Friday, June 12, 2009

Sagging Middles

I'm sure we've all read any number of books (maybe even most of the books we read) where the middle drags, and we have to give ourselves an extra push to get past that slow bit and find where the story picks up the pace again. As I say, I think the great majority of novels built on the standard 3-act structure tend to sag a bit in the midsection, much like certain middle-aged writers we won't be discussing here.

I have a theory that this isn't necessarily a fault of the writer, but is a function of the 3-act structure itself. I begin to believe that the normal form of the novel is a flawed structure, or at least an imperfect one.

Here's what I think happens: You begin the book with rising action and exposition to set up a dramatic situation, an inciting incident that happens somewhere during the first third of your story. You've done a job of work giving your reader compelling characters with needs and then you build up to a dramatic moment that changes the world of the story, creates a conflict that must be resolved, and then Act One is over, and your reader is hooked.

Well, that's all fine, isn't it? Except what happens then? Essentially, in many cases, the story sort of starts over again. You have Act Two to set up the even more dramatic moment of the climax, which means that your level of action has seemingly fallen off because there's been a new status quo established in the novel's world from which you must again build some sort of rising action. This entails even more exposition, and often we take side trips to explore our theme and subplots, so the new focus on movement toward the climax gets diffused now. It's like moving from a finished house back into an unfinished house that we watch being built around us.

In other words, the traditional 3-act structure has this slow middle section built into it, because after the first big BANG plot-point of the inciting incident, we must basically begin again, nearly from zero.

I don't happen to have a list of useful ways to avoid this. What I'm going to attempt to do in my current book is have the inciting incident open up an interesting and compelling idea to be explored, so that the reader will have something that holds their interest while I subtly build up the dramatic tension in the background again. Will that work? I have no idea, but that's my plan.

Has anyone ever found that their novel dragged in the middle, and fixed it? How did you fix it? Is is a widely-applicable method? Will you use it in the future? Can anyone think of any novels that don't drag in the middle? What do you think the writer did to keep things moving for the reader?


  1. Excellent post and questions, Scott. I tend to use the three-act structure quite a bit. I have noticed in my second book that my middle sagged a lot. This was, of course, because of the three-act structure. I thought there was no way around it until recently.

    I like to use parallel plot lines. This seems to fix the problem for me. Oftentimes, with more than one plot line moving through the story, especially if there is more than one POV character, it's obvious how one can create more tension in the middle of story. Stagger the tension, and then it bring it all together at the end. There can be more than one inciting incident for a story. There is always one MAIN inciting incident, but with multiple POV characters, and well, even multiple major characters, there is often multiple inciting incidents - one for each character's story.

    Perhaps, even if you don't have parallel plots or multiple POVs, you can learn to stagger action and plots. Yes, you can have the big bang and hook, but leave something hanging, something that still has room to build through the middle.

    I don't know if that makes sense. It might be just a part of my crazy writing mind, but it's my thoughts anyhow.

    I just read an excellent post by Sherrinda about sagging middles. I reccommend to anyone reading this post:

    Sherrinda's Post Here

  2. So much of this can depend on the story arc(s) and how you balance them.

    One work-around to consider is sub-plots that counter the action (or lack thereof) in your primary story. I'll give an example from my novel. It's not published, nor do I have representation, so take it for what it's worth. Hopefully it will clearly illustrate a useful point ;-)

    Here’s the premise:
    Gil Jacobs must die in order to save his soul when he encounters the ghost of a foe he knew in a past life. Unaware of the danger he is in, Gil is protected by the ghost of a friend whose death he witnessed as a child, for she alone can distract the vengeful ghost long enough for Gil to escape to his next life after he dies, even if it means sacrificing her own soul.

    The novel follows Gil from age 10 to 33. It also includes his past life and his connection to the antagonist, who is a Troubadour who died in 1287 AD and was trapped as a ghost, so he did not get to cross over and reincarnate into a new life. In that life, Gil was a woman named Desiree who the Troubadour fell in love with (FYI…you can reincarnate into a different gender, and prior genders have no impact on sexuality in a current life. At least according to my story.)

    Desiree’s husband was abusive, and the Troubadour killed him to win her love, but instead only received scorn.

    The first and second act are the inciting incident where the Troubadour runs into Gil as he watched his friend die. The Troubadour thinks he knows who Gil is, although he mistakenly thinks Gil is Desiree’s husband, hence the vengeance, and plans to destroy his soul. His friend sees this and vows to protect Gil.

    The third act tells of Gil’s adulthood, where he meets his wife, falls in love and starts a family. Boring stuff for a supernatural thriller, but necessary for character development and the sense of tragedy when it’s his time to die. I have to establish his family to draw a deep emotional impact at the end; he must die to save himself, even though it will hurt those who are still alive.

    To balance this out, in the third act I go into the love story between the Troubadour and Desiree, so the two love stories are told in tandem, but one ends well and the other ends very badly. This provides a nice counterpoint, and it keeps that section of the novel from sagging too far.

  3. Well, Rick explained that better than I did. That's exactly what I was trying to say. It's too early.

  4. The books I've read that don't sag in the middle are those that bring in something exciting just as the new act begins. Something to keep things fresh. It doesn't have to be something major, but something to keep me turning those pages. A mini mystery or something. It's like the author's throwing you a bone.

    I like the idea of interweaving the subplots to have rising action while the main plot has down time. It's like in an ensemble TV show. When things get slow with the lead actors we cut to the other story lines.

  5. Michelle,

    I didn't see your post until after i submitted mine. Then I read it and realized we said the same thing. I just took the extra step of writing in an example from my novel.

    Maybe the fact that I'm on Eastern Time and I've been up since 6am helps, though.

  6. ...Why must the traditional three-act structure be used? As far as I can recall, I've never done this.

    I start at a novel's beginning and keep pushing forward, and naturally wind up adding little ebbs and flows all along that increase in intensity. I've only ever intentionally modeled my stories after the usual having sex stages: foreplay, the actual explosive (ahem) act, and then the afterglow. My foreplay tends to be the longest part in my fiction*--though I haven't been as big a fan of this stage in real life lol!

    But ever the nihilist, I say, toss out traditions wherever you can and write new ones: your OWN.

    I agree with you and think you're right about why the sagging middle happens; the traditional acts require too much of a definitive endpoint, and having to start all over again is a drag to write and then a drag to read too, to be honest, at least for me. Again, I think writers should find new structures to work with.

    *My writing's been in-a-positive-way accused of really making the reader feel frustrated on pins-and-needles for most of the work, frustrated for the release. I think this is how fiction should be; that's how to get people to keep turning the pages--"Release me, please!!!!!" They want to experience that big sighhhhhh....

  7. I am reading the book, The Fire In Fiction, by Donald Maass, and he has a chapter on sagging middles. Of course, he talked about the things everyone knows already...sanppy dialogue, bookending your scenes with hooks, and scenes needing a goal. But a couple of things he said really struck me.

    Each scene should have 2 turning points. An Outer Point, in which things change in a way that everyone can understand and an Inner Point, in which the main POV character changes as a result of the outer turning point. I'd never really though about it in those terms before.

    Another thing that struck me was Maass saying that most books don't have enough "Tornado Events". These are big events in your book that, while not necessarily a catastrophic event in itself, have huge consequences for all characters, not just the main protagonist.

    Great post! I'm only in my first WIP and started before learning about the 3 act structure. It seems though that most authors are readers and probably absorb some of the plot structure before learning all the rules involved. The more I learn, the more I don't know.

  8. Nice post and some very interesting comments here! I agree with a couple of them, even though they don't agree with each other.

    First, I want to say that I'm okay with a sagging middle. I know I've mentioned it on the blog before, and almost everyone disagreed. But, I honestly think there's something beneficial to having the story slow down in the middle. It's like a palate cleanser. It resets your brain so that the climax will be more climactic.

    Having said that, I agree with Michelle and Rick that having parallel plot lines can really help to avoid the sagging middle. In writing my book, I aimed for one climax to happen near the middle (it ended up being page 100, which arguably ends the first act, so maybe that doesn't quite work). Then, the big climax happened near the end of the book.

    But, Reason Reanimator also has a great point, and if you don't want to get into parallel story lines, this may be the best way to go. You just have to keep building and building.

    I think I'm an exception to the reading rules, because I actually really like it when nothing happens if the story interests me. In so many books and movies, I love the quiet scenes, and the climax of the story disrupts it. The movie Gosford Park is my best example. I watch the first three quarters of that movie over and over again, loving it. When something finally happens near the end, I lose interest.

  9. One of the questions I forgot to ask at the end of the post is, "Does it matter if a book slows down in the middle?" Because, like Davin, sometimes I don't mind at all.

    Certainly using a structure other than the 3-Act template will result in a different overall feel to a novel, and also the 3-Act structure itself is so loose that there's a remarkable amount of room for variation within it. But since, I think, most writers rely at least vaguely on that structure, it's what I chose to talk about in this post. Alternate ways of creating a long-term structure would be interesting to discuss.

  10. I think it's tough to define a "slow down." You need to put it in context. A slow down in a suspense or thriller may be a slow down in action or exposition, but it may have a pick up in character development. What's a slow down in literary fiction?

    I think we see the term "slow down" and we get a mental image of paint drying...but there's probably something more going on, and as long as we can keep the reader engaged, we're doing OK.

    Davin has a good point about cleansing the palette. I made a similar reference in my guest post in the suspense/thriller genre that you have to pause from the action at some time, or you wear out the reader.

    It also provides a level of dynamics that helps the other "faster" parts of the work to stand out. If everything moves at the same speed, it's hard to tell how fast it is actually going; or if there is no background to compare it to, the motion can seem to be at a standstill.

    For example, when Howard Hughes was filming Hell's Angels (an airplane movie), he struggled with the footage of planes in flight because they didn't seem to be moving fast, even though they were. The problem was that the backdrop was a clear blue sky.

    He switched tactics and shot against a cloudy sky, and the motionless clouds gave depth to the picture and helped to illustrate the speed of the planes.

    So if your sagging middle serves as a cloud to expose the motion for the rest of your characters / / plot, you just ripped off Howard Hughes ;-)

  11. Perhaps the best way to solve the sag is to do what you're doing: ponder, read, discuss, and deliberately sustain flow and momentum when writing. But, as Davin said, those readers who have fallen in love with the characters might enjoy a slow dance with them. Do the post-newlywed days lack passion, or are they stable, assured? There may not be an objective conclusion.

  12. I meant my post as a response to your post, but I didn't mean my opening question directed at you as a criticism--I was just being more philosophical there about novelwriting in a general sense.

    Actually, for a while I've been thinking that for long works, if writers must intentionally write by acts, three acts may be too few. This may be another sagging-middle cause: the second act tends to be the longer one; second acts typically need more content thought up and written in before that second big climax. Maybe if that section takes too long to read and the content seems stale, the drag starts....

    Maybe novels, especially long ones, should be written in four or more acts. I've never understood why stage plays seem so flexible in this way, but the other fiction formats seem so rigid.

    I should probably learn stage writing--it seems the most flexible of the formats. And I also think that's weird because stage plays are meant to be translated into another medium; that kind of writing typically is more rigid with rules.

    ...Okay, I've digressed away from the topic, which you seem to want to stick to in this thread. Maybe at my place I'll do a post on all this at some future time, so I can wax more philosophical lol....

  13. Reason,

    After reading your racy first-comment, I've come to the conclusion that you want to wax more physiological. Stork scenes, anyone?

  14. Reason: I'm not trying to limit the conversation; I was just trying to say why I'm picking on 3-act structure. I don't necessarily defend it, but it does seem that most stories have a beginning, middle and end and the beginning is set-up, the end is climax, and the middle gets you from set-up to climax. Middles in this structure, I think, tend to drag for a lot of people at some point or another.

    Sometimes I think this is because people (say, Charles Dickens) are simply padding out the story for length. Sometimes I think it's because the story (or multiple stories) is complex and needs a lot of exposition/explanation to move forward (think Salman Rushdie). Sometimes I think it's because the middle is episodic in nature (think "The Namesake" by Jhumpa Lahiri). Sometimes I think it's because the writer simply loses track of the story midway through and has to find his way back (lots of people). Even action-packed stories lose their way (I've seen plenty of action movies that get, frankly, boring in the middle because the action has no meaning; it's just there to fill time or because somebody thought of a cool new stunt sequence).

    Some writers do avoid this structure. William Burroughs ignores it in a lot of his "middle period" books. Italo Calvino's "If On a Winter's Night a Traveler" is all beginning (or beginnings, as it were). Some books are shaped as collections of interconnected short stories. Some books are sort of all middle (Joyce's "Ulysses"). There are lots of approaches. If your solution to this problem is to simply not use the classic narrative structure, do tell us about it!

  15. Scott,

    You forgot, "Sometimes it's because the genius simply rocks at whatever he does (think Justus Bowman)."

  16. Rick: I'm talking about any point in a book where you, as reader, sort of sigh and say to the author, "Okay, can you just get on with it?" Possibly these points are not universal for all readers. Anyway, I hear "it was kind of slow in the middle, but I liked it" from lots of people about lots of books. I think there's a difference between slowing the pace to let the reader spend time with characters or whatever and the book actually having passages that perhaps bore the reader.

  17. lol Justus

    Scott, I think you nailed a big reason why I disliked reading Ulysses. I mean, it was an interesting experience, but I found it an overrated book and was so frustrated during--and it's mostly because of what you said: it's like all middle, and an all-over-the-place floundering-around middle to boot, at least to me.

    Agreed about too many action movies--I used to get into loooong screenwriting and movie discussions about this; I prefer slower longer beginnings. Most people don't seem to. They like bang-like fast openings, hooks and so on, and then an endless series of raising-the-stakes scenes. I prefer slower evolutions toward the main climax. I like hearing more about the chases, not the actual captures. I like the yearnings.

    In my own writing, as I don't write TO acts, I cannot really say where dividing act lines are, if they even exist (in the book I'm working on now, that they don't exist is clear so far). But to readers my beginnings would probably be considered much longer than usual for novels. My middles would tend to seem short. Provided this suits each particular story, I'm going to stick with this because it's what I like to read. If many others don't, oh well....

  18. Reason: Yeah, at some point we all have to just do what feels right to us. My last book? It didn't have a Third Act at all. It was more first half/second half. The first half is shorter than that second half, but not by much, I don't think. My current book is more sort of a whole bunch of storylines and conflicting ideas all running toward a single point; some of them make it to the end, some of them don't.

  19. Great discussions here, you guys! Reason, I thought it interesting that you say you avoid the three act structure, yet the sex act seems to me a form of a three act structure. Either way, I think structure is important no matter what form it takes on. I have read work that seems to lack structure, but when studied more closely, there is method to the madness. Otherwise you just have words on a page.

    I usually start with a three act structure and then let things go from there where they will. My second book, for example, seems to be begging me for more acts. I'm willing to comply. We'll see how it goes.

  20. I am rewriting my entire sagging middle. I am almost finished with that. I hope I have fixed it. Guess I'll ask Beth, at our next meeting. The way I fixed mine was to go in and delete the chapters and rewrite every word. Since mine is a mg adventure novel, I just added more tension and more problems for the MC's to have to deal with. Now I'm hoping it is almost done, but is your book really ever done? Oops, that's a post for another day, huh?

  21. I like all the ideas running to a single point--that sounds freaky interesting. It reminds me of perspective in visual art, how parallel lines converge at a vanishing point.

    Good luck reaching that point!

  22. Yep, Lady, that's true about my contradiction. I really meant I don't write with the traditional three-act structure in conscious mind, especially to the traditional lengths of those acts. Like I don't necessarily have a climax or lead-in forward at the end of my foreplay and getting-busy acts (lol). The work keeps moving forward all along, almost equally forcefully; I liken this to the way water often moves.

    I guess I kind of use a reluctant three-act sex-act structure, but not for every novel--it's just the only times I've ever--consciously--structured my works, that's the format I used. This latest one is an exception--it's all waterflow! Niagara novel!

    Yes, I hope you remove limits and keep adding in those acts if your story needs them. Happy writing!

  23. Michelle: I'm not going to discuss sex and the three-act structure. No, I'm not. But I will say that what's important is to take a serious look at the overall structure of the book one is writing, and to make sure that the structure helps the reader move always forward through the story, no matter what that structure happens to be.

    Every story has a structure even if we aren't consciously building it as we write. As soon as you put any kind of fixed order to your sentences, you've imposed a structure.

    One other reason--and a common one, I think--that stories drag in the middle is because the story iteslf is just pretty slim, or weak, and isn't interesting enough to keep a reader's attention all the way through the book. Certainly I've finished books just to be done with them, not because I necessarily cared what actually happened in the end. A lot of this is purely subjective, I know.

    Reason: I like the image of a river, constantly moving forward.

  24. Perhaps you should haven't have used "Sagging Middles" and "midsection"; people keep misspelling "six," and it scares me.

  25. I'm not a writer and don't have anything useful to add, but I do want to say thank you to everybody here. I occasionally beta read, and posts like this help me define more specifically what I did and didn't like about a novel. Sagging middles, structure, acts of all kinds . . . This place is a gold mine!

    Reason: I am intrigued by your sex analogy and flowing water imagery. I've read too many books where the author went off prematurely or dammed up the stream. ;)

    Scott: I am VERY intrigued by your structure of a whole bunch of storylines and ideas converging on the same point. There are soooo many possibilities there.

    Davin: I love the cloudy sky example. I read a book last year that was cover to cover action, and it bored me. There was no character development because the characters didn't have time to develop! They were too busy dodging assassins and fireballs and junk and stuff. Some cloudy sky would've been nice!

    Thanks again, everybody!

  26. Your posts and the comments here are usually so "DEEP" and professional, I read and go home. I have not written a novel - - yet. So, I can't address the fix for that. On the other hand, when I read novels that drag in the middle I usually don't finish them.

    I just wanted to say hello and wish you a good weekend.

  27. This discussion touches on a number of issues with structure and comes close to saying the obvious, without saying it. Is the three act structure really the cause of sagging middles? When does this problem become the author's fault?

  28. Has anyone ever found that their novel dragged in the middle,


    and fixed it?


    That is one of my biggest faults in writing...that dreaded middle!

    Can anyone think of any novels that don't drag in the middle? What do you think the writer did to keep things moving for the reader?

    HUNGER GAMES--mostly because there was so much up and down rollercoaster action!

  29. I just started The Sign by Raymond Khoury and I noticed a pattern. The first few chapters are there to hook you and then I reached the first point where he fills you in on an MC. I guessed the next chapter would provide some back story on another character and I was right. Is this common? This is the first time I'm reading a book while analyzing how it is written.

    I apologize if this isn’t quite on-topic; the back story additions are fortunately brief and it doesn’t really sag. So far it's keeping my interest (paranormal thrillers are right up my alley) although he uses the word incredulous a lot.

  30. Charlie,

    From what I've read and heard, a novice details the MC and backstory then crawls into the action; the expert jumps into the action then details the MC and backstory. Readers dread infodumps, but once they care about the MC's plight, they are eager to hear about his past (dark or not).

  31. This comment has been removed by the author.

  32. Jim: In my opinion, if a novel drags in the middle, it's the writer's fault. But just saying so isn't all that helpful.

  33. Thanks Justus. That makes sense!


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