Friday, June 1, 2012

Fighting Sag

On this beautiful Friday morning, with the sun streaming into the office and the air nicely not so Dagobah swamp humid, let's talk about sag.

"Sag" is not just something reserved for lady chests or heavy tree limbs, it's also what will murder your writing if you let it. And this isn't just murder mafia-style where it shoots your manuscript once behind the ear. This is murder by asphyxiation. This is not a quick and easy murder. Sag will slowly, painfully and maliciously wrench the last moments of life out of your manuscript, and smile while doing it.

Sag's full name is "middle of novel sag" or "Second Act Sag", and today we're going to talk about what causes it and how to fix it.

As the name implies, sag happens when the momentum and pace of the story slow way down and the urge to turn the page and keep moving (as a reader) shrinks and shrinks until you ultimately start asking why you're even bothering to do it anymore. It generally happens in the second act, because that's the part of the story that's all about expansion: we met the characters and the plot in Act 1, now we get to see them develop and evolve before meeting for the climax and resolution in the third act.

The big problem is that expansion isn't all that exciting sometimes. While you're developing characters and making connections between plot points and furthering the story, some of that stuff makes a desert look damp. Yes, near the end of the expansion, there's some excitement built up as you get towards climax, but that's a very small segment of the expansion, and that comes AFTER some (often huge) swath of the middle of the book where "you felt penned in" and "couldn't really do anything too big because you were still in the second act".

But that's, frankly, stupid. There's no rule that says you can't have an exciting second act. The rules for climax state it just has to be the highest point of tension/action. But you can't really have a "highest point" without some other reference points for comparison, right?

So the first tool in your toolbox to fight sag is "Second Act High Points". Don't start thinking these high points are only physical encounters, they aren't. These are just moments where you shake up the complacency and status quo of the chapter(s) by putting in a scene or a few beats to make the reader sit up and take notice. Yes, sometimes that's a fight, but it could also be the discovery of clues in a mystery, a hero's internal conflict and resolve kicking in, yet another attack by the enemy's henchmen or something as simple as a phone call from one character to another. The point here is ACTION. Just like shaking up a YooHoo to get the chocolatey goodness off the bottom when it settles, so too does a Second Act High Point shake up and redistribute the interest, excitement, flavor and tension of the manuscript.

You could stop there, and walk away knowing that "Action beats Sag" but if you've been a regular reader of this blog, you know I've got more to share. Let's look at another slightly more complicated tool against sag.

Just like making a key from a mold you've kept in the back of your eyeshadow compact (I'm looking at you standard-spy-movie-trope), you can get a sense of something based on the impression it leaves in the space/things/clay around it. A more typical expression of this is in a widow, widower or someone who just lost a close loved one -- the absence of that person leaves an impact, and who/what that person was leaves an imprint on those left behind.

What we're dealing with here "Negative Space Impressions" also called "Silhouetting" if you want to use the slightly douchey arthouse term (which by the way is great for annoying college professors). You don't outright describe what the thing is, you describe the impression the thing leaves on the surroundings.

If I'm describing my house key in this way, I'm not talking about the ridges and angles of the key itself, I'm talking about the way the pins are lifted in the lock when I use it. If I'm describing a dead character, rather than give a lengthy physical description and segue into a totally lame flashback where the character will speak to me but never be as cool as the ghost of Hamlet's father or Obi Wan Kenobi, I'm talking about how I (the narrator in this case) perceive/remember (imperfectly) the lessons the character wanted to impart. So I'm humanizing myself, talking about a character's impression and advancing my character growth in one fell swoop.

Is that harder? Yes. Is it worth it in the end? Absolutely. Any situation where you walk away learning more about the character, the relationship(s) between the character and everything else in the world AND advancing character growth is absolutely worth it.

Are there only 2 ways to fight sag? Nope. But those two are a good start. Go forth, don't let the middle of your book fall into a flat, comatose state.

Happy writing. Enjoy your weekend.