How Do You Fix a Sagging Middle?
It's always fun to embark on a new writing voyage. Driven by an intriguing premise, compelling characters, or thrilling plot twists in the wings, the beginning of the drafting process is often the most exciting part. However, it’s not uncommon to eventually encounter a dip in momentum, especially if you face the issue of a “sagging middle” to your story.
What is a sagging middle? It’s when the midsection of your book feels less exciting or more formidable to write than the beginning chapters. This is often because the story has become bloated with so many threads to keep track of that the task of weaving all the character arcs, plot twists, and bits of worldbuilding together—while keeping the flow seamless and engaging—has become paralyzingly daunting.
What can you do? Is the midsection of your draft just doomed to be a messy, tangled swamp of storylines to slog through? Not at all! This is the point in your draft when your story can really take off. Read on for some tips to tackle—and heighten— the second act of your book.
Internalize the heart of your story—and trim the excess
If you feel like your draft is sagging in the middle, the first thing you can do to ramp things back up is cut the elements that were fun when you started, but ultimately are unnecessary.
Start this process by internalizing the heart of your story to use as a preliminary trimming guide. By recentering your draft on the things that matter most (e.g. the theme and character arc of your protagonist), you will gain clarity on which of the many dangling threads you need to condense, elevate, or remove entirely.
Be on the lookout for anything that is weighing your story down instead of propelling it forward—like superfluous side quests, POVs, side characters, nonessential worldbuilding, and backstory info-dumping. These are the kinds of things that contribute to your story’s sagging middle.
For example, if the middle of The Hunger Games was full of non-essential scenes, like loads of backstory from lovesick Peeta's POV, or long descriptions of the history of all 13 districts in Panem, many readers would lose interest. By sticking to the heart of the story—defying tyranny and oppression, and Katniss's growth into a symbol of rebellion— Suzanne Collins keeps our interest through the middle and all the way to the end.
Write toward important character milestones
Whether you’re a plotter with an existing outline, a pantser who’s discovery writing, or someone who operates somewhere in between, weaving your story threads together in effective and gripping ways is imperative for fixing a sagging middle. How do you do this? Start by knowing where all of your story elements ultimately need to end up.
In the three-act structure, the second act is when your characters encounter fresh challenges in a precedented situation (Luke Skywalker is in space with a Jedi), and your story is actively delivering its premise (Harry Potter is in a magical school, getting into supernatural mischief).
Now ask yourself: What goal is your hero trying to reach? What complications or obstacles are standing in the way of that goal? And how will the hero change by the end of the story? The answers to these questions will help you write toward the two biggest milestones your protagonist will reach in this section of the book—the midpoint of the story (the "big twist") and the lowest point of their character arc (which is where Act Two effectively ends, and the third act begins).
Just remember to make the midpoint and low point significant moments for your character’s development— how do these points in the story affect not just their external goal (what they want), but their internal growth (what they need)? When you map important, developmental milestones for your protagonist into your story, the middle will become a transformational powerhouse.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker transforms from a simple farm boy to a Rebel and future Jedi Knight. Luke's midpoint occurs when the Millenium Falcon arrives at where Alderaan should be, but the planet has been destroyed by the Death Star. Not only is Luke's goal of taking Obi-Wan to Alderaan now impossible, but there's another twist! The spaceship is caught in a tractor beam and pulled aboard the Death Star. The twist, and each scene that follows, set up Luke's low point: witnessing the death of his mentor at the hands of Darth Vader. These Act Two milestones make Luke's transformation inevitable.
Let’s return to The Hunger Games. Katniss’s midpoint occurs when she’s saved by Peeta, who she thought was allied with the powerful tributes trying to kill her. During her low point, Katniss grieves the loss of Rue, the first person to see Katniss as a leader and a protector. In both of these character milestones, Katniss’s arc as someone who will eventually stand up to tyranny is either bolstered or challenged, which means that building up to these carefully planned landmarks while drafting the middle section of The Hunger Games will help all the story threads being written (action sequences, friendships, love triangles, etc.) stay tightly tied to the story’s theme. A tightly woven draft cannot sustain a saggy middle.
For a quick look at how to plan for a strong midpoint and a rewarding low point to keep your midsection scenes compact, take a look at this blog post about creating a beat sheet.
Raise the stakes
You can also fix a sagging middle of your story by heightening the tension between your major plot points. Not only will this make the second act more thrilling to write, but it will also help you cut or rework whatever story elements are still weighing your book down.
In Star Wars, Luke isn't given much time to grieve Obi-Wan's death at his low point. Instead, the Millenium Falcon is immediately attacked by the Empire's forces. Worse, the very villains they just escaped from are tracking the ship— putting not just Luke and his friends in danger, but risking the entire Rebel Alliance. This raising of the stakes keeps the audience on the edge of their seats as the story heads into the third act.
Elevating the tension of the external plot isn't the only way to keep the reader engaged. You can also try raising the emotional stakes of your book. Start by examining the midpoint, low point, and other turning points of the narrative, and ask yourself how you can give them an even greater emotional impact.
For example, while it’s horrible enough that Katniss loses her friend Rue, the decision to make Rue a young, innocent child who not only reminds Katniss of the sister she kept out of the arena but also symbolizes the people she wants to protect, makes this loss even more devastating.
With the help of these kinds of carefully-honed stakes, every event and bit of dialogue in the once-sagging middle of your story will become taut and engaging as you barrel from one tense scene to the next. Now, instead of a bloated, daunting midsection to write, you have a story packed with high-stakes character development and turning points that will be thrilling to write and read.