Cures for the Sagging Middle

The word “middle” gets a bad rap. Middle age is associated with “midlife crisis.” Middle of the road in politics means wishy washy, often referring to a person with no guiding principles. In music, MOR signifies an artist who takes the safe route, the plain, formulaic and predictable road.

In fiction, the middle is where novels either soar or die. Mystery writer James Scott Bell has written a book about the importance of the middle, where many authors get stuck. Here is his recent post from The Kill Zone blog.

Bell’s book is called, “Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.”

In the classic three-act structure, the midpoint is when the main character must take a stand. The main character shifts from reactive to proactive. Often it is referred to as a reversal. As Janice Hardy puts it in her Fiction University blog:

“The midpoint reversal creates the center point for the story arc, and connects the beginning with the ending. The first half of the novel is all about the protagonist discovering he has a problem and trying to solve it, and the second half is all about the protagonist realizing it won’t be so easy and he’ll have to go above and beyond to succeed. It’s also a solid turning point to write toward to avoid a sagging middle.”

The midpoint reveals who the main character is and what she must do to overcome her obstacles and reach her goals. I can hear that author voice in my head saying, “But I already know who the main character is. I’ve written a five-page character sketch. This advice doesn’t help me at all.”

Fair enough, but the question the author must answer is this: how have you forced the author to confront her fears? Have you put your main character to the test? Have you made it harder for your author or have you let her off the hook?

Here are some of the causes of the sagging middle, based on my own experiences:

• Failure to think the story through. This is a particular problem for pantsers. As a recovering pantser, I’m guilty of this. I’ve started many a story with a great premise that includes a beginning, a middle and an end. Or least that’s what I thought. But when I got to the middle my story ran out of steam. I hadn’t considered all the possibilities. I hadn’t put the main character through the kinds of challenges that result in transformative growth. I envisioned a straight road to the finish line, but I failed to put any bumps or potholes in that road.

• Lack of complexity in the story. This relates to the first cause. Let’s say you are writing a murder mystery. The detective discovers the identity of the killer in Chapter 3. He was the only one who had a weapon, a motive and a key to the victim’s apartment. Not much of a story there. What if those same circumstances existed, but the obvious suspect had an airtight alibi? He was in Australia at the time of the murder. Now what? Did someone close to him steal the key? Who else could have had a motive? What if someone else fingered this guy to hide his own guilt? What about that insurance policy that named his younger sister as beneficiary, and not his close friend? Ah, now you have multiple suspects.

• Poor character development. This sometimes stems from a writer not giving his character serious flaws that prevent her from reaching her goals. Or, placing daunting challenges in front of her. Weak characters produce weak stories, which are often exposed when the writer gets to the middle.

• Lack of imagination and a failure to explore all the possibilities. It’s been said that writers when developing a story should ask a series of “what if” questions. What if this happened? What if I put my character in a terrible situation? How would she react? What would she do? How could she make her situation worse? Or to paraphrase literary agent and fiction writing guru Donald Maass, Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to your character Then, make it happen.

So what should writers do to avoid to add sizzle to the middle of their stories? Here are a couple of ideas:

Use the midpoint reversal Janice Hardy described in her blog post. As she puts it, the midpoint reversal throws the plot sideways because the main character realizes her worldview or plan will not work and, as a result, she has to change in some fundamental way. But not just internally. Her actions have to change. Events have made her goal harder to reach. What she was doing in the past won’t work. This occurs around the halfway point. Often it is manifested by a disruptive event that creates peril or a crisis for the main character. This launches the second half of the novel.

The midpoint reversal almost always involves higher stakes and a loss of the main character’s support system. A supporting character is no longer available. Or, the main character loses her job. Or there’s a death in the family. There are numerous ways a writer can create a more challenging road for the main character. Whatever event you choose it should grow organically out of the story or there should be some foreshadowing of it.

Think about how to disrupt the main character’s world and create ever-increasing daunting trials. The possibilities are endless. Use all the tools in your toolbox: opposing characters, antagonists, deep, dark secrets, family dysfunction, power struggles.

What about you? Do you struggle with the sagging middle of your story? What works best for you?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Cures for the Sagging Middle

  1. Aging Ophelia

    I’m terribly blind about my middles, and they often sag– if in fact they are not just bones instead.

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