4 Story Weaknesses That Lead to a Sagging Middle

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Photo credit: ce2de2 on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC

Today’s guest post is by editor Tiffany Yates Martin (@FoxPrintEd).

Is there anything more thrilling for the creative soul than starting a shiny new story? It seduces you effortlessly, promising you a dazzling future, and in the heady flush of new love it feels as if this perfect communion between you will never end.

And then comes the middle of the book.

But when things get tough, that doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth fighting for. Figuring out the problem and resolving it can and should add even more depth and dimension.

When a manuscript loses its momentum, generally the issue is one of several culprits:

  • The plot has lost its cohesion.
  • The characters aren’t progressing on their arcs.
  • The story stakes have deflated.
  • Tension and suspense have lagged.

Here’s how to spot what may be derailing your story, and ways you can get things back on track.

1. The plot has lost its cohesion.

The best way to spot a sagging middle due to plot is to examine the story’s “bones” to see whether your plot holds together and consistently propels readers along the story arc. My favorite way to do this is to sketch out what I call an X-ray—basically an outline you make after the fact. (Or, for you plotters, repurpose your outline.) It’s a brief list of every single plot event that moves the story forward.

I recommend bullet-point format for this, and it may be one bullet-point event per chapter, or ten—it depends on your story—and each event should be no more than a line or two, around three pages total for the whole story. X-rays take only an hour or so to create, and offer a crystal-clear image of whether and where your plot line might meander or peter out.

Now ask yourself:

  • Is every plot event a result of an event that preceded it?
  • Does every event inexorably lead to the next?
  • Is each plot event essential to propel the story toward its destination (its resolution)?

If any of these answers are “no,” examine which scenes might be treading water and why—and whether you can fix them or if they can be cut altogether to get the story where it’s going. Maybe you got a little lost in back story, for instance, or taken a plot detour that’s not intrinsic to the central story question. Maybe the story loses direct cause-and-effect sequencing, and becomes episodic.

Try using the South Park creators’ “but/therefore” technique: Does every event connect to the ones preceding and following with “but” or “therefore,” rather than “and then”? You might also try introducing or developing a key subplot, or unexpected new information that deepens and complicates the plot.

2. The characters aren’t progressing in their arcs.

If character development is the culprit, your protagonist may have lost sight of her goals, whether immediate or long-term; what’s driving her may have gone fuzzy; or you’ve forced the characters somewhere they don’t want to go. Ask yourself:

  • Do each main character’s goals remain clear and strong throughout? Make sure that not only do we see your character’s overarching main goal throughout the story, but that in each scene your protagonist has a clear, strong immediate objective, ideally in service to that overarching goal: Inigo Montoya wants the six-fingered man, but to find him he must rescue and partner with Westley.
  • Do motivations remain strong and clear, both external and internal? Do we know why your character wants each goal, and do we see those reasons vividly and compellingly throughout? Inigo reminds us frequently why he’s so driven toward his goal: The six-fingered man killed his father (and thus should prepare to die).
  • Does this choice or development make sense for the character’s journey, or are you puppet-mastering? Sometimes stories don’t want to go where you want them to. Depending on how they develop, characters’ goals may need to change, or their feelings about them may shift. If you’re shoehorning your characters onto a predetermined path that no longer fits their story, they may rebel and go on strike.

3. The story stakes have deflated.

If readers lose sight of what your protagonist(s) have to gain or lose in the pursuit of their goals, the momentum can drop out of your story. Ask yourself:

  • Do the consequences for failure (or the reward for success) remain strong and clear throughout, both on a big-picture story level and within each scene? Often the middle of the book sags because the character’s potential risk or reward has grown stale. If we learn early in that your protagonist desperately wants to escape her unhappy marriage, for instance, because she feels stifled, that may get us off on a great clip, but unless we see those stakes rise, change, and complicate, readers may lose investment in her journey. Find ways to keep stakes high throughout.
  • Introduce new obstacles, challenges, dangers. Maybe the woman’s husband gets a terrible medical diagnosis that makes her feel guilty about leaving; maybe she thinks she’s pregnant; maybe she catches herself almost deliberately overdosing on medication and she realizes she has to get out for her own self-preservation.
  • Add more reward. Perhaps she runs into an old friend who left her unhappy marriage and the other woman is radiant with happiness and pursuing her life’s dreams. Or maybe the protagonist once gave up her chance at her dream job to relocate for her partner’s and now the position is open again. Or maybe she’s fallen wildly in love with someone else.
  • Make it more urgent. What if the exclusive two-year culinary program in France she applied to offers her a position but there’s an imminent deadline for her decision, or the money her family left her in trust is due to roll over to her, and her husband will gamble it away.

Raising stakes doesn’t necessarily mean you have to layer on more danger or threat or melodramatic plot developments (“Plus she’s in an accident! Plus her husband gets addicted to drugs! Plus their house is foreclosed on!”). But the existing risks/rewards should take on more meaning or more weight as the story progresses.

4. Tension and suspense have lagged.

These two tools—related but not quite the same—are the motor of story, and if either one lags it can deflate the middle of the manuscript. Suspense creates a question in the reader’s mind, and tension generally results from conflict, an obstacle, friction. Both belong on every single page of your story: They’re what keep readers turning pages. Even if you start with strong suspense and tension elements, middle-of-the-book sag can result from resolving them too soon. Ask yourself:

  • What suspense elements—questions, mysteries, secrets, etc.—are paved into every scene to keep the reader guessing?
  • Where do forces oppose the protagonist’s movement toward what she wants?
  • Does every scene move readers forward?

If these are the culprits, see if you can create more questions in the reader’s mind: Why did he do that? How will she react? Can he fix this? Try introducing a new conflict, or intensify an existing one, and layer in more micro-conflicts (e.g., averted eye contact, charged pauses, rebuffed bids for attention).

Pay special attention to ends of scenes and chapters. Try to leave readers on some unresolved tension, question, or conflict to compel them to turn the page and discover the answer/resolution.

Don’t give up on a promising relationship between you and your story. If you can identify and address these issues, you can keep the spark alive all the way to the finish line.

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