The Dance

Kathleen Bolton and Therese Walsh of Writer Unboxed make a point that fiction writers can learn from other medias of art and entertainment. I love watching figure skating, and think a well-choreographed ice dance or pairs’ routine has many parallels to a romance novel.

Sadly, in a romance I have read recently, it was as if the hero and heroine met at center ice, then skated off to opposite ends of the rink where they noodled around a bit before rejoining for a kiss at the end. In another it seemed the couple started at opposite ends and spent the entire routine taking baby steps toward one another.

It’s a syndrome writers sometimes call the Sagging Middle. No, it’s not what happens when the writer consumes too many Pepperidge Farm Mint Milanos under deadline pressure. It’s when the writer has problems coming up with a conflict that forces the couple together and makes them work for that happily-ever-after.

If we think about the hero and heroine as ice dancers, though, we’d remember:

  • It’s important for them to be together much of the time.
  • Sometimes they have to skate in perfect unison; otherwise we might not be able to imagine them as a happy married couple, twenty years from now, still linking arms and moving in rhythm.
  • But variety is necessary. When they’re together, their movements can be opposed. When they’re apart, they still relate to one another.
  • And you need challenges. Things that push your characters to their limits even if you (and the reader) are afraid they might crash. The possibility of a crash is what makes it more exciting.

Right now I’m trying to figure out what will happen in the middle of my work-in-progress. In the synopsis, this part basically reads, “interesting things will happen here, trust me”.

Fellow writers, how do you attack the Sagging Middle?

As readers, what sorts of conflicts keep you turning the pages?

LADY DEARING’S MASQUERADE, RT Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee

About Elena Greene

Elena Greene grew up reading anything she could lay her hands on, including her mother's Georgette Heyer novels. She also enjoyed writing but decided to pursue a more practical career in software engineering. Fate intervened when she was sent on a three year international assignment to England, where she was inspired to start writing romances set in the Regency. Her books have won the National Readers' Choice Award, the Desert Rose Golden Quill and the Colorado Romance Writers' Award of Excellence. Her Super Regency, LADY DEARING'S MASQUERADE, won RT Book Club's award for Best Regency Romance of 2005 and made the Kindle Top 100 list in 2011. When not writing, Elena enjoys swimming, cooking, meditation, playing the piano, volunteer work and craft projects. She lives in upstate New York with her two daughters and more yarn, wire and beads than she would like to admit.
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9 Responses to The Dance

  1. Amanda says:

    I like conflict that is a real conflict. Not a flimsy, heroine saw hero talking to another woman so he must be having an affair so she’s mad until the last three pages conflict, but a real one.

    When I was reading Cara’s My Lady Gamester, I was really impressed with the way she set up the conflict between the h/h. At a certain point when they were arguing I thought “this is so REAL” and I wondered how in the world they’d come back from that. I won’t reveal too much about it because I don’t want to be a spoiler, but it was very well done.

    I also like it when h/h are opposites (rake/spinster; Whig/Tory). It’s interesting as a reader to see how the writer brings two people who come from such different perspectives together.

  2. Cara King says:

    So you’re saying I can’t blame my sagging middle on the cookies??????

    I had the least problem with sagging middle in GAMESTER, of all the novels I’ve written (and I’ve writeen several)… I think it’s because I structured it like a suspense novel, and there were major secrets held back both from the hero and from the reader… And I doled out those secrets bit by bit, so the characters’ relationship, and the tension between them, kept changing…


  3. Cara King says:

    Oh, thank you, Mandacoll! I commented here before reading your comment, or I’d have thanked you in my previous comment. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I did try to give Stoke and Atalanta a conflict that was real, in which either is arguably in the right… And I’m an arguing/debating type of person myself, I think, so having my characters argue something out seems perfectly natural. I’ve noticed that some romances hardly have the hero and heroine talk at all — I think those may be the ones in which I feel there’s isn’t a real relationship — but as I’m a talker myself, my characters talk and talk and talk, and argue too! ๐Ÿ™‚


  4. Amanda says:

    Cara, I’m definitely in agreement about the characters who don’t talk very much. And it makes sense that you structured it as a mystery. That really works actually because I liked that I didn’t know exactly what happened right from the get go. Definitely makes one want to keep reading…

  5. Elena:

    What excellent advice! To avoid the sagging middle, I try to keep making it worse and worse for the h/h, until they reach the black moment. I think that’s what I do, anyway.
    And I think the Two Towers is the best LOTR film, but that’s the dreaded middle film. What’s up with that? How come Peter Jackson could do it, and romance writers can’t?

  6. I love the idea of the romance plot as an ice dancing routine! Your set-up makes a lot of sense, Elena. (It could even be interesting if they were the Italian couple who appeared to want to kill each other right there on the ice!).

    I also really get impatient with stories where all could be solved if the heroine only said “No, that wasn’t me you saw acting like a witch in Brighton, it was my identical twin sister.”

  7. Thanks for the shoutout, Elena!

    As for the sagging middle, it’s all about the conflict. Nada conflict, big squishy middle. It also helps to have the antagonist always gaining the upper hand–whether it be the characters’ internal fears or the movement of the external plot.

    That said, it’s devilish hard to keep it going for 200 pages and keep it fresh. Fiendishly hard.

    Great post. Now scurrying back to my own squishy wip…

  8. Elena Greene says:

    Have you seen the director’s notes on the extended edition of Two Towers? Peter Jackson and the writing team all said the middle movie was a bear to do. No surprise that it’s also where they made some of the biggest changes from the book. Anyway, very instructive to watch.


  9. Todd says:

    I think the Sagging Middle problem is a bit different for romances than for other genres–because the real problem is to keep the plot going and being interesting, while still having a good reason for the hero and heroine not to be together until the end. And ideally, you’d like them to be kept apart for other than incredibly stupid reasons. ๐Ÿ™‚

    In other genres, there will be sagging middle problems as well–if the plot gets bogged down, or too confusing, or not confusing enough–but they mostly don’t have the added difficulty of letting the hero and heroine be together while keeping them apart. In a sense, romance writers have to keep an additional ball in the air. (From ice dancing to juggling–next stop, sky diving!)

    So, while I love The Two Towers–both the book and the movie–its challenges are a bit different than those faced by a romance author.


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