Explosive beginning, great ending, so why does your novel suffer from Sagging Middle Syndrome?
It’s a common complaint amongst authors reviewing a completed draft. After the opening hook and inciting incident, there’s a whole lot of inconsequential blather until the climax and resolution. Despite thousands of words and multiple plot points, the middle just… sags. A five, seven, ten, seventeen or twenty-four point structure is no guarantee of the Momentous Middle.
So what’s the problem?
All too often, the long, middle act of the story goes through the motions. Here are some tools to diagnose the sag.
You have characters with goals. The middle of the novel describes how they fail to reach those goals. If the characters don’t actively pursue those goals through the middle of the novel, it sags. You have to relentlessly focus on what the characters want and ensure they go after it. Then make sure they don’t get it.
Simply moodling about for seventeen chapters doing nothing of any importance doesn’t drive the character toward their goals. A tour of the countryside achieves nothing in itself if it doesn’t relate back to character goals. The Box Hill picnic in Emma might seem like an idle social outing but it’s packed with incident. It’s a key driver of Emma’s character arc, a realisation how shallow and spoilt she is. It sets her on the way to becoming a better person. Lizzie Bennett’s trip to Yorkshire (collect a sticker) is at first a distraction from her troubles. Her visit to Darcy’s house at Pemberly totally changes her view of the man she previously hated. See what Austen does?
Having focus on character goals, there have to be serial, realistic obstacles to prevent them achieving those goals. The evil boss veto’s a promotion or sets the protagonist an impossible target. A snow storm closes the airport or there’s a train strike preventing the protagonist meeting their romantic interest.
Decisions, Consequences, Stakes
What are the consequences of the protagonist missing their goal? If there are no consequences making or threatening to make things worse for the protagonist, then the stakes aren’t significant enough. Missing that train to make a face-to-face apology has no consequence if the happy couple simply FaceTime their reconciliation.
Riding the Escalator
All this points to a familiar story structure in fiction:
- Breaking Point
You make things increasingly difficult for the characters by piling on complications, reaching a crisis point and bringing them their lowest ebb; the ‘dark night of the soul.’ How they react to this sets them on the road to the climax and resolution.
Layers of complications pile on the pressure.
The Try-Fail cycle
The long middle section necessarily has to go through the Try-Fail Cycle. The protagonist tries to achieve their goal, it goes wrong, consequences rain down. They try again with a different plan, they fail worse. They attempt a recovery, that goes wrong worst of all.
The Try-Fail cycle works through the character goals, obstacles and the escalating scale of consequences, piling on the complications until they hit the crisis.
The Try-Fail cycle commonly taps into the Rule of Three. That’s three rounds of trying and failing before the heroic recovery and resolution of the third act. Why three? Humans are hard-wired for sets of three. One failed attempt is bad luck; two is coincidence. Three establishes a pattern. There’s enough scope in three attempts to credibly raise the stakes.
String it out to more than three rounds and the serial incompetence becomes tedious. More than three rounds threatens to expose the artifice in the story and bore the reader. That’s a cardinal sin. We root for embattled heroes. Serial failures? Not so much.
No More Sagging Middle Syndrome
Putting all those tips together we get:
- Goal-oriented action
- Obstacle Race
- Decisions, Consequences, Stakes
- Riding the Escalator
- The Try-Fail cycle
That’s my tool-set for relieving a sagging middle. Believe me, I’ve meandered around the middle of my own plots and felt the sag.