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Flexing Your Story Abdominis™: Secrets to Crafting a Lean Middle for Every Story

August 23, 2019 Sara 0 Comments

It is just me, or does everyone want a toned middle?

No, sillies, not that middle – this isn’t a fitness blog – the middle of your book!

Now, as a writer, your intention may be a crisp plot with zingy scenes and lively banter, but all too often (especially in early drafts) the middle of a manuscript can grow rather… bloated. Crafting a lean middle is something that takes time and exercise. (Yes, we’re still talking about books!)

I’m here to help you craft that unruly middle into a lean, mean narrative machine. No crunches required. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

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But first, let me tell you a story. Those of you who don’t want to read about pregnancy or the humbling aspects of growing and birthing tiny humans can keep on scrolling to find 3 of my favorite techniques for tightening an expansive middle section.

For the rest of you… here goes:

During my first pregnancy, no one guessed I was pregnant until I broke into my third trimester (unless of course they had to put up with me running to the bathroom every ten seconds). I’m not particularly into exercise, but I was (and always had been) very active: I lived in a city and walked everywhere, I ran a few miles every week, did yoga, worked retail and spent 8+ hours a day on my feet. I could lift a 50-pound box no problem and do inversions with the best of them. So my muscles, including my transverse abdominis (TVA), the one responsible for how flat a stomach is, were strong. None of this was very important to me – in fact, I took my strength for granted… until I gave birth.

After my first son was born (via emergency c-section), my weight dropped off quickly. But, my muscles and my tissues, which had been sliced open and stitched back together, after stretching out to hold that new person, were pretty wrecked. I remember going to my first post-partum yoga class and not being able to hold plank pose. My abdomen literally refused to support me. Dang.

I got back into walking early on, but never back to running, and after that first class, didn’t go back to a yoga studio. I was rebuilding my strength, but I wasn’t in any rush.

And then, not too long after baby #1, along came pregnancy #2.

And with it, a baby bump. Like, practically overnight. None of my pants fit before I even got out of my first trimester (thank goddess for maternity pants!). 

Now, strangely, I gained the same amount of weight for both pregnancies. But baby belly #2 was a sight to behold, something which lots of people loved to comment on (what, me, self-conscious? with everyone touching me and telling me how big I was? NAH).

Now, how we treat pregnant bodies as a culture is… something I’d love to have a long diatribe about but will instead spare you my commentary and tie all of this baby bump talk back to STORIES. 

Why the heck was my second baby bump such a glorious expansive bubble?

Because my TVM had never recovered from its first round of s-t-r-e-t-c-h. Which is completely and totally normal. I mean, it took me 35 years to tone that thing the first time; I wasn’t going to zip it back up in 15 months. And truthfully, 9 months after giving birth the second time, the weakness of my core still surprises me. Plank pose? Ha! Lifting a box books? Help, please! (That said, it’s not like I’ve got a ton of time or energy or intention devoted to getting that thing back into shape – because I’m busy raising children and herding cats and writing books. Still, I’m hoping that in another 35 years I’ll have a nice toned TVM to show off in the nursing home.)

But, ok, blah-blah-blah, what the heck does my baby belly have to do with your writing?

As a writer, if you’re dealing with a larger-than-life middle as you write your book, what I like to call your Story Abdominis™ probably needs some strengthening. A book, like a body, doesn’t just turn into a shapely machine over night. You’ve got to engage those Story Abdominis™ muscles as you revise. Over time, as you flex your Story Abdominis™ again and again, you’ll find you develop a stronger intuition – even in early drafts – of what to leave in and what to put through another round of plank pose.

a child scoops seeds from a cantaloupe

(And before we go any further, I’ll state for the record that books, like bodies, have middles of all different shapes and sizes, each according to its own wisdom. Embrace your 1200 page saga if that’s what you’re writing. You’ll still want to use your Story Abdominis™, because no matter how sprawling your narrative, your readers will appreciate your leaving the unnecessary bits out. I would also like to state for the record that I cherish my belly now, despite its structural reorganizing, because I grew two miraculous beings in there. I will never take my body for granted again.)

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Back to writing! If you’re struggling to engage the core muscles of your stories, here are a few exercises that’ll strengthen your story from the inside out.

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Write your middle first.

I know it sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re a planner or an outliner, and you know what’s going to happen throughout the mid-stretch of your story, try writing those scenes first.

It’ll get your flow going, and may actually influence (reversely) your beginning and your end.

Also, as someone who edits a lot, I notice trends, and one of the biggest is that writers tend to “rush” their beginnings and endings, while spending too much time in the middle. My hunch is, beginnings get rushed because the writer is excited to get into the body of the story. Endings are rushed because the writer wants to wrap things up and be done with it. But middles drag on and on. So if you treat your middle like the beginning and ending, brevity might inadvertently, subconsciously, work its way into the words. 

Think of it this way: you’ll be rushing toward the beginning and the ending, well prepared to give them the time and space they deserve.

* Technique *

Take a look at another book.

Do you remember the last book you didn’t finish? No matter what kind of reader you are, there’s a good chance you jumped ship somewhere in the middle. 

Think about why: did the plot drag? Were the characters uninteresting? Did the structure rub you the wrong way? Maybe it was none (or all of the above) but the story just didn’t gel for you. 

For me, the last book I abandoned was Little Women. I swear I have been trying to read that book since I was ten, and can never get into it. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen the movie and know what’s going to happen. Perhaps it’s too sentimental or the plot moves too slowly for my tastes. Likely, it’s some combination of all three. 

Beta readers are great for picking up on the “boring stuff,” and I highly recommend having a group of people whom you trust to read your early drafts. Ask them to note where their attention flags. If they’re willing, ask them to write a plot summary—and watch for what they leave out (chances are if they don’t remember it, it didn’t touch them).

There are some things you can do, pre-beta reader, to tighten up that dreaded sag:

1. Don’t belabor the point. Details are good and necessary craft elements, but avoid going bananas. We all know they’re yellow when they’re ripe. We all know they bruise easily. We all know they’re a great source of potassium. Keep the description to a minimum unless your reader really, truly, might not know the point you’re driving home (like, say, that bananas float in water) or it is without a doubt integral to your story (like if you take it out, the story will collapse like an undercooked banana cake). 

2. Don’t repeat yourself unless absolutely necessary. Word count doesn’t make a novel, a story arc does. Repeating plot points and character traits (unless you’ve got an echoing structure) will only serve to loosen the impact of your story.

3. Leave backstory out of it. Nuff said, right?

4. Trim dialogue to the essentials. I’ve got a great, FREE, worksheet on how to create dynamite dialogue. You can get it by signing up for the mailing list. Remember: Dialogue is conversation elevated to an art form. As with sculpture, remove all the unnecessary material to reveal the shape beneath.

5. Think: SUSPENSE. You don’t have to be writing genre fiction to use suspense to your best interest. Suspense isn’t necessarily physical action—there are lots of surprising ways to build tension in a narrative: desire, secrets, history, the natural world, etc. 

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Talk It Out or Reverse Outline

If you’ve already completed a full draft of your book and are struggling with a bloated middle as you revise, considering hiring a book coach to talk things through. An experienced coach will help guide you in distilling the essence of your book and in identifying your core themes so that you can tighten your narrative.

Another way to accomplish this is to “reverse outline.” To do this, you read only the first and last sentence of each chapter, and then make notes, from memory, of what happens within that chapter. Do this chronologically, starting with the Prologue or Chapter 1 all the way through to the end. Keep the summaries short, only a few lines.

Then, keeping these notes handy, do a full read-through of your manuscript.  See how your memory of each chapter corresponds with what’s actually in each chapter. Chances are, if you forgot it happened, it’s unnecessary to plot or character development and can probably be excised.

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I don’t know about you, but as a writer, I’ll try just about anything to get myself to the page and to save time in the process. But over the years, I’ve discovered that fancy computer programs and elaborate rituals serve mainly as distractions from the real work of writing.

I keep it simple: my first drafts are written by hand, I edit on printed paper, I trust a few beta readers with workable drafts, and most importantly, I trust my instinct when something is finished. 

One of the most important tools I use as a writer is a high-functioning bullshit detector. Beginning, middle, or end, if you’re skimming parts of your story, chances are your readers will too. 

Middles have a tendency to sag—physically, logistically—it’s where tension is the weakest in pretty much everything that functions on a line (and for the sake of ease when it comes to talking about middles, let’s all agree that stories, even the most non-linear of them, are read with a sense of beginning → end along a timeline). And learning to craft a lean middle for your stories will always serve you well.

By being aware, and taking steps to strengthen your Story Abdominis™, you too can strengthen your book’s bulging midsection. (Some fun, and funny, thoughts on “mushy middles” here.)

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Want to find out more about what it’s like to work with a writing coach? Get in touch.

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