Being a Better Writer: Avoiding a Sagging Middle

All right! And we’re back with today’s follow-up to one of our more recent posts! Remember? The one about health?

Okay, I’m actually joking. This isn’t a post about that. But it was too good an opportunity a joke to pass up. Sagging middle … anyway …

No, today is another topic by request, but it’s not about that sagging gut. Well, it’s not about the sag you were just thinking of, but the one you probably thought of when you first saw the title to this BaBW post. You know, the one that you’re worried about finding in the middle of your story.

Yes, that middle.

So, let’s dive right in. We’ll do that by first asking this question for those who may not have heard the term: what is a sagging middle?

The Sagging Middle
Well, let’s take a look at an old principle of storytelling, one that most, if not all of you, should be familiar with: The concept of rising action. We’ve spoken about this before, actually, when discussing pacing (twice, actually). But the core idea is that you want to give your readers and ebb and flow to the tension of the story. As time goes on, the tension rises, the reader gets sucked in, we have a climactic moment of some kind, and then the story eases off for a bit and lets the reader relax. In the end, we end up with a story structure that looks a bit like this:

timeline-regular

Yes, I did just make this in Paint. I know it’s a little rough, but I think it gets the point across. Here we have a basic three-act structure. Each act raises the tension, reaches a mini-climax, and leads the audience into the next act.

Right, most of you know this. So, sagging middle? Well, that looks like this:

timeline-sag

Again, made in paint, so not the best. I didn’t even label it this time, though if you can see the picture above, you can no doubt fill in the blanks.

You can also see the problem, clear as day. The middle of the story? It’s just one giant lull. Nothing’s happening. Where the three-act we had above had a clear rise-and-fall gait to it, this story starts in similar fashion … but then never really recovers after that initial fall, instead going into a slump that lasts until the finale.

It sags.

That’s what we’re talking about today. That is a sagging middle.

Right, so what’s the problem, then. Not just the name, but the actual problem? And, now that we’ve identified it, how do we go about solving it?

Well, the first is easy. The problem is that the middle doesn’t have anything happening. It’s just there. If this were a sword-and-sorcery fantasy novel, that first climax would be the young youth learning of their destiny to defeat the dark lord and fighting themselves free of the villains clutches, while the finale would be them defeating the dark lord, while the middle? Well … it’d be lots of travel to get to that point, maybe. Or a lot of wandering around before the lead-in to that last battle.

Either way, regardless of which it is, do you see the problem there? Nothing is happening. There’s a long, low, lull, and that’s not great for the story. Look at all that time that’s passing. Those are pages the reader has to sit through, and after the first little bit, all they’re going to be thinking is “get to the point already!”

The middle is sagging. There’s nothing to keep the reader engaged, nothing to keep them interested. Nothing’s happening.

Okay, to be fair, I don’t mean nothing nothing. I’m sure that a story that has this problem still has something going on. It’s very unlikely that the characters are just sitting around staring at one another. But whatever is happening, be that travel, character “development,” or whatever else the author has put in there is something that just is. It’s not really raising the tension, and it’s not really moving the story. Or it is raising the tension, but over such a long period of time that the reader grows bored.

Again, it’s empty material. Some things might be happening here and there, but the author is stretching them out for whatever reason.

Right, I think we’ve about talked about this enough to almost turn this into a sagging middle, so let’s move forward and talk about how we fix this. We’ve got a sagging middle, we’ve identified it, now what do we do about it? Well, let’s talk about a few different ways.

Simplify
This one’s actually the easiest and most straightforward: Simplify things. Trim the fat. In other words, you’ve got a sagging middle, like the diagram above? Trim it. Condense it. Shorten it. You don’t need to have ten chapters of the character’s traveling from point A to point B if all that’s really happening there is a few key conversations and then the arrival. Cut the excess.

The result? Well, if we apply that to the story above, we end up with a plot structure like this:

timeline-trimSee? That’s not that bad (outside of my terrible Paint drawing). Sure, it doesn’t have the length of the original, but it’s not going to lose the reader somewhere in that middle either. Rather than try to drag things out with “the characters know this and are heading for the final battle … over and over and over,” it simply says “Hey, the characters know this, and bam, here’s the final battle.”

Now, this may not be the solution you want, because after all, it’s simplified the story a bit as well. This is a very straightforward piece, now. Rising tension, act climax, fall, more rising tension, and then finale, resolution. We’ve just truncated things quite a bit. But this is a way to eliminate the problem of the sagging middle. Figure out what you don’t need. Sit and look at each piece and ask yourself “What does this do for the story? What does it do to move the reader forward towards the resolution?” Then cut that which doesn’t fulfill a purpose.

You’ll see stories that need this treatment from time to time, most often in television,. where stories are often “expanded” (ie given a deliberate sagging middle) in order to stretch them out the length of a full season. You might be able to think of one yourself, where the characters know what they need to do, but just … seem … to … take… forever … to … do … it?

Yeah. We don’t want that. Simply put, if you’ve given your characters reason and cause to go do something, let them do it. Don’t just stretch it out for the sake of stretching it out.

Now, all that said … suppose you don’t want to cut the middle section out of your story. After all, the two-act structure is a little outdated. Suppose you want other methods of saving that middle?

New Challenges
Well, then the next simplest thing to do would be to, rather than trim the middle, rewrite it with new challenges, this introducing another “act” along the course of the story. For example, earlier the comparison I gave was a standard sword-and-sorcery where the first act climax was the hero learning who they were, fighting off servants of the dark lord, and setting out on their journey. The sagging middle, meanwhile, was their journey, and then came the climactic battle.

Right, so that middle part’s sagging? Spice it up! Rather than making the journey one long lull, put new challenges ahead of the character. Something, anything to increase the tension and create conflict that will push the characters and entertain the reader. It could be, for example, something as simple as making the journey take place during a winter, wherein the characters gradually run short of supplies and race against an approaching, deadly winter storm which eventually they must face.

Or … they could face conflict of another sort. A dangerous predator, dispatched by the villain, hunting them and picking off members of their group, one by one. Or perhaps a betrayer inside the party, working against all of them and forcing them to distrust one another.

You could pick any one of dozens of different ideas, or more than one, but the point is that you give the reader another rise-and-fall with a climax in place of that sagging middle. Whatever their journey towards the climax is, you add another step to it. Something that will challenge your characters, and maybe even push them to new limits.

Want a great example? Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. No, I’m not talking about what takes place in the film, but the whole of the film itself. The Empire Strikes Back followed on the heels of A New Hope, which ended with the primary characters having dealt a serious blow to the evil Imperial Empire and more determined than ever to defeat them once and for all, a feat they would accomplish in Return of the Jedi. But rather than spending the film’s plot on the rebellion going around slowly gathering strength, it instead opened in a much different way: The Evil Empire followed the title and kicked the heroes in the teeth. People were captured, bases were lost, and all the while the characters were struggling to overcome new challenges and changes.

Got a sagging middle? You can trim the fat, sure. Or you can turn that fat into muscle. Story muscle. Give your characters new challenges. New trials to face that will guide them towards that finale. New arcs along the core plot.

Of course, this isn’t all you can do …

The Twist
If you’ve seen the recent Goosebumps movie (if you haven’t, it’s on Netflix and good fun), you might be familiar with this one, as R.L. Stine/Jack Black utters it a couple of times, calling it one of the most important elements of the story.

Well, he’s not wrong. A properly prepared twist can throw a whole narrative into question and send everything spiraling to new heights of tension. For example, the example above where we trimmed out the sagging middle, cutting the stuff that wasn’t really vital and letting the characters get to the final battle? Well, what if that wasn’t the final battle? What if instead, the characters arrived at that “finale” to find that they were wrong about most everything, and instead had a whole different journey to go on? What if our little diagram suddenly looked like this:

timeline-twist

Oh, hey. We cut the sagging middle, but there’s still a lot going on. Now, just as our story was going into the original resolution, the TWIST happens, and everything is turned on its head. Suddenly there’s the true finale on the horizon, a new climax that the twist has escalated us towards. There’s also the helpfully labeled “Optional Climax,” which I labeled as such because it really is based on your story. You can just rush right to the twist, or you can throw in the characters dealing with the twist, the fallout of it, etc.

Regardless of how you handle it, this is another way to get around that sagging middle (or more precisely, a way to keep the story from being far too short once you’ve cut the sagging middle). Twist things! Turn things on their head! Easier said than done; after all a twist does need to make sense and be foreshadowed in some way, but done properly this can help turn a story that wasn’t what you wanted once it was done and the fat had been trimmed into something with a lot of bite to it. The original finale is not the middle, along with the twist, and that’s certainly not sagging.

Now, this is a method that may take some reworking, especially if you’re in the “I’ve written this” phase and not the planning phase. But it’s a solid method for expanding on something that’s suffering from a sagging middle, especially if you’re worried cutting it may make the story too straightforward or short.

What’s the twist? Well … that comes down to you. Maybe you can’t even work one in, because let’s face it, not every story needs one. And your story doesn’t need to have been suffering from a sagging middle for one to work.

But if you’ve trimmed that sagging middle and are looking for a way to change things up, a twist can help. It can lengthen things out and take the story in a new direction, keeping that rising tension where you want it.

Subplots
But suppose you don’t want to do any of these things. You don’t want to trim it, because what you have isn’t 100% worthless … but it’s not enough to be exciting either. And you want to keep it without inserting extra steps to the plot or putting in a twist. But you still don’t want all that stuff in the middle to be dragging on for the reader … so you spice it up! With a subplot.

Now, if you’re not familiar with a subplot, it’s pretty simple: It’s really exactly what it sounds like. It’s a plot that is secondary and occurs over a part of the course of your primary plot. So in the sword-and-sorcery example given above, the subplot could be romantic. The protagonist could develop a shared interest with someone in their party (or perhaps not shared), complete with its own ups and downs. Or, a subplot could be made out of the protagonist’s mentor character struggling to regain approval from their old colleagues.

This can be anything that is a secondary story nestled along the primary one. It’ll have its own ups and downs just like the primary plot, just smaller. Think of it, if it helps, as a shrunken version of the several-act structure we looked at first superimposed over that sagging middle in our problem example. The result is a story that while taking the long route to get to that big finale, has a smaller, little story that changes the middle from a low curve to some small rise-and-fall motions.

Now, that’s not all there is too it, unfortunately. That would be too easy. No, there is a caveat I must mention: the subplot needs to tie back in to the story on a whole.

Why? Well because you don’t want two different story threads pulling at one another. A subplot is like a submarine, it’s “beneath” the core plot, rather than pulling against it or being the “surface” (ie, the focal point of all attention all the time). A subplot needs to nestle inside the core plot and, if possible, support its themes, developments and characters. Which is often why resolutions of subplots will include elements or skills that will then tie back into the core plot—to keep them connected.

Tying It All Together
We’re not done yet. There’s still one last approach we can take. More than just simplifying our story, introducing new challenges, a twist, or creating a subplot. No, there’s one more thing we can do to pull this middle up.

We can do all of it.

Well, not all of it. But more than one of them. We can simplify and throw in a twist, as discussed earlier. But we could also throw a new challenge into the mix when we do that. Or a subplot. Or a twist with a subplot. Simplification with a new challenge.

Or we can do every last one of them. It’s up to you! Basically, while just one of these approaches can help lift that sinking middle portion of the story, combining them together can be a far more useful approach to your storytelling. One’s a simple enough fix, but two can be something that really starts to put some spin on your story and tugs at the characters. Which in turn can let them shine and …

Well, I don’t think I need to go much further on that. We’ve already talked a bit about how each of these approaches can be good for your story, and in turn for your readers. Compounding them upon one another brings all the benefits together, which isn’t a bad prospect.

Though it can be. Not every tool in the writer’s toolbox is the one you need. Sometimes a subplot can be a distraction, or a stepping stone in the plot a nonessential contrivance. Choose what’s best for your story, what will most effectively convey the style, genre, and emotion you want to go for. Don’t throw it all in the mix unless you think it will do some good.

Prevention
Now, with all this said, there’s still one more thing to talk about: Prevention. After all, it’s better to catch the sagging middle before it happens. The question is: how?

Look ahead. Remember earlier when I talked about simplifying? Look ahead with that in mind. Before you write something, ask what it brings to the story, why you’re writing it. What will the reader get out of it. Does it move the story forward? Will it pull the reader in?

Go further. Look towards the end of the story. Will the part you are at be exciting in the grand scheme? Or will it be a moment of “just get to the good stuff already?” But if you cut it, will it then weaken the good stuff later?

Learn to look ahead and critique what you write before you write it from a sense of “what is this for?” If you do this, as you work your way through the story, you’ll likely catch large weaknesses like a sagging middle before you write them, and adjust accordingly.

So, look ahead. Ask yourself what a section of the story will accomplish. Will make the reader enjoy it?

Conclusion
Well, there you have it—what a sagging middle is, a bunch of advice on ways to fix it, and a caution to look ahead when writing so that you don’t end up in this trap to begin with.

And if you do fall into it, don’t despair. Take a careful look at things. Trim the fat where necessary. Consider adding a subplot, a new stepping stone, a twist, or maybe a combination of them all. Don’t give up. You can polish things until they shine pretty well. Just keep at.

Good luck. Now go get writing.

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2 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Avoiding a Sagging Middle

  1. […] Avoiding a Sagging Middle— Well, let’s take a look at an old principle of storytelling, one that most, if not all of you, should be familiar with: The concept of rising action. We’ve spoken about this before, actually, when discussing pacing (twice, actually). But the core idea is that you want to give your readers and ebb and flow to the tension of the story. As time goes on, the tension rises, the reader gets sucked in, we have a climactic moment of some kind, and then the story eases off for a bit and lets the reader relax. […]

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