Many writers bog down and even stall out completely when they get to the middle section of their novel. A writer may know how they want it to begin and end, but getting their characters from point A to point B is an exercise which often involves beating one’s head against the desk.
Identify a Sagging Middle
The first step to any problem is identifying the problem. So how do you know if you’ve hit a sagging middle? If you’re like me (a pantser), this happens almost every book. Some writers only hit it every once in a while. Sometimes it takes an outside opinion (like a beta reader) to point out your sagging middle (with love and respect of course).
Watch for these warning signs:
- Writing suddenly feels harder (than normal) and you can’t get motivated
- Even you are bored, and you’re writing it
- You find yourself including lots of long explanations or descriptions
- You are writing a lot of telling vs. showing.
- Your conflict is not central to what you are writing
- Nothing has happened for several pages
- The tension you’ve built into the beginning loses steam
- The conflict is already close to being solved
- A secondary character has taken over
- A subplot has taken over
- What you are writing isn’t moving the story forward
- You don’t know what to write next
12 Ways to Fix a Sagging Middle
Here are 12 tips and tricks for dealing with that sagging middle that may just give your writing the boost it needs to get over the hump.
1. Review Your Conflict
Just about every writer I’ve talked to will say the first and most common issue behind a sagging middle is that they’ve lost sight of the conflict. Give yourself a few days break (if you can), then read everything you’ve written with an eye toward when/where you lost the conflict. You may need to back up and re-write, or you may just need to bring the conflict back in focus.
2. Revisit Your Characters Goals and/or Motivations
Your characters may have lost sight of why they are on this journey in the first place. Are they staying true to who they are? Are their goals remaining consistent? Or, if the goal has changed, is the reason clear and true to the story? Is their motivation still tangibly present?
3. Remove the Boring Bits
Did your dialogue just include all the niceties like “hello” and “goodbye”? Did you just describe every move your protagonist made to walk through a room and open a door? Is the information about their backstory you just included not really central to that plot point? You might be including the boring stuff just to hit word count, and you’re losing sight of your key story. It might be time for a slash and burn.
4. Do a Quick Outline
Sit down and outline your main plot points that you know you need to hit. You might be closer than you think to the next point, and you’re spending too much time on a scene. Or you might need to add another 20 pages of plot before you get there. Either way, seeing where you need to be next may give you ideas.
5. Make a Change
If you’re struggling, chances are your reader will to. Change it up for both of you. Switch locations, enter a scene from a different POV, revisit another subplot in progress. You get the point. Make a change.
6. Torture Your Characters / Up the Stakes
Think of the worst thing that could happen to your characters at this point in the story (something truly bad, or maybe a false high). Make a list of ideas. Pick the one that scares you. Discard your first one or two solutions for later in the book (they’ll be obvious to your readers too). Then run with it!
7. Add a Ticking Clock
If your characters suddenly have a time limit, I promise the tension will increase with it. It’ll also force you to write to that plot schedule now. So both you and the readers will feel the tension. 🙂
8. Build to a Minor Climax
Add a minor climax sooner in the plot. This might be a false high to give your characters further to fall later. It might be a stepping stone on the way to rock bottom. It also gives you a critical point to write to that is sooner than the end of the book (so is a mental trick for you as the author).
9. Write a Different Scene
Skip ahead and write the next scene up that you are really excited to get to. Just getting out of where you are stuck may get the juices flowing. How that scene goes may also give you ideas on how to connect the two points. Voila, no more sagging middle.
10. Write Backwards
This is one of my favorite tricks. Start at the very end of the book and write backwards a scene at a time. I guarantee that if you get enough scenes in there, having those ending details nailed down will inspire your brain with ideas on how to move forward from the middle.
11. Have Fun with the Fun & Games
In “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder, the sagging middle is typically the section called “Fun & Games.” This is supposed to be your opportunity to have fun with your characters and really develop both them and the plot. So, rather than resigning yourself to this section, have fun with it. Even get a little crazy with it. Believe it or not, this tends to be the section readers remember most. In movies, it’s often where the clips in the trailer come from.
12. Remember the Middle is the Important Part
The beginning of your book is the appetizer–introduce your characters, the conflict, and start them on the journey. Whet the readers’ appetites. The ending of your book is the dessert–the wrap up, the climax, the part where you leave your readers in whatever emotional state you are aiming for.
But the middle? The middle is the meat and potatoes. This is the main course. The appetizer and dessert by themselves are never enough. They don’t mean anything without the main course. You should be spending a good majority of your time fine-tuning the middle of your book, not just racing through it, or tolerating it, until you can get to the juicy bits at the end. As a dessert-fiend, I know how hard it is. But stick with it and spend the time you should with the middle.
Best of luck to you if you are dealing with the sagging middle. We’d love to hear from you as well. Do you have any other tips or tricks that work to take a sagging middle and make it a six-pack of gloriously tight writing?