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!
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.