Sagging Middles: Fix Your Story’s MUFFIN TOP!

You know how sometimes you get that awesome tingly feeling because a new book you want to read is out? Well Ta-Da, Structuring Your Novel is here at last. Following up on Outlining Your Novel: Mapping Your Way To Success, K.M. Weiland’s newest writing book is all about creating a powerful impact through structure–both the outer plot and inner struggles taking place in the protagonist’s character arc. Structure is something I like to study and I need to improve in, so this book is going to be a real help.

Speaking of help, please welcome K.M. Weiland to the blog! She’s got a big topic on the table: the infamous SAGGING MIDDLE.

How Structure Prevents “Saggy Middle” Syndrome

by K.M. Weiland (@KMWeiland)

How do I fix my saggy middle? is a question I get a lot. Writers can find all sorts of info on fixing every other part of their story, but they’re often left hanging in regards to the middle. Some people are told to just “fill in the blanks” between the beginning and the ending. But that sort of advice is vague to the point of worthlessness. The middle is a big ol’ chunk of your story—almost twice as long as either the beginning or the ending. That’s a lot of space to navigate without any guidance more specific than “fill in the blanks.”

 Is there a cure for the “saggy middle”?

There sure is, and in a word (or two words, actually), that cure is story structure. Once you understand how to structure your story as a whole, you’ll be able to see how the middle of your story is not just a blank expanse to somehow be filled up with enough plot to push your character from the beginning to the end. Rather, the middle of your story—just like the beginning and the ending—is made up of several very specific components.

Technically, the middle of your story comprises the Second Act. This portion will take up about 50% of your story, beginning after the First Major Plot Point at the end of the First Act (roundabout the 25% mark in your book) and ending with the Third Major Plot Point that begins the Third Act (roundabout the 75% mark).

To truly understand how all these pieces fit together, you also need to gain a working knowledge of the First and Third Acts. But, for now, let’s just focus on the fixer-upper components needed for your saggy Second Act.

Structuring your Second Act, step by step 

1. The First Half of the Second Act: Your First Act will end and your Second Act will begin with the First Major Plot Point a quarter of the way into your story (or thereabouts). This plot point will mark a major change in your character’s world. His status quo or “normal world” will be shaken. From here until the middle of the book, your protagonist is going to be in reaction mode. Everything he does will be an attempt to regain his balance after the drama and trauma of the First Plot Point. He will spend this section fighting his discomfort with wherever he is in life—but he won’t yet be ready to shake off his chains and do something dramatic about his discomfort.

Examples: In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke scrambles to figure out where to go and who he’s supposed to be after his aunt and uncle are murdered in the First Plot Point. In Toy Story, Woody struggles to maintain his leadership position among the toys after Buzz arrives in the First Plot Point.

 2. The Midpoint: Then, boom, halfway through your Second Act, smack in the middle of your story, something big happens. The Midpoint is going to be your strongest trick for preventing a saggy middle. This plot point will rock your character’s world just as hard as did the First Plot Point at the end of the First Act. But instead of throwing him into a series of reactions, the Midpoint will inspire him to finally stand up and start taking action. He still doesn’t have a lot of things figured out, but whatever happens in the Midpoint will inspire him to try to change his situation by taking the battle to the antagonistic force.

Examples: In Star Wars, Luke and company are captured by the Death Star. In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz get left behind at the gas station.

3. The Second Half of the Second Act: The entire second half of the Second Act is where your character will begin exploring his ability to take action. He may not know the right way to resist the antagonistic force, but he’s now determined he can no longer passively resist. He must stand up and do something. Your character will likely spend this portion of the story in a state of inner conflict: what he wants and what he needs (to resist and take action) won’t be the same thing, but he won’t yet be ready to completely relinquish either.

Examples: In Star Wars, Luke convinces Han and Chewie to help him rescue the princess. In Toy Story, Woody and Buzz try to get back to Andy.

 4. The Third Plot Point: Finally, your Second Act will end and your Third Act will begin with a doozy of a Third Plot Point. This will turn out to be your character’s low point. All the actions he’s taken earlier will have led him to a place of sacrifice. Allies will have died, opportunities will have been dashed, and things will look pretty hopeless. This is where he will begin to realize that what he wants is likely standing in the way of what he needs. He will have to rise from the depths of this plot point with a new understanding of himself and, as a result, a better understanding of how to defeat the antagonistic force in the climactic Third Act.

 Examples: In Star Wars, Luke and company escape the Death Star, but at the cost of Obi-Wan’s life. In Toy Story, Andy’s toys abandon Woody to Sid when he accidentally reveals Buzz’s broken arm.

As you can see, the middle of your story isn’t a barren expanse at all. As long as you keep proper structure in mind, you will have guideposts to help you mold your plot all the way through. Done right and with imagination, your story’s middle will not only be manageable, it will also become the most interesting and important section of your story.

K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.

Two words: SO HELPFUL. I feel much better about shrinking my story’s muffin top…how about you? Thank you Katie for sharing such valuable information on middles!

About BECCA PUGLISI

Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

This entry was posted in Editing Tips, Guest Post, Revision and Editing, Story Structure, Uncategorized, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.

28 Responses to Sagging Middles: Fix Your Story’s MUFFIN TOP!

  1. K.M. Weiland says:

    The middle of a book can sometimes be a desert. So make sure you’re drinking lots of water. 😉 And thanks so much for buying the book! I hope you find it helpful.

  2. What a great post! I found this right on time. I’m stuck in the middle, so when I saw this post I dashed and bought my kindle copy..YAY!! Thank you 🙂

  3. K.M. Weiland says:

    It’s certainly crossed my mind! Right now, I’m seriously considering a book on characters and character arcs for the next one. But I’ll do some mulling on the possibilities of a book on dialogue as well. Thank you for your input!

  4. Gypsy Writer says:

    Hi, very helpful post :)I love K.W. Weiland books. I had Outlining your novel and I just bought Structuring your novel. Have you ever think about writing a book about Dialogue? I’ve seen that on your blog there is a lot of material about it, but it would be great to have a book about dialogue on my kindle 🙂 Greetings from Italy

  5. K.M. Weiland says:

    Thanks for reading! I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  6. Marcia says:

    A lot of content in this post, and wonderful examples!

  7. K.M. Weiland says:

    @Catherine: Angela gets full credit for the muffin top reference!

    @Mary: One of the helpful things about focusing on structure in the middle sections of our novels is that we’re able to approximately time how long they *should* go on.

    @Matthew: Star Wars is magic for structure examples. Not only is the movie perfectly structured, it’s also extremely simple and straightforward in its execution.

  8. As long as anything writing related is broken down using Star Wars: A New Hope as an example, I can get it. It’s how I finally learned how to write a synopsis.

  9. Mary Witzl says:

    Mine sag, and they stretch out forever too. I’ll come back to this one–thank you for posting it!

  10. Muffin Top, love that! This post is so good! Just where I need the most help 🙂

  11. K.M. Weiland says:

    Thanks for reading, Rosi!

  12. Rosi says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m rewriting my MG historical novel and this is very helpful.

  13. K.M. Weiland says:

    @Krista: The great thing about structure is that the examples are usually easy to spot in other stories. Once you know what to look for, you can study structure in excellent (and not-so-excellent) stories with ease.

    @Lori: You’re welcome! I hope it proves helpful in your WIP.

    @Handy Man: Outlines and structure go hand in hand. Not that panstsers can’t use structure, of course. But the whole approach of pre-planning nicely combines the strengths of both the outline and structure.

    @Donna: Yes, they can be insanely frustrating parts of a story to write. At least there’s light at the end of the tunnel!

  14. I was worried about my middle until I started working on an outline! Now, it’s much better.

    Can’t wait for this book to come out!

  15. Lori Schafer says:

    I’m halfway through my third novel now, and believe it or not, I’ve never even considered structure in the terms you’ve outlined here. Thanks for the useful advice!

  16. What great advice! And thanks for the examples! It makes it so much easier to see and understand. Now I have to go back and check out the middles of my WIP’s. Thanks again!

  17. K.M. Weiland says:

    Thanks, Jenn! I’m so glad the post was useful to you.

  18. You picked the perfect two words to describe this post: So Helpful! Thank you! I bookmarking and tweeting this, too.

  19. K.M. Weiland says:

    Just remember to build off the First Plot in creating your character’s reactions, which will funnel him right up to the mini-climax of the Midpoint. He’s going to undergo a change in his inner focus at that point, which will prompt him to become a stronger, more active participant in the conflict.

  20. Thanks for your detailed tips. I’m just starting the middle of my new manuscript and know the midpoint of it. It’s just the chapters getting to it and after that have me worried. Hopefully I can apply what you’ve suggested.

  21. K.M. Weiland says:

    @Angela: Even just being able to divide the middle portion in half with the Midpoint is super helpful in simplifying the “bigness” of the middle. Thanks for having me!

    @Annie: Thanks for stopping by, Annie!

  22. Great advice! This is so helpful. I’m bookmarking it and tweeting about it.

  23. Katie, thank you so much for this great advice! Middles are such a challenge, and now we know exactly what to do!

    Congrats on you book release!

    Angela

  24. K.M. Weiland says:

    Thanks so much for hosting me today, ladies!

    @Rachna: The sheer heft of middles can sometimes make them intimidating. Glad the post was helpful to you!

    @Laurel: Stories are all about plot points. They drive the plot because they create the turning points both externally and internally for the characters. Once we know our plot points, most of the rest of our stories will fall into place.

    @Becca: Aww, thanks, Becca! I’m so glad you enjoyed Dreamlander, and I hope you enjoy Structuring as well.

  25. Yayyy! The sagging middle sucks. I’ve got Katie’s latest book and can’t wait to read it and apply her advice to my fiction. Her nonfiction books are so incredibly helpful, and her fiction book DREAMLANDER was an excellent read. Check it out 🙂

  26. Fantastic explanation! I found it especially helpful how you explain the midpoint and its role, forcing the character to switch from reaction to action. I’ve now got a much clearer idea of which parts of my middle need scenes added and where to add them. Turns out what I’d planned as my midpoint will function better as the third plot point. Thank you!!

  27. I always have a problem keeping the middle of my manuscripts from sagging. This post comes as a blessing as I was looking for ways to avoid the middle portion from caving in 🙂

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