Stepping Out of The Sagging Middle

13 Mar

The middle of the book isn’t just there to keep the beginning and the end from bumping into each other. It’s an opportunity to make the book your own. Think of the first part of the book as a set-up for the middle, and the middle as the set-up for the black moment. The midpoint is where your protagonist must face his inner demons. It’s where the specters from his past thrust themselves to the forefront and demand to be dealt with.

Here are a few ideas to help you shore up that drooping middle.

  1. This is where you have a chance to showcase why the hero is the way he is. It’s your opportunity to flesh him out and make him more human, and let the reader have a peek at his backstory. Let the reader get closer to the hero.
  2. Throw barriers in the protagonist’s path. Make those obstacles tough, but not insurmountable. You need to save the impossible for the black moment.
  3. Whatever you throw in the character’s path, make sure it fits in on more than one level. Don’t pull something out of thin air and plop it in. Have the layers of your plot and character converge. The obstacle has to be something that makes the character realize that what he thought he wanted, isn’t what he really wants.
  4. This is where he learns the thing he wants has a huge price attached to it and he has to decide if he wants to pay that bill. It’s the “OMG, what was I thinking?” moment. Make sure the character’s response fits with their personality.
  5. This is the time the protagonist discovers there’s something wrong with his goal. This is a great place for a major plot twist. With the price of the goal high and with it looking as if it’s the wrong one, twist it so he doesn’t have a choice or a major monkey wrench is thrown in.
  6. It’s important to take the reader on the journey with the protagonist. If it’s important to the character, it will be important to the reader.
  7. As you peel away the layers, add more that propel the story forward. Be sure to keep the motivation strong. If the motivation wanes, the middle will sag and the reader will lose interest.
  8. Have the reader and the character learn something at the same time. It will keep the reader involved in the story and make them feel more a part of the journey.
  9. Along with the barrier, you may consider introducing or reintroducing the mentor. Sometimes a fresh face can stir interest and bump up the action. But, be careful that the insertion is logical.
  10. Don’t forget to escalate the action and the conflict. After all, this is the set up for the dark moment and the black moment.

These are just some ways to bolster the center section of your manuscript. What do you do to keep the middle from sagging?


26 responses to “Stepping Out of The Sagging Middle

  1. Meredith Conner

    March 13, 2012 at 8:08 AM

    All great things to consider Peggy! Thanks.

    • Peggy Staggs

      March 13, 2012 at 9:29 AM

      Thanks. We sometimes forget how important the middle of the book is.

  2. Janis McCurry

    March 13, 2012 at 8:20 AM

    “What do you do to keep the middle from sagging?”

    Sit-ups? Just kidding. That doesn’t work.

    For writing, trusted critique partners help. Stepping away and not looking at it for a bit. Then, come back and read it and you may see where it slows.

    • Peggy Staggs

      March 13, 2012 at 9:31 AM

      Sit-ups?!?!?! Now that’s not a good time. I’m hoping that all your critique partners are trustworthy.

  3. judi romaine

    March 13, 2012 at 9:21 AM

    Thanks – just where I am in the sagging beginning-middle-and end of a book I wrote for NaNo. I like your thoughts on this. Another one that works for me is to take where i am at (bored with my book) and write it into the story; i.e., the character is bored with her life. Now if only I could get beyond bored with the entire book. And it hasn’t worked to put it aside and write another. This is the one I wrote after putting another one aside I worked on for three years. Thanks for the blog idea – I think I’ll head over to my poor neglected blog ( and lay my soul out around losing interest in a genre.

  4. Rudy

    March 13, 2012 at 9:33 AM

    Very helpful. I live by checklists. This is one of those blogs I can actually use! Thanks.

    • Peggy Staggs

      March 13, 2012 at 9:38 AM

      Rudy, a person after my own heart. I love lists. Glad I could help. Thanks for dropping by.

  5. Peggy Staggs

    March 13, 2012 at 9:37 AM

    Judi, I’m glad I could help. NaNo is a great way to get your idea on paper from beginning to end. Then you’ve got to go back and “fix” it.
    I found Elisabeth Naughton and Joan Swan’s article “the Secret of Selling the Fast-Paced Novel” in the March RWR really helpful in keeping the middle from sagging.
    Thanks for dropping by.

    • judi romaine

      March 13, 2012 at 9:47 AM

      Hi Peggy – I’ve read all those books – have five books pubbed over 10 years but now stalled out even though I have a repub of 2nd book due in 2013. My issue is I am tired of face pace novels. Yet publishers (and agents) want that – as it tends to sell. Except that Stieg Larsson’s three books ramble on and on in exquisite detail that I love and he sold 60 plus million books. I long for detail and a textured novel – yet like many of us, struggle with adding real depth and an inquiry into what it is to be human. It may be I need to move to another genre – perhaps even literary although I doubt if my writing skills could make it there yet.

      • Peggy Staggs

        March 13, 2012 at 10:13 AM

        Judi, I think you can still use the Naughton and Swan model in a slower paced novel. I’d put the character question on top and the story question on the bottom. It would shift the emphasis and slow the pace.

        • judi romaine

          March 13, 2012 at 10:22 AM

          Thanks, I’ll search for it in the library. My favorite writing book is “On Writing” by Sol Stein.

          • judi romaine

            March 13, 2012 at 10:42 AM

            Well I found my RWR and read through the article. It was a good article but not helpful to me since the problem seems to be not in the ‘doingness’ but who I am ‘being’ about the book and characters. I am bored with romance, bored with my characters (and apparently all books since the only books I have read through in the past two years are Stieg Larsson’s and now Taylor Steven’s book The Informationist). Thanks for your suggestions – the devil apparently is ‘not’ in the details but in myself. I need to either shift to something I love or push through another so-so book I know I can contract but don’t care about. Thanks again for the great subject matter here.

  6. ramblingsfromtheleft

    March 13, 2012 at 9:39 AM

    Peggy, I see the middle as the apex … the beginning is like the slow climb to the first hill of a roller coaster. When you get to the top of that first hill, the cars usually pause for a few seconds and you can take in the vista … for me the Brooklyn Cyclone … at the top I could see the ocean and the beaches stretch out in front of me and all around the amusement park and the hundreds of people.

    Then suddenly you drop however many feet and careen to the bottom of the first hill, the car angles around several curves and you are thrust to one or the other side of the car … then the second hill … again you drop and after a mind bending curve you ride through a dark tunnel like section of the ride and BAM … it’s over. Since I am not one to close my eyes during these amazing rides, I can record everything around me. That is the middle that holds up both sides of that tall hill and that is how I see how my characters will react. Will they close their eyes, afraid to look? Will they worry the car is going to topple off the apex? Will they want that one moment to last longer?

    Loved your list, great stuff in there. Thanks 🙂

    • Peggy Staggs

      March 13, 2012 at 10:20 AM

      Great way to look at it. I love the image of a car hurtling toward the conclusion. Careening around obstacles, hitting the occasional pot hole and finally obtaining the goal.

  7. Liz Fredericks

    March 13, 2012 at 10:01 AM

    Excellent, Peggy! I needed this right now. And thank you for not including a single crunch.

  8. Peggy Staggs

    March 13, 2012 at 10:21 AM

    No chunches? And you the new Yoga queen of Boise?

  9. Marsha R. West

    March 13, 2012 at 2:36 PM

    Great poist, Peggy. I loved # 4 and 5. Don’t think I’ve ever heard it said just that way. Very useful and I need to rush off and see how it plays out in book 4 & 5, both of which I’m doing intensive edits and rewrites to before sending them off to separate publishers.
    Nice comparison and description, Ramblings, with the roller coaster.

    • Peggy Staggs

      March 14, 2012 at 8:58 AM

      Marsha, I’m glad I could help. And good luck with the publishers.

  10. Mary Vine

    March 13, 2012 at 3:09 PM

    I don’t think I’ve ever got stuck in the middle-so far. Knock on wood. If I can get things going in the first third then I can start to see the characters in my mind and learn who they are and what they want by that time. For me, it the getting that third going that’s the harder problem. I also like #3 and #4. Thanks for the great teaching blog today.

    • Peggy Staggs

      March 14, 2012 at 9:02 AM

      Wow. I’d love it if my middles went that easy. I’m glad you’ve got a system that works for you.

  11. Sonya

    March 13, 2012 at 3:23 PM

    Thanks for sharing. #5 is very helpful!

    • Peggy Staggs

      March 14, 2012 at 9:03 AM

      Sonya, #5 seems to be the favorite. I’m glad I could help.

  12. Misty Dietz

    March 13, 2012 at 3:28 PM

    Great post! I stop reading a lot of books because of this “sagging middle” business.

    • Peggy Staggs

      March 14, 2012 at 9:07 AM

      I know what you mean. I’m reading a book by one of my favorite authors. The beginning was amazing, but the middle is sagging. He had the main characters suck in a tunnel for so long I was ready to scream. If the beginning hadn’t been so good I’d have given up before the action/suspense picked back up.

  13. Margaret Carroll

    March 14, 2012 at 7:39 AM

    Love this. It’s a keeper.

    • Peggy Staggs

      March 14, 2012 at 9:08 AM

      Woooo, three of my favorite words, “it’s a keeper.” Thanks.


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