How to Avoid a Sagging Middle in Our Stories

by Jami Gold on October 29, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Sagging power pole with text: Have a Sagging Middle?

Many of us have great ideas for the beginning of our story. We might know how the characters meet or what forces the characters to get involved. We often speed through these scenes with fresh excitement in our veins.

And many of us have ideas for the end of the story. We might know who or what the protagonist faces, or what forces them into a final solution. After all, it’s often the ending that makes us excited about the story idea at the start of the process.

But what happens in the middle? I write by the seat of my pants, so I often do great for the first 20-30K words and then reach a point where I have no idea what to do next. This is where having a vague plan can help us—even when we’re pantsers.

What’s the Goal for the Middle of the Story?

The middle act of our story isn’t about adding page count to drag out the tension and make the story novel-length. And the middle isn’t just a delaying tactic before we get to the “good stuff.” *smile*

Instead, the middle of our story should be the “meat” of the story, as far as conflicts and arcs. Without setting up the obstacles here, any solution in the final act will seem too easy and won’t be as satisfying.

This should be where we see failed attempts to solve the plot or overcome character flaws. Those failures demonstrate how tricky the story problems are. In short, the middle act is a fantastic place to ensure our story doesn’t feel shallow, simplistic, or formulaic.

If we’re familiar with beat sheets, we might know the names of the beats that are supposed to show up in the middle section of our story. But we might not know how to apply those beats, especially Pinch Points and the Midpoint, which often have wishy-washy explanations. With a better understanding of those beats, we might be able to avoid a sagging middle for good.

Sagging-Avoidance Technique #1: Pinch Points

Pinch points are my favorite technique for avoiding a sagging middle, mostly because they’re so simple. Larry Brooks introduced the idea of pinch points on his blog. They’re plot events that pinch, or constrain, the protagonist from reaching their goals.

But I don’t worry about a specific definition very much. As Larry says:

“A pinch point may require a set-up scene, it may not.  That’s why this isn’t a formula, it’s a format.  You get to choose.”

I approach pinch points with the easy-going attitude that they’re:

  • any plot event around the three-eighths or five-eighths marks in the story
  • that reveals more about the antagonistic forces
  • or increases the stakes.

Why the three-eighths and five-eighths marks? Simple. If you look at a basic beat sheet (one that’s not cluttered with other plot events that make it harder to see the big picture), you’ll see those sections are the big open areas in a story—areas where nothing is planned.

In other words, without pinch points filling in the blanks, there’d be a whole lot of pages without any story direction to guide us. When we plan something to add conflict, tension, and obstacles, we give ourselves a direction to write toward.

The details of the pinch points don’t matter as much. They could be related to the plot arc or the character arc (or both). They could be related to the main plot or a subplot. They could be related to the big bad guy or a secondary antagonist. The idea is that we’re driving the story and the arcs forward with something that shows the difficulty of the situation.

Sagging-Avoidance Technique #2: The Midpoint

Unlike pinch points, which are minor plot beats, the midpoint is a major beat. That fact might make us think it should be a huge turning point, maybe with Michael Bay-style explosions. *grin*

And while our midpoint certainly can fall into that category, it doesn’t have to. It’s a major beat from a “shift in context” perspective, but not necessarily from a “shift in story” perspective. In fact, many midpoints don’t involve huge plot events, and that’s what can make this beat so hard to understand.

I came across a fantastic blog post by James Scott Bell that really illuminates how the midpoint beat works. Most descriptions of the midpoint give vague instructions to raise the stakes or change the protagonist’s goals or choices, or explain that it can be a false reversal, etc. That’s all true—and not much help.

My preference is to use this beat to ground the reader by reminding them of the goals and stakes before the chaos of the Crisis/Black Moment hits. Some stories will accomplish this by having the protagonist stop and think about their situation. James Scott Bell explains that’s why this beat can be overlooked. It’s often a quieter character moment he calls “a look in the mirror.”

The character might:

  • wonder what it will mean for them if they do or don’t succeed,
  • question how they’re changing or what they’ve become,
  • consider how they’ll have to change to succeed,
  • stop and recognize the odds against them, or
  • figure out their chances of success.

With this reflection and insight, the character will now make choices with their eyes wide open, the story will have deeper meaning, and the reader will have greater understanding of the context of the goals and stakes. That’s why I call this a “shift in context” turning point—and that’s how the midpoint is still a major beat, even if it’s a quiet one.

Used together with pinch points, one before the midpoint and one after, the beats of our story’s middle provide direction so we’re not writing aimlessly, give a greater sense of conflict, obstacles, and tension, and make the story a story.

We need the failures of the middle act to add meaning. It’s only by setting up all those obstacles that the final solution will seem like a real accomplishment. And it’s only by seeing the conflict for themselves that readers will be satisfied with the final outcome.

In short, better obstacles equals greater story satisfaction, and a better middle act equals greater reader satisfaction. *smile*

Do you struggle with the middle section of your stories? How do you work through that act? Do you plan arcs or use beat sheets? Does this explanation help your understanding of those middle beats? Do you have any other insights or tips to share?

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28 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Larry October 29, 2013 at 7:45 am

Very nicely done here, thanks for this. I’m part of the choir you’re singing to… in fact, I have an article in the forthcoming issue of Writers Digest on this same topic (“Stuck in the Middle”), in case you or your readers are interested in more on this important topic.

Larry/www.storyfix.com

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Jami Gold October 29, 2013 at 7:48 am

Hi Larry,

Yay! I’m so glad you stopped by. :) Thanks for letting me know about your upcoming article. I’ll keep an eye out for that. Thanks for the comment!

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Davonne Burns October 29, 2013 at 9:22 am

This is why, for the first time ever, I wrote a simple outline for my current WIP. Thanks for the great advice. ^_^

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Jami Gold October 29, 2013 at 10:14 am

Hi Davonne,

Hee. Yeah, I don’t write anything out, but that’s mostly because I’ve internalized all this stuff. I just offer the beat sheets and tools for everyone else. LOL! Thanks for the comment and good luck!

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Widdershins October 29, 2013 at 1:53 pm

I’m in the middle of planning out my NaNo novel using your beat sheet basics from WANACon … it’s looking good … this post is timely – like you wouldn’t believe … well maybe you would! Serendipity is a writer’s best friend after all.

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Jami Gold October 29, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Hi Widdershins,

Awesome! And yes, *fist bump* to the power of serendipity. :) Good luck with NaNo and thanks for the comment!

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Laurie P October 29, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Thanks, I need all the help I can get and your words here helped.

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Jami Gold October 29, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Hi Laurie,

You’re quite welcome. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung October 29, 2013 at 5:41 pm

Ooh I love your point about how more obstacles in the middle will make our plot or character resolution in the end more realistic and satisfying.

Cool, I get pinch points a lot. They just come automatically nowadays though. But I used to plan / foresee them.

Hmm the look in the mirror midpoint..I could think about that.

Speaking of, I realized recently that apart from my romances, which are very few, my stories tend to be quite plot driven! Lol. I thought maybe I should feel ashamed of this since it seems everybody esteems the character driven stories more. But on second thought, those plot driven stories of mine are action/ adventure (this seems to be my favorite genre), so maybe it’s expected that these types of stories will be primarily plot driven– e.g. to go on a journey, a quest, a mission, etc. But you can still do TONS of character development even if your story is mostly plot driven. :) I find character development the most fun part of writing.

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Serena Yung October 29, 2013 at 8:10 pm

I do have a question though. How do you keep yourself from not getting sick of the story and wanting to walk away from it? I’m at 47, 612 words now, and I’m getting restless lately and am already a bit sick of the story. Lol that’s bad because Nanowrimo hasn’t even started yet! How do we keep ourselves interested so we can persevere till the end of the novel? I managed to finish two of my novels without getting tired of them, so it’s a bit distressing how I’m tiring of this novel. Could it be because I’m “pure pantsing” this time and that this has drained a lot of stuff from me already, that I’m feeling exhausted and dry? What should I do?

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Jami Gold October 30, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Hi Serena,

I often reach that point in the middle of my stories too. I’ll still like the story, but it’s not keeping me awake in the middle of the night, taunting me to write more. :)

I force myself to go on anyway because I’ve learned that I’m just being impatient to get to the Crisis/Black Moment and Climax stuff. In the the middle, I feel close enough to those points that I’m getting excited about those scenes instead of the ones I’m writing. (Yet another reason why I force myself to write linearly. If I jumped around which scenes I wrote, I’d never finish anything. :) )

So maybe ask yourself if later parts of the story still excite you. If yes, push forward. If no, ask yourself why you’re writing this story. I hope that helps! :) Thanks for the comment!

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Jami Gold October 30, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Hi Serena,

I tend to balance the plot and characters. I’ve always thought of my stories as being plot-driven and character-focused. Meaning, the stories are about the characters, but the plot drives the events for the most part.

So yeah, I like both as well. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung October 30, 2013 at 1:40 pm

Yes, plot driven but character focused. That’s exactly how my stories are like too!

Hmm, well I’m writing this story because 1) I’m very interested and love my two main characters, 2) I’m very interested in my two leads’ interactions and how their relationship develops, 3) These two characters overturn and reverse gender stereotypes, lol!

So I’m not sure if I’m hyper interested in events that come after…though I can’t wait till this certain event happens… ;) But mostly, my interest is in these two characters and their relationship with each other.

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Jami Gold October 30, 2013 at 11:44 pm

Hi Serena,

Then I’d say to push yourself to that “certain event” you can’t wait for and see how your interest level is after that point. Either you’ll be really sick of the story by then, or you’d be past the “hump” and excited for something else later in the story. :) Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung November 2, 2013 at 6:46 pm

Oh I forgot to check this thread, sorry! Anyway, I did go past this hump, because I finally let myself slow down and brainstorm/ plan a little bit. :D Guess my subconscious was screaming for a rest or slow down, haha. And in this brainstorming/ planning session, I did see some plot events that I can’t wait to get into. XDD So my interest is back. :D Thank you so much for this tip!

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Jami Gold November 2, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Hi Serena,

Yay! Glad to hear it. :)

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Nena Clements October 30, 2013 at 12:43 am

Excellent post. After writing five not very great books I figured this out! I thought I just found a way to push the story to the next level and keep the middle from sagging. This post has cemented it further into my brain. It is now concrete! Thank you!

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Jami Gold October 30, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Hi Nena,

LOL! Yes, that often happens with me. I know certain things on a subconscious level, but learning about them–officially–helps me bring that knowledge into my consciousness, where I can work harder to apply that knowledge. I hope it helps! :) Thanks for the comment!

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Kim Handysides October 30, 2013 at 11:24 am

Great stuff Jami! Just the reminder I need as I bet out the story I’m about to start for NaNoWriMo after getting motivated to join up listening to you at WANACon. Yee-ha! Here we go.

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Jami Gold October 30, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Hi Kim,

Yay! Sounds like a plan. :) Good luck in NaNo and thanks for the comment!

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Karen McFarland October 30, 2013 at 11:52 am

This was timely info my Arizona friend! I am in the midst of writing the middle of my WIP. All good check points to make sure my story moves forward at a steady pace. I have printed a copy for reference. You did a great job with your explanation Jami. Thanks for breaking it all down. Love it! :)

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Jami Gold October 30, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Hi Karen,

I’ve struggled with these issues myself, so when I figure something out, I’m happy to share. :) Thanks for the comment!

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ROD MARSDEN November 20, 2013 at 7:09 am

The book I am working on at the moment, Cold Water Conscience, has my main character being pushed into an action he does not want to take. There are three solutions to his problem but he is only aware of two of them. The first will land him in jail no worries. He will definitely avoid that one. The second may land him in jail sometime in the future. It seems he will have to go for that one. As for the third solution, he will discover it hopefully around the same time the reader does. Right now I have in the middle of the book a mix of how wonderful life might be at least for a while when he does finally act and the forces pushing him to make a decision and to act.

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Jami Gold November 20, 2013 at 8:35 am

Hi Rod,

That sounds about right. :) We can use glimpses of the potential of their life to create those stakes (here’s what they’d be missing if they fail), and we want the tension of the situation to increase (forcing them to that decision point). Good luck with your story and thanks for the comment!

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