is writing a YA mystery novel with me. We are both new writers.
Thank you for the tips.

Tamara Leigh said...

Whenever a middle threatens to sag, I revisit and rework the goals, motivations, and conflicts of my hero/heroine--and antagonist, if necessary. That usually cures gravity :)

Dan Walsh said...

Normandie, obviously we're joking here (I'm a Grampa and hope no one ever deliberately tries to cause me harm). But from a storytelling standpoint, the idea gets back for the need to have conflict and tension in the story, not just at the beginning or the climactic ending, but all the way through.

Cherrilyn, our kids were both homeschooled. My son in particular became a voracious reader (still is). I'm sure your son will have no problem digesting anything in either of those books.

Tamara, what a lady-like way of addressing the issue :) Thanks for jumping in.