How to Avoid Saggy Starts
You’ve probably all heard the writing term “saggy middle,” which refers to the middle part of a story that is particularly susceptible to stalling and the momentum fizzling, both for the writer while writing it and the reader while reading it. Even if you haven’t heard the term, I’m sure you’ve all read books like that. You get halfway through the book and realize you’ve completely lost interest. But just as common as saggy middles are books that don’t start with a bang, but a fizzle, aka Saggy Starts. It doesn’t matter how spiffy your opening lines are if you’re starting your story too early or in the wrong place.
What is a Saggy Start?
Saggy Starts are nearly unavoidable for new writers, but even veteran authors aren’t immune to them. One of the best things to happen to me as a new writer was getting contest results back on my first ever manuscript. One of the judges had drawn a red line across the text on page 15—two pages into Chapter Two—and had written, “This is where your story actually starts.” I can’t thank that judge enough! She opened my eyes to the fact that I’d been starting stories WAY TOO EARLY. Now, when I write a book, I try to be ruthless with my manuscript, questioning continually throughout my writing and revising process whether I’ve started in the right place. And not just at the beginning of the book, but every chapter and every scene.
A Word on Prologues
I know this will be controversial, but I don’t think the vast majority of stories benefit from having a prologue. A prologue is backstory and doesn’t start your story from a strong place of action. It’s mostly used incorrectly as a blatant form of info dumping. I consider the vast majority of prologues to be saggy starts because reader wants to dive into the actual story— not what happened before the story starts and the protagonist’s journey really begins.
If your current WIP has a prologue, I urge you to take a hard look at it. Ask yourself what the main purpose of that prologue is and why it’s so important. Perhaps even write out in bullet points what it is the prologue that makes it so necessary. Then ask yourself, could any of these bullet points be woven into later chapters? Does this really have a significant dramatic impact or would it be just as effective as, say, a flashback in Chapter Six? Could it be even more dramatic and effective if the memory of the event in the prologue was remembered by your protagonist in bits and pieces, stringing the readers along in suspense and adding to the overall tension of your story?
Finding Your Story’s Actual Beginning
For those of you who have WIPs that you’re working on, starting at Page One, skim your manuscript for the “Moment Everything Changes” for your protagonist. You know what moment I’m talking about? It’s the moment that the lit match hits the fuse like when your protagonist is fired from her job, or when the police detective hero finds the first clue that makes him realize this is no ordinary murder investigation. If you’re writing a romance, it might be the moment your hero and heroine first meet. When you find the ignition point, mark it. What page is it on? In what chapter? This is where your story begins. Whatever comes before it runs the risk of being a Saggy Start.
Pretend you’re the diva of your family and you’re invited to a holiday dinner. Of course, being a diva, you have to precisely time your dramatic entrance for maximum impact. How late can you get away with arriving and still not miss the meal? Then, how early can you leave without missing dessert and yet avoid doing the dishes? This is what you’re trying to accomplish with every scene in your story—especially in those first early chapters where you’re still trying to make sure you’ve hooked the reader securely.
Either before you start writing a scene or once you’ve written that scene, put that scene to the test. For those of you who completed TASK #1, do this exercise for the scenes surrounding that Plot Ignition Point.
· What is the most important moment of this scene/chapter?
· How short can you make the lead-up to that moment without sacrificing tone, clarifying details, or character development?
· What is absolutely necessary to keep so that the scene’s Most Important Moment makes sense?
· What information, characters, conversations, or details can you omit altogether or move to later scenes? You want every scene to be as laser focused as possible.
· How soon can you cut out of that scene after that Most Important Moment to ensure maximum impact?
· What if you ended the chapter in the middle of that most important moment and made the readers flip to the next page to find out what happens? You don’t want to do that every time, but cliff hangers are really effective when used judiciously.
Just remember, your job is not to give a complete, detailed, and real-time accounting of your protagonist’s every move or give a complete recounting of every conversation your characters have from beginning to end. If the scene’s Most Important Moment happens during an argument, you don’t necessarily need to write out the whole end of the argument on the page. The point is that you choose where to exit the scene MINDFULY and PURPOSEFULLY after having weighed your options and asked yourself the tough questions above.
If you build every scene’s structure around that most important moment, then the “sagginess” starts to vanish. Performing this exercise on every scene might also help you realize how much filler you’ve been using. I know it did for me when I was first starting out on my writing journey. In my last manuscript, I had to cut out nearly 8,000 words from the final draft, all unnecessary conversations or parts of scenes that didn’t keep the laser focus on my thematic hooks, character development, or plot. That can be a tough pill to swallow, trust me, but in the end, my story was far stronger because of that.
BONUS TIP #1: One trick I use to avoid sagging moments within a scene, conversation, or plot sequence is to change point-of-view or cut to a new chapter as a way to “fast forward” slow moments. For example, if your detective hero finds a provocative new clue in his investigation and jumps in his car to make an all-day drive across the state, you can skip the whole car ride by ending the chapter at the moment he jumps in his car. Then have the next chapter start with him arriving at the suspect’s house.
BONUS TIP #2: I have learned so much about how to start stories by reading the beginnings of many, many books. Some of these are contest entries I’m judging, but I also enjoy going on Amazon and reading a bunch of opening sample pages from books in my genre. You might be surprised what you learn or the patterns you see if you were to read the opening pages of several books in your genre in rapid succession. You’ll also notice which authors get their opening hooks right because you’ll suddenly find yourself gasping in surprise as you unwittingly get to the end of the sample because you were so engrossed in what you were reading. If you have the time this week, I highly recommend reading a bunch of opening pages. The samples on Amazon for their kindle books are free, so why not?