When I get a new story idea, I fly into the start of it with as much gusto as a kid in a candy store. I’m filled with the buzz of ‘newness’ and the anticipation of where the story might take me. But 30 – 40,000 words in, the honeymoon is over. I hate my characters, my characters loathe me, we’re bickering worse than siblings, and my earlier projectile vomiting of words has ground to barely a hiccup.
I’ve hit the saggy middle.
What Is Saggy Middle?
There are lots of ways to recognize that your middle has gotten a little droopy. Some of the common indicators:
- A lack of tension or pace
- Your subplots are more interesting than your main plot (or you’re writing more about them than your main plot)
- There’s something wrong with a subplot
- A lack of action
- Huge information dumps or explanations
If you recognize one or more of these red flags in a particular scene and you’re beginning to suspect that it might need reworking, ask yourself some these questions:
- Is this scene/chapter essential to the story?
- Does it push your character towards their goal?
- Does it add conflict?
- Does it reveal something important?
If the majority of your answers are no, then it’s time to trim the fat.
Getting Rid of the Saggy Middle
There are dozens of ways to handle this. Here are a few top tips.
Add a Mini-Climax. Your novel doesn’t have to have just one large climax at the end. You can tighten your novel’s middle by having a smaller climax (or climaxes) earlier on.
Conclude a Subplot. Having too many subplots can confuse the reader. If you’ve opened lots of threads in your first act, tie one or two of them up. This gives your reader closure and drives them towards the ending.
Open a Subplot. On the flip side, you could open up a new thread. This helps to create questions your reader wants answered and therefore pushes them through your story. It also helps with foreshadowing if the new threads will continue into your sequels.
Kill Someone. Pull a George R.R. Martin and kill off a few characters. It adds shock value and sets off a few fireworks in your character’s lives.
Add a New Character. Bringing fresh meat into your story always creates new tension because it puts established character relationships into a state of flux.
Add a Source of Conflict. This is my favorite method of de-sagging. Adding a source of conflict in the middle of your story will up the pace and tension and give your characters new things to focus on. It also creates action, mystery, and questions that your reader will want to have answered.
Types of Conflict
Generally speaking, there are three types of conflict you could add to your story:
Macro Conflict. This is large-scale conflict—world wars or society-against-the-hero type stuff. Stories with this kind of conflict often have two antagonists – the villainous character and a more intangible ‘societal’ villain. This type of conflict could cross states, history, natural forces, the law, races, and more. This happens in The Hunger Games, with the intangible Capitol being embodied by President Snow. For another example of this kind of conflict, check out The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham.
Micro Conflict.This is a more interpersonal form of conflict, such as the battles the hero might have with other people and characters. Good examples include tiffs between lovers, friends, family, colleagues, and enemies.
In Me Before You by Jojo Moyes, the whole plot is a micro conflict. Will, the leading male, has a motorcycle accident that paralyzes him and leaves him wanting to end his life. But Lou comes into his life, falls in love with him, and tries to change his mind, and their desires come into direct conflict.
Inner Conflict. This is the most acute type of conflict as it’s internal to the hero. It happens when the hero battles personal flaws, emotions, and values. Though it’s insular, it creates the most emotional conflict for the reader because they’re viewing the story through the hero’s eyes. If your hero hurts, so does your reader.
Ned Stark from Game of Thronesis rife with inner conflict. He has to choose between two values—his loyalty or his wisdom—in order to save his life. In the same series, Theon Greyjoy is torn between his blood family and the adopted family that brought him up.
No novel should have a saggy middle. While most authors naturally grow tired half way through a project (because, let’s face it, writing a novel is a marathon) there’s no reason for your plot to suffer. There’s a plethora of ways you can snip, trim, and tighten that sag. But if I were you, I’d torture your characters and add a little conflict.
Sacha is the author of the #1 bestseller for writers, 13 Steps To Evil – How To Craft A Superbad Villain. Her blog for writers, www.sachablack.co.uk, is home to regular writing, marketing and publishing advice sprinkled with dark humour and the occasional bad word. In addition to craft books, she writes YA fantasy. The first two books in her Eden East Novel: Keepers and Victor, are out now. You can find her manning the helm at The Rebel Author Podcast, and on social media: