Many writers are excited at the start of a story, writing fast and furiously, and know how it ends. But the middle of a book often loses momentum for no obvious reason and with no clear solution.
What went wrong with the sagging middle?
You might need an objective eye to help you find your specific story problem, but four common issues will force the air out of your manuscript faster than a needle can pop a balloon. These are:
- The plot fell apart
- The characters fell apart
- The story stakes fell apart
- The tension disappeared
Seems pretty basic, right?
These are the building blocks of story, and something went sideways with one or more of them.
Let’s take a look at what might have happened.
1. The plot fell apart
I talked about outlining last month. I know—you hate doing it. But it’s the best way to see what’s going on with the bones of your story, especially if that story isn’t working.
Make a bullet-point list of what you have so far and where you plan to go.
That might be as few bullets one per chapter or maybe one per scene. Keep that list outline short and basic. Not only is that easier and less time-consuming, but brevity helps you see more clearly what you’ve got.
When you’re done, check to see if every plot event—every bulleted item—is a result of the bullet that preceded it and that every bullet leads inevitably to the next.
You want to create a chain of cause-and-effect events that makes your book unputdownable.
If your book meanders a bit into backstory or subplots, tighten, revise, or write new scenes to improve its flow. Is every bullet point scene essential to the story and its outcome? If not, delete it.
That’s not to say that you can’t introduce new information to add tension or complications. By all means, go for it!
Just remember that then the next scene has to build on that.
Cause and effect: That’s what keeps readers turning the page.
2. The characters fell apart
What are your protagonist’s goals?
Keep that front and center in your story. Don’t be afraid to have her focus on these in every chapter to remind the reader what’s important.
S/he should always be striving to achieve these goals, motivated by needs and wants, overcoming difficulties all the way. You want to give your characters agency—keep them busy doing what they need to do to get what they want.
For example, let’s say your character wants to buy a house (her goal) because she grew up impoverished and living in a car and she doesn’t want her own children to experience that kind of deprivation (motivation).
To buy the house, she needs a job that pays more.
To get that job, she needs 1) training, 2) a successful job interview, 3) a positive evaluation from her boss.
These are intermediate goals with their own sets of challenges, which she must successfully navigate to achieve her final goal.
Your story will be more complex, but the structure is the same: have your character solve a set of increasingly difficult challenges to achieve her final goal. If she has enough challenges, the slow pace in the middle of your book will take care of itself.
3. The story stakes fell apart
What happens if your character is not able to buy the house?
- Does she become homeless?
- Does Child Protective Services take away her children?
- Does she catch pneumonia and die?
Readers have to know what’s the worst that can happen, and that knowledge must always lurk in the background if you want to hold their interest.
Even if readers want a happy ending, nobody wants to read 300 pages of a story where your character got a job, saved some money, and bought the house of her dreams.
Pile on the obstacles, challenges, and dangers.
Make these urgent or increasingly meaningful. Make your character sweat.
Readers want to know the challenges she faced and the consequences if she failed. That’s the tension that makes a story.
4. The tension disappeared
Tension comes from conflict.
Who (or what) is keeping your character from achieving your goals?
This is the heart of your story, the pump that keeps the story moving and reader interest and attention flowing.
To create story tension, you have to make sure that your conflict is strong enough and the stakes for your characters are high enough.
If you’re not sure that your conflict is sufficiently strong, check to see that your antagonist is at least as strong and interesting as your protagonist.
Let your antagonist win some of the intermediate goals. And don’t resolve the conflict too soon. When the conflict ends, the story ends.
Keep some element of tension—either from the character’s main goal or intermediate goals—in every scene.
By the end of any scene, the reader should feel that they must turn the page to find out if everything turned out okay.
Lift that Sagging Middle
If you’re having trouble with a book that’s lost momentum, see if any of these problems are what’s holding you back.
Fixing what’s wrong with your sagging middle means the difference between a happy reader who buys your next book and a big DID NOT FINISH from a disappointed fan.