Sometimes, the middle of your story is like a confused forest trail.
The trail starts out in front of your little cabin, so you follow it. It’s marked, “castle road,” so you assume you’re going to end up at a castle. Your trail winds under beehives, around boulders, and even through a tunnel. You follow it through twists and turns, and think you might have seen that beehive before.
But where is that castle? Your trail is a little bewildered. Is it left, through the giant mushrooms, or right, over the stream? Maybe you make it to the castle, or maybe you return to your cabin. But either way, you suspect there is a better trail to the castle.
Your story might be like this confused forest trail. It starts one place and ends up another, but the middle is overstuffed with loops and detours. Maybe those loops and detours are irrelevant subplots and purposeless dialogue, or maybe they are literally places your characters wander into–places in the opposite direction of the castle.
A sagging middle undermines your story in significant ways. Firstly, they stall your novel’s plot. When your story meanders, doubles back, or even just slows dramatically, its focus is blurred. Each part of a story must be influential and intertwined with the next–but a sagging middle won’t make the cut.
This leads into our second danger–losing your readers’ interest. Readers may be taken in by an unreliable narrator, but they are no fools. They can sense when your story arc plateaus. Consequently, they’ll skim–or worse, drop the book entirely. Yikes!
Finally, you as the writer might become bored with the story and decide that it’s the perfect time to start a new one… and viola, your story lies crumpled in a drawer or buried in a folder, cursed to a destiny of incompleteness.
Sagging middles are definitely dangerous. Below are three major ways you can strengthen your sagging middle.
This is the big one. One of the most important things to keep in mind as you write your story’s middle is “What is the main plot?” Too often, side plots and scenery beckon. While these are good in the right amounts, you must be careful not to let them overtake your story.
Keep Moving Forward
Each scene in your story should add to the ones before and set the groundwork for the ones after. Yes, story middles are roughly half of the book, but they must still be tight and pull their share. Here are some questions to ask to help you keep moving forward:
What is my character’s next step towards their goal? This can apply to protagonist, villain, two-face … practically anyone, as long as it progresses the plot. Whether their previous step has been successful, or they need to replan, each character will strive to reach their goal.
Also, keep in mind that the second act is preparation for the climax. Everything must prepare for, propel towards, or point to that fated final struggle.
What naturally or unavoidably comes next, based on what just happened? Think of a domino chain. You tap the first one, and naturally (or unavoidably) it knocks over the next, and the next, until the end.
For example, in Princess Academy by Shannon Hale, mountain girl Miri is sent to a school to study. Naturally, she learns more about the world–including the mountain she lives on. When she discovers something that has the potential to improve her people’s welfare drastically, she sets off a chain of events involving decisions, relationships, and action.
Trim your story down to its essentials. Which scenes, places, and characters are necessary for your plot to function? Everything should be tight and cohesive. After all, those which aren’t are deadweight. Either cut that extra fluff, or turn it into substance.
J. K. Rowling does this well in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. One of the workers on the Knight Bus might have easily been a character the author invented just to drive the bus. But he doubles as the person who first tells Harry about Sirius Black.
Secondly, merge things in your story instead of spreading them wide. Work with the characters you already have and the places you’ve already established.
Instead of a squire finding your hero in a library, and then a young sailor rescuing the heroine from an evil uncle–why not the squire and the sailor be the same? Or maybe your villain’s headquarters is in a forest, but your shapeshifter lives in a cave. If you set the cave in the forest, you’ll get an opportunity for them to run into each other, and explore the setting more thoroughly too.
Remember: focus your story by continuing to move forward and diving deeper.
This both supports and complements our previous piece of advice on diving deeper. Explore those plot threads you have decided to keep. And yet, remember that novels are complex–more complex than short stories and novellas, as a result of their length. Your novel’s size should come from muscle, not flab.
Develop your subplots. If you have them, they’d better help your main plot along. Make your side stories count by using them to reveal information to the protagonist or reader.
For instance, in Ember Falls by S. D. Smith, Heather and Picket are fighting Morbin Blackhawk’s army for the rightful ruler of Natalia. Meanwhile, scenes about a previously unknown slave of Morbin named Sween pop up here and there. While Sween’s struggle isn’t the main focus of Ember Falls, it is important to the story because it reveals more about the plight of Morbin’s slaves, which soon becomes relevant to Heather and Picket.
Another way to use your subplots is to use them to reveal more about the characters in your dominant narrative. Maybe, amid trying to save the world, your heroine is clashing with her longtime friend. This is a great opportunity to show your readers another side of her personality, and possibly some of the fears or backstory that influences her decisions in her saving-the-world mission.
Just make sure that each subplot is important to the main plot. Otherwise, they will just distract your readers (and you).
This leads us to the second way you can explore your story: by revealing backstory. Use high-pressure situations, triggering moments, or close friends to pry out the secrets of your characters. Especially the older ones, because they’re generally more mysterious and have more potential for a dark (or humorous) past.
Just look at Podo Helmer in Andrew Peterson’s North! Or Be Eaten. It’s only when Podo and his family are hurtling toward the Dark Sea that Podo is forced to confess his murderous past and the way the beasts of the water would kill him if they could. Although the majority of North! Or Be Eaten is focused on Podo’s grandkids, this scene and the chain of events it sets off ends up deepening the grandkids’ sense of their own powers, and also their relationship with Podo.
As with the previous type of exploration, just make sure that you keep your backstory focused on what matters to the story at hand.
Expand your story by giving your readers a surprise. Or a heart attack. Your choice. Often, twists are built into the plot, so this is a great way to add interest to your story without subtracting from its focus.
This might mean staging a revelation. Maybe your detective stumbles across a perspective-shifting clue. However, this tool is not just for those in the mystery genre. After all, how many orphan stories have you read where the kid finds out his mysterious parents were actually the king and queen? Or even in realistic fiction–when your schoolgirl Ella realizes that her friend was gossipping about her?
Keep in mind that for these revelations to earn their keep, they must usually affect a decision your character makes. So your detective now decides to hunt a different suspect. The prince tries to claim the throne–or runs from it. The schoolgirl confronts her friend, or maybe decides to withdraw from social life. Your revelation, however small, should cause the enlightened character to act in a way that will change the story’s trajectory.
You might also write an unexpected event. Like revelations, unexpected events will change the trajectory of the story. The difference is that a revelation is surprising information, while an unexpected event is just that–an event, a surprising action. Who acts and whom that surprises is up to you. Maybe the villain takes the protagonist unawares … or maybe it’s the protagonist taking the reader unawares. Explore your options.
Another common difference is that your character is often forced to react to an unexpected event more quickly (and often rashly) than a revelation. So use that to your advantage. How does he or she react under pressure? What are the consequences of that choice of action?
Unexpected events are often used in plot-driven stories, but don’t restrict them to that genre! Even just a bold decision of the protagonist’s can do the trick, like when Anne cracked her slate over Gilbert’s head in L. M. Montgomery’s classic.
Revelations and unexpected events both force something to change. The former causes the illuminated character to change the plot, the latter causes the plot to direct the character.
We’ve already mentioned merging story parts before, but now it’s time for you to deepen them. Use high-pressure scenes and tension to refine your characters and propel them towards their goal.
Have you ever heard the saying, “No conflict, no story”? Well–surprise, surprise–no conflict, no middle. If your middle feels like nothing is happening, this section might be for you. One of the quickest ways for you to lose your story’s drive, your readers’ attention, and that amazing character arc, is to let your protagonist reach all of their goals easily.
Conflict keeps them fighting for their goal and strengthens (and sometimes weakens) their resolve. And it’s also where your characters prove their mettle. You’ll never know if your warrior is brave until he faces danger. You’ll never know how far your fierce mother will go to protect her children if they never need protection.
One of the most common sources of conflict comes from when two individuals butt heads. The most obvious example of this is when your protagonist duels your villain. This reminds your readers what they’re up against and gives the two characters time to develop their feelings towards the other before the climax. Even if your story doesn’t have a singular antagonist, you can still use opponents to hinder your hero.
In addition, some of the most revealing, character-defining conflict arises when allies fight each other. This causes them to second-guess their priorities–and themselves. If the allies end up separating, this leaves the protagonist with less aid, less safety, less companionship. And if they end up rejoining, each will bring to the other more experience and knowledge, along with relief and strength.
In Dust by Kara Swanson, sure, Claire’s struggle with the sinister James Hocken was unnerving. But what really struck the reader in the guts was when she realized her friend Peter had lied to her. This caused Claire to doubt everything Peter had said and made her feel more alone.
Don’t discount internal struggles either. This is where your main characters struggle with conflicting desires, motives, or emotions within them.
For instance, in C. S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew, Digory is torn between wanting to save his sick mother like Jadis suggests, and his promise to Aslan to help Narnia. He must decide who he trusts more–Jadis or Aslan–before he can do what he set out to do.
During internal struggles, your characters will battle their flaws, whether that’s insecurity, impatience, arrogance, or something else. Internal struggles not only raise tension, but also promote character growth, which is important for them to overcome their final obstacle.
Brian’s struggle with nature is the main conflict in Gary Paulsen’s survival story Hatchet. This involves everything from finding food and keeping warm to natural disasters and wild animals.
Causing your protagonist to battle nature (or even just a booby-trapped dungeon) is a great way to explore the realm they live in while testing their resourcefulness. Take advantage of struggles with nature to strengthen their skills for the climax.
Strengthen your story’s sagging middle by including conflict. This not only ups the tension, but also enables you and your readers to explore your characters’ priorities and motives, and the world they struggle with.
Make sure each conflict pushes your hero towards their goal. They might take another step forward, or maybe they’ll lose and learn a lesson. Either way, they’re closer to overcoming the climax.
One of the worst parts of sagging middles is you feel like you have nothing to write about. But one of the best ways to cure this is to raise your story’s tension. In addition, extra tension will keep your characters working, your plot advancing, and your readers turning pages.
Give your characters high stakes to fight against. High stakes can be anything from the earth’s imminent extinction to being alone at the lunch table to winning a court case. High stakes are crucial for your protagonist to strive for their goal so earnestly.
For example, in Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke and his team must destroy the Death Star, or else their headquarters will be demolished and the Emperor will reign without defiance. Without that incentive, viewers wouldn’t feel quite that level of tension.
Create a disaster. The secret is discovered, the base is infiltrated, the leader is captured, or worse. Now your characters really are tense. How will the antagonist take advantage of their vulnerability? How does this affect relationships between friends, rivals, coworkers? What does this do to propel them towards the climax?
Common plot structures and plotting advice sprinkle regular crises in their plot. Not to mention classics do too. Whether it’s Amy March falling through the ice or Mr. Tumnus turning to stone, seasoned authors use disasters as hinges in plot, character, relationships and more.
How To Strategize And Avoid A Sagging Middle
You’ve just discovered three main ways to strengthen your sagging middle, but what about planning for one in the first place? Here are some ways you can set yourself up for a strong middle.
Write the ending first. You probably have an idea of the ending of a story already, but writing it out solidifies the idea and all the details too–whether that be where your characters end up, how they feel towards each other and themselves, or how the climax turned out.
You’ll also get a feeling for what needs to happen and change for them to end up where they are.
So try writing the ending first, and then write the middle with the end in mind. And if your ending ends up changing–that’s totally okay too. It’s solidified, but not set in stone.
Outline. Now before you pantsers get anxious over the idea of spending three months thinking things through before actually writing the stuff, hear us out. Even if it’s just one afternoon, brainstorm at least three ways to stage revelations and raise tension and all that other fun stuff, jot them down, and refer to them when you write your draft. Then you’ll always know what happens next–and what happened before.
Scrutinize other books. Especially masterpieces, or ones that you know are amazing stories. Read their middles, keeping your eyes out for ways the author crafts backstories or keeps moving forward. How do they set each scene up? How does each part connect to the whole?
Get feedback. Admittedly, this one comes after you write the draft. Get a friend or a writing group to read your story. Then ask them when they felt bored, which things seemed out of place, or for any general ideas for improving your middle. Having a fresh pair of eyes on your novel might just do the trick.
Your Next Steps
You’ve learned that to strengthen your novel’s sagging middle, you must sharpen its focus, expand its horizon, and deepen its plot. You discovered how you can use each scene to move the plot forward and knit the story together. And surely, you’re eager to try.
To jumpstart you onto your way, we’ve compiled a worksheet for you to use to strengthen your novel’s sagging middle. It includes both planning prompts as well as editing questions. You can click the button below to download your freebie.