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How to beat sagging middle syndrome

The beginning of your story sets the scene with impact and verve. The ending is a satisfying climax of dazzling set pieces and well-knitted narrative threads. But the middle is a disconnected mish-mash of half-realised ideas, half-developed characters and half-relevant ruminations.

The diagnosis? You have sagging middle syndrome. Not a doughy midriff engendered by the writer’s sedentary lifestyle, but a middle act of a story hamstringed by lack of direction and weak structure.

How does sagging middle happen?

As the bridge between the setup and conclusion, the middle act is important. As it conveys the reader from the story’s opening to its climax, it should remain demonstrative and engaging. It should forever evolve characters and themes. It should balance rising tension with a sense that the best is yet to come.

Some authors weigh down their middles with a glut of exposition, halting the story rather than weaving their world-building into it. Some see the second act as an excuse to parade their ideas for the world they have made, bloating it with too many characters, ideas and subplots. Some simply find themselves unable to keep the story moving with the dynamism with which it started.

Each of these missteps (and I confess, I have made them all) are symptoms of the underlying problem. Many writers, even professionals, give less attention to the middles of their stories. The excitement of a fresh idea and new beginning has abated, and reaching the end feels like a Sisyphean task.

And if you aren’t engaged with the middle of your story, how can you expect your reader to be?

Preventative medicine: avoid sagging middle from the get go

Ringers might know that Tolkien discovered much of the inspiration for his opus The Lord of the Rings whilst he was writing it. Indeed, many of the letters he sent to his friends and colleagues during its 11-year gestation suggested that he was working without any outline at all.

Tolkien’s persistence and intimate knowledge of myth and story allowed him to take this approach. But when most of us start to lose steam, it can be helpful to be able to refer to a plan.

Enter what I call The Scalene of Many Names. It is the classic story arc, depicted as a triangle that shows slowly building action and a brief, climactic denouement. Successful freelancer and teacher Ingrid Sundberg hosts a good example on her website.

This arc doesn’t depict the plot of a story, but rather its structure. Plot is the linear sequence of events that take place in a story, which an audience need not experience in order. Structure is the scaffolding that holds the plot together, and the rhythm of the story as a whole.

A plan needn’t be meticulous. In fact, the more detailed it is, the more prescriptive it will be, which may in fact hinder rather than help the writing process. It is quite possible to embark upon a story with the plot only half-formed. But even if you limit your plot to the bare bones of a conflict, crisis and resolution, try to plan with a sense of structure.

That means a sense of constant motion, rising tension and dramatic struggle. For every problem solved, a new, bigger problem should emerge, with even more at stake if it is not overcome. For every question answered, one just as pressing should replace it. Each sequence is a stepping-stone towards the climax, the journey becoming that little bit more perilous as the reader gets further and further from dry land.

As the structure forms, you will find opportunities to build the world and develop ideas on the move. A deviation or sub-plot might scale back the action, but far from being an interlude, it should have advanced or expanded upon the archplot by the time it resolves.

Curative medicine: how to get rid of sagging middle when it occurs

Genre luminary Ray Bradbury claimed never to plot his fiction, stating that doing so takes “all the energy and vitality out”. The opposite of Tolkien in many respects, Bradbury would hammer out a novel or story in a short space of time and then go on to edit it.

Writing on the fly has its benefits. Not being bound by a plot gives you the freedom to change things when you want to. And exercising this freedom can be a good way of dislodging a story when it’s stuck. Just as it is possible to wing it when writing, so it is possible to combat sagging middle as and when it arises.

A great thing about story structure is that it is fractal. Look at a whole story and you’ll see a beginning, a middle and an end. Look closer at each act, and you’ll see that those acts, too, have a beginning, a middle and an end. Break it down further into sequences: each has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The author introduces the situation, she expands upon it and builds tension, and then she resolves it. But each resolution serves to raise the stakes and lay the foundations for the next sequence.

So start by splitting your middle into three parts. Think of the opening as the beginning to a whole new story. Revisiting the middle act of your story on a smaller scale will help you to identify many disposable plot elements and start to hone and tighten it.

Determine where sequences end and begin and the causal relationship between them. Identify the structural elements (conflict, crisis and resolution) in each and try to trim those that do not drive the story forwards. If an extraneous section contains crucial exposition or character development, see if you can convey this in another, more dynamic sequence. By all means, let your characters take a breather. But remember that each pause is only a holding action until the ultimate conclusion, and that the reader should never lose sight of the end goal or the obstacles the characters face.

With a fresh approach, persistence and a willingness to mix things up, you should be able to whip even the saggiest middle into shape. Everybody say “yeah”!