8 Things Causing Your Novel’s Sagging Middle

8 Things Causing Your Novel’s Sagging Middle | Tips for fixing your novel’s sagging middle and falling in love with your story again. A must read for writers who have hit a block in the middle of their story.

The sagging middle is a problem many writers face involving the struggle to keep the middle of the story as interesting as the beginning. This is obviously a problem because if readers aren’t interested in the middle, they’ll stop reading before getting to the end.

Understanding the middle

In the beginning, we introduce our protagonist and throw a problem or opportunity at him that he fumbles with at first but finally grasps, and he sets out to defeat the problem or take advantage of the opportunity.

In the end, the protagonist overcomes the central conflict by defeating the antagonistic force or achieving the goal he set relative to the opportunity, or does whatever else is required for the story to come to a conclusion.

The middle is, of course, everything in between.

The middle is how your protagonist gets from wanting to do x to actually doing x. For entertainment purposes, the protagonist can’t get what he wants easily, he has to work for it. This means the middle is full of obstacles. Also for entertainment purposes, there has to be something at stake for the protagonist in order for the reader to want to see him fail or succeed. For the reader to actually care about this, they have to have some sort of connection with the character. Obstacles, stakes and characterisation are the bare minimum of what should be explored throughout the middle. If you’ve included these and still suffer from sagging middle syndrome, here are 8 things that might be to blame.

1. Your protagonist has no clear goal

When pantsers start writing, they often know next to nothing about their plot and characters, including what their protagonist wants. Even plotters might have missed this crucial element. Protagonists need goals; they’re either reacting to something or they want something—either way, they have a goal relative to the central conflict. If you find you have a sagging middle, it might be time to define or redefine your character’s goal.

How to fix it

Did you set a concrete goal in the beginning for your protagonist to strive toward? If not, you probably haven’t yet hit the middle. Explore your protagonist and central conflict further until your protagonist has something to achieve.

If your protagonist does have a concrete goal, list the steps they’ll need to take to achieve that goal. For each step, add an obstacle. There’s your middle.

2. Your protagonist gets everything too easily

If your character has a goal that they’ve then divided into smaller goals to work toward throughout the middle but you still have a sagging middle, maybe you’re too nice to your characters. If they set a goal, plan a course of action, achieve that goal and everything works out splendidly, you have a sagging middle because there aren’t any obstacles. When there aren’t any obstacles, there’s no conflict. Without conflict, books are boring.

How to fix it

What is it that allows your protagonist to achieve all of their goals every step of the way? Take those strengths away. Either force your character to find another way around the problem or force them to develop that strength you took away so that they can achieve their goals.

3. Your protagonist can’t catch a break

When your protagonist runs into too many obstacles, the plot hardly progresses at all. Things being too difficult is just as boring as things being too easy; thus, too much conflict can also cause a sagging middle. Readers lose faith in characters who can’t pull out a win every now and then. Worse, after a while it makes readers roll their eyes and all tension is lost.

How to fix it

Reduce the amount of obstacles your character has to face throughout the middle. Three obstacles of increasing difficulty is usually enough.

4. There isn’t enough at stake

When there’s nothing to lose or gain from the protagonist’s course of action, there’s not enough tension to maintain the readers’ interest. Even if you set up the stakes, readers won’t be sitting on the edge of their seat if you don’t remind them of what’s at stake or show that consequence coming closer or moving farther away. Lack of stakes and failure to reinforce or heighten stakes can both cause a sagging middle.

How to fix it

Use key middle scenes to remind your reader of what’s at stake. Have the Super Bad Consequence almost become a reality to kick the protagonist up the butt. After you’ve reinforced the stakes, heighten them. Put something else at stake or make the consequences worse in some other way. This will inject another dose of tension and stop the reader from growing bored with the current stakes.

5. Your character isn’t motivated enough

You’re sure to have a sagging middle if at any point your protagonist is able to say, “You know what? I quit”. There might be something at stake but if that something doesn’t matter enough to the protagonist, it doesn’t matter to the reader. If it doesn’t matter to the reader, there’s no tension. The reader won’t care if the protagonist wins or loses.

How to fix it

If by the middle your protagonist is still able to turn his back on the central conflict and return to his normal life without having lost anything substantial, you need to do some character development and give him a better reason to be the protagonist. If he does have this reason but you still have a sagging middle, look for the last time you reinforced this motivation. Does the reader need to be reminded? Or could you move some insight from the beginning to the middle instead so the reader learns the character’s motivation bit by bit?

6. You have no idea where you’re going

Sometimes your own disinterest and frustration can cause a sagging middle. If you don’t know where you’re going with your story, the likely result of your attempts to pants it is a whole lot of wishy-washy scenes that don’t develop the plot because you don’t know what the plot is.

How to fix it

It’s time to put your plotting hat on and determine what your ending might be. If you’ve established what your character wants, skip over the middle and try to work out where you see your character at the end of the book. (This isn’t set in stone, by the way. You can change your mind later). Do you want your character to succeed, fail, or a little of both? Will they be a changed person by the end of it? Do you want their status quo to change dramatically? Once you’ve worked out what you want your story to achieve, determine the requirements for getting there. What do you know needs to happen for your character to reach the end?

7. Your antagonistic force is a no-show

You might have introduced the central conflict in the beginning, but if the antagonistic force doesn’t show up every now and then, how is the reader to be sure that it hasn’t decided your protagonist isn’t worth antagonising after all? If there’s a possibility that the antagonistic force has left the building and that the protagonist might have defeated the lower-level obstacles only to find that no one else has shown up for the Boss Battle, the tension will drop.

How to fix it

Can your protagonist have a run-in with the antagonist or antagonistic force some time during the middle (which the protagonist has to lose, of course)? What’s the antagonist doing? Do you need to remind the reader of how threatening it is? Can the threat increase to make your reader worry even more?

8. Your protagonist has no internal conflict

I mentioned motivation being the force that locks the protagonist into the story so the reader knows he’s not going to turn his back on the central conflict, so what could be more tense than him doing exactly that despite his motivation? When the protagonist is pulled in two different directions by two conflicting motivations, the reader wonders how the hell they’re going to stick to the right path. If you developed your character enough in the beginning that the reader is interested in their story, then this will be a tense moment. They want to see the protagonist overcome the central conflict, and they know that it’s good storytelling for this to happen, and it’s compelling to see people do what’s right despite what they want. Not every story needs a protagonist with an internal conflict, but if you have a sagging middle, it might be just what you need.

How to fix it

Tempt your protagonist away from their goal by pitting two desperate wants against each other. Develop them carefully throughout the beginning and middle and you’ll have yourself some tense moments for the reader.

8 Things Causing Your Novel’s Sagging Middle | Tips for fixing your novel’s sagging middle and falling in love with your story again. Head over to jackalediting.com for the full article, and more great writing tips from a freelance book editor!


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