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Sagging Middles

In order of difficulty, beginnings are the easiest part of the story to write. Next, in order of difficulty, are the endings. The killer is the middle. The middle (Second Act) is the hard part. It is comprised of the efforts and failures, missteps and heartaches, conquests and defeats experienced by the story's central character in pursuit of or escaping from something. That something is placed on the pages in the form of a goal or desire in the beginning — the setup — the First Act. Whether your character gets what he's after is answered — resolved — in the ending, the Third Act.


I often spend time with new writers who gush with excitement over who their story is about, where he's been, who he is, what has happened to him in his past, where he lives, when the story is taking place, and what he's like. It's when I ask, "What happens in the middle?" then I get blank stares. Some have even worked out how the story will end — normally by some conditional change. "She'll marry... he'll find happiness... the village will be saved." But few have given any thought to what happens in the larger and most dynamic part of the story — the middle.


We can all write beginnings and endings with great ease. This is because they are so similar to our long-standing experience as nonfiction writers. Beginnings are, in fact, setups. They're an amalgam of what went before, where we are now, who the story is about, and who the central character is. When you take out the fact that you are writing about a fictional character, it's not a whole lot different from writing a thumbnail biography, mostly grounded in made-up facts and history of a character.


Endings are almost as easy to write as beginnings. Early in the plot, you established what it is your protagonist wants. The ending simply answers the question: Does he get it, or doesn't he? It's pretty easy to answer this question.


But what is the middle?


It is, first and foremost, the heart of the story. It is also the bulk of the story. It is the largest part, by far. It is shaped in such a way that the hill your character needs to climb gets steeper the more he climbs. At the same time, his energy, stamina, options, and resources decline in proportion to his effort expended and the challenge he faces.


Why are middles so difficult for us?


The first difficulty is the fact that the middle of the short story or novel can be as much as 85% of the entire story. That's right, stories aren't about beginnings. And they really aren't about their endings any more than a person's life isn't about birth or death. It's about what he does during his life. The lifespan of your novel's main plot covers only a window in the life of your protagonist. It can be lengthy or as short as a day.


There are many ways to describe middles. They are called the struggle, the journey, the quest, the gauntlet, or the adventure your protagonist experiences during the story. I don't mean by the word adventure that it is strictly action-adventure and random/exciting events happening to the character. Pursuit of something vitally important to a protagonist against a worthy antagonist is an adventure. Beating out another 123-pound eighth-grader for a spot on the wrestling team is an adventure. Getting the football team captain to ask her to the prom is an adventure.


Some stories just wouldn't register in world history books if that character were real. But make no mistake. The importance of achieving that goal to that junior high student who wants to make the wrestling team or the shy one who wants to be asked to the prom is huge. It's all perspective, priorities, and point of view.


To attract the attention of the potential reader and hold it, the novelist must get through the beginning (the setup) quickly. Very quickly. The last thing you want your reader to ask while reading the beginning is: Where are we going with all this? (This meaning: info, backstory, character history, explanation, biodata, etc.)


If you are trying to write a novel where your protagonist is not either trying to accomplish or acquire something or escape from something or eliminate something from his life, you are already going to have a very hard time filling those hundreds of pages of middle with tension, worry, conflict and suspense all in rising action. Absent those actions, the middle simply becomes a loose collection of unlinked events, often happening to the protagonist who sits still, characterized by sameness and repetition that won't keep your reader reading. It also puts the character in a passive posture. And that collection is bound to be way too short to be a novel's middle.


But if you do have a protagonist with a goal/need/desire and a worthy antagonist determined to stop him, your job is not just easier — it's great fun. It is a focused story that follows the logic of the pursuit while being influenced by the particularities and moral fiber of your character that make it compelling.


Pursuit in a world where failure looks more likely creates the tension that holds the reader's interest. By increasing the intensity of the protagonist's experience through the middle or second act, you cause the reader to make deals with himself to stay up later, read a bit longer, just get to the end of the chapter before turning the light out. This is what you want.

Failing to structure your middle this way will give you what's often called a "sagging middle." Or worst yet, it is sometimes referred to as having "no second act."


In many cases, first novel manuscripts have no middles at all — a major cause of rejection. Instead of a short setup and a rapid move into a solid middle new novelists load the front end down with setup and not story (which is actually mostly middle). And the reader at the agency or publishing house is unlikely to get to the problems in the middle before they stop reading.


Create a solid middle, keep it from sagging, and continue to move toward a satisfying climax (highest point of intensity in your novel) by doing a mix of the following:

  • Keep unrelenting pressure on your protagonist by making your antagonist someone or something that won't let up and won't consider failure. Obsessive is not bad.
  • Put pressure on your protagonist by reducing his resources and/or decreasing his options and time available. A clock (time pressure) can do a lot to ramp up the rpm.
  • Let the (negative, unsuccessful) turns in sub-plots further complicate the protagonist's abilities to focus on the main goal. It's hard for a character to focus on his main plot when he is being pecked to death by ducks.
  • Let your antagonist fare better than the protagonist, by letting things go a bit more his way. Don't put him under the same pressure, lack of resources or time squeeze your protagonist experiences.
  • Add an occasional bad turn of events: Weather complicating things for your sailor. Engine problems for your NASCAR race driver. Lack of water for your fireman. Cramps for your marathoner. Bad timing and occasional unfortunate coincidences are good problem multipliers. But like perfume, a little goes a long way. Use sparingly. Emphasis here is on occasional.
  • Foreshadow more problems for your reader, your protagonist might not see.
  • Generate questions in the mind of the reader and don't answer them immediately or completely the moment you plant them. Tension comes from slight delays. Long delays look like manipulation of the reader. And be very careful to avoid too many coincidences or the timing of obviously planted coincidences.

What you can't do is underestimate the importance of the middle of your story. It is your story. The beginning only gets us on the page. And the end resolves the conflict and goal pursuit that constitutes the majority of the middle. Without a compelling middle dominated by at least two fascinating characters, there's no reason for the reader to read on. It is just a collection of unrelated scenes.


You can identify the exact spot where your 2nd Act begins by looking for the moment your protagonist takes his or her first step in pursuit of the goal established in the 1st Act. Note how the action rises, the resistance stiffens, achieving the goal becomes less likely, the antagonist becomes more influential in the direction of the story.


Note also how the deeper into the middle you get, the more worried you become for your protagonist.


Novels are middles. Beginnings and endings only get you into and out of the story.