October 29, 2013

How to Avoid a Sagging Middle in Our Stories

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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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.


Davonne Burns

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


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.

Laurie P
Laurie P

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

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

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?

Nena Clements

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!

Kim Handysides
Kim Handysides

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.

Karen McFarland

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! 🙂


[…] Gold shows us how to avoid a sagging middle in our stories, and Kristen Lamb explains how to deliver that knockout […]


[…] Gold: How to Avoid a Sagging Middle in Our Stories. “The middle act of our story isn’t about adding page count to drag out the tension and […]


[…] Jami Gold with How to Avoid a Sagging Middle in Our Stories […]


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.


[…] simply for money. Using unimportant obstacles to increase word count is like the series version of a “sagging middle.” Even more readers are complaining about books that don’t feel […]


Hi, I have just found your excellent site and I think this post is so valuable. I am just starting out on my writing journey so reading as much as I can about the writing craft. A lot of my stories suffer from a ‘sagging middle’ so your helpful points are really valuable.


[…] sees additional evidence of the antagonistic forces. I love using Pinch Points to avoid “sagging middles.” […]

K.B. Owen

Hi Jami! Really late to the party (thanks for the link!), but wanted to ask a question: the midpoint sounds a lot like the crisis/dark moment. Both occur when things are bleak and irretrievable, both involve the character taking stock of his/her situation and despairing of being able to get out of it. How are they different?

Thanks so much; this is really interesting stuff and will help me a lot!


[…] are useful in longer stories because in addition to adding layers and shoring up a sagging middle, they […]


[…] context changes. This requirement is met by a major turning point near the 50% mark, also known as the Midpoint beat in story […]


My sagging middle is a reversal form. I submitted the second section of my work to me editor– about 25k words. She loved it — so much that she demanded a rewrite of my opening chapters (about30K) .. the first section was too “basic” for the excellent middle.. so my head is fat my middle is slim and my feet are yet to come.
fom me, it still boils down to time management — impossible to write when I’m tired.
still love your helping hand


[…] Make sure we’re raising the stakes as the story progresses and won’t have a “sagging middle.” […]


[…] Build Arcs & Don’t Get Stuck: What should we do if we get stuck in our plot? Or with our character? How do we develop a character arc? How can we avoid a “sagging middle”? […]


[…] the second book in this style of trilogy would have to carry a heavy load. Many writers struggle to avoid a sagging middle with their books, and this style creates an entire book that could fall victim to that […]


[…] place where writers may have a slump in momentum, which may reflect in the story, too. “Sagging in the middle” or “middle sag” it’s sometimes called. It’s also the point where […]


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[…] we’ve discussed before, the Midpoint is one of the beats we can use to prevent a “sagging middle.” The middle of our story is where we’re going to see progress, but also failed attempts to […]

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