The Writing Diet: How to Slim Your (Novel’s) Sagging Middle

Although a few seasoned experts have solved the problem, and an even smaller number of writers have an applicable talent, the truth is middles are the hardest parts for both the writer and the reader.

The “sagging middle” is an industry term for this common writing affliction. It happens because most writers have a clear and compelling sense of where their story begins and ends, but often less of an idea about how, exactly, they will get there.

This results in a middle part of the book that’s less exciting to read (and harder to write) than the rest of the book. I’m not going to fib here — the second act is a challenge. That said, it’s not an insurmountable challenge.

Here are a dozen and a half of our favorite techniques for unsagging that middle, trimming the fat, and turning Act Two into a relentless pull for readers and characters toward your epic conclusion.

18 Tricks to Unsag Your Novel’s Middle

1. Something Falls Off

I do a lot of writing for the tabletop role playing game industry. In an infamous adventure for a comedic game, there’s a challenge simply titled “Something Falls Off”, in which a random component of the priceless object the heroes were assigned to guard…falls off. For no reason.

Have something go wrong, for no readily apparent reason. Somebody walks in with a gun. The car runs out of gas. The love interest discovers the protagonist’s dirty secret. Retrofit, adjust, and foreshadow during editing, but see where this new complication takes you.

2. Create Mini Goals

Fill up the middle with staged progress toward the final goal. You see this a lot in video games with “plot tokens”. Raid each of three tombs to get one key from each, then use the keys to unlock the final battle. It’s a trope in game design because it works, and it works in our stories too.

For example, a journey of 100 miles on foot might sag with descriptions of every road and town. If you cut it into three harrowing treks, each through a different kind of hazard, suddenly that middle section gets much leaner and tauter.

3. Start Late

Sometimes the problem isn’t the middle, but rather where you started. The first act of a story doesn’t just tell the story. It introduces the character and world, and inserts reader and protagonist alike into the action. That’s exciting, and makes it hard for a beginning to sag.

What if you cut out the first scenes of your story and started the whole thing later in the action? That tepid middle gets a facelift from all those new things, and the pace of your plot gets shorter and tighter to boot.

4. Leave Early

Similar to the late start, is it possible to move all of that great closing action and growth to an earlier point in the story? Maybe you’ve put in too many try/fail cycles, or placed the ending physically (or temporally) in a place too far from where your protagonist starts out.

Look at that sagging middle and see if there’s a spot for the climax to play out. It might mean moving events, characters, even geography around a bit. That’s okay. When it works, it can make all the difference.

5. Go Brute Force

There’s a famous description of how a book should go. Step one: put your protagonist in a tree. Step two: throw rocks at him while he’s in the tree. Step three: get him out of the tree.

Sometimes, a middle is sagging simply because you’re not throwing enough rocks at your protagonist. Get creative — heck, get brutal — in what kinds of rocks you throw and how hard you throw them. This ups the risk, which ups the excitement and tightens the story.

6. Yank Out the Rug

A middle often sags because you’ve made the reader too comfortable. You’ve set up expectations, introduced the characters, made plain the stakes, and there are no more surprises until the protagonists reach the climax. Even with new obstacles to face, there’s nothing new for the reader to experience.

Beat this by removing — by surprise and with meaningful stakes — one of the expectations you’ve been meeting so far. Change a character. Reveal a secret. Shift the ground. Surprise your reader, your protagonist, and even yourself with this fundamental shift and watch everything grow more tense and exciting.

7. A Change of Scenery

This one’s tricky. Sometimes, simply shifting the location for middle scenes can tighten things up nicely by adding vibrant descriptions and additional challenges. It’s like any other move from one space to another: it makes even the things you bring with you feel changed.

It’s tricky because sometimes constantly changing scenery, without accompanying changes to characters or action, is what makes a middle sag in the first place. Whether it’s original or added, make certain other aspects of the story are progressing with each scene change.

This could be something as simple as moving conversations from a living room to a busy city street, or as ambitious as forcing your protagonists to move to Rome. Just shake things up location-wise and see what comes out.

8. Build an Interim Peak

Another solution to flagging tension in the middle of a book is to build in a false climax. There are infinite ways to do this, but the better ones fall into two general methods.

You can take one aspect of your planned climax and move it to sooner in your narrative. As a simple example, take an adventure book where the hero conquers the bad guy’s bodyguards before facing off in a final battle. Move the thrilling battle with the bodyguards to the two-thirds point, with all the stakes and action you had planned for the early finish. This is often the easier method, since it takes the least work, but can also leave the actual climax a little lacking.

The other method is to make up a new false climax. Take some threads of character, plot, and conflict and find a way to create a tense, escalating sequence halfway through your novel. Structure it similarly to your real climax, but make it a gateway to the second half of the book.

In either case, be careful not to make the interim peak so exciting that the climax pales in comparison. Tension should still ratchet up between the end of this peak and the final action.

9. Close the Loops

Another reason middles often sag is because we put too many elements into the beginning of the story. For the rest of the book, right up to the end, you have to check in on each of those threads and show them progressing. This leaves a lot of cool things to put into the climax, but can mean for a heavy slog on the way there.

Solve this by resolving some of those loops early on. If your protagonist needs to resolve issues with their mother because you introduced those issues in the first chapter, you can resolve them completely halfway through the book. This unencumbered your protagonist from that emotional stress while unencumbering your manuscript from continuing to deal with it.

Bonus points for working this loop-closing solution in with your interim peak. Bonus bonus points for making these early resolutions necessary for your protagonist’s success at the climax.

10. Dangle Some Temptation

You’ve seen teaser trailers at the movies, or on YouTube. A well-made one can get you super-excited for a movie you’d never heard about, just by dangling a little information in front of you. It excites your emotions and presents a mystery you won’t solve unless you go see the whole movie.

You can use the same techniques to tighten up your middle. Most climaxes reveal some information, whether that’s a protagonist’s personal epiphany, the disloyalty of a betraying ally, or the full details of the bad guy’s evil master plan. Look for ways you tease some of those facts earlier in the novel, to pique reader curiosity and give them a small payoff on their way to the end.

This might take the form of foreshadowing: little hints for the reader about what’s coming. It might take the form of clues: leads and information for the protagonist about how the end will resolve. Either way, it draws stronger connections between the middle and the end, pulling the reader forward.

11. Write Toward Character Milestones

We talked about mini goals earlier. This is a variation on that idea. When plot progress begins to slow during the middle act, cinch it in a little by exploring character growth and development.
This is what a TV B-plot is for. It takes up time where the A-plot will flag, and fills it with something else going on. Whether it’s personal growth, the love story, developing skills the hero will need at the climax, or any of the infinite other ways characters can change, marking this progress can keep our story middles vibrant and dynamic.

12. Focus Up

When a growing writer wants to write a 60,000 word book using a 40,000 word story, sometimes they add a lot of side quests, ruminations, philosophizing, dialogue, and other excursions to find those extra 20,000 words. The result is often a sagging middle.

Pull out all the scenes and asides that don’t directly serve the main plot and most important sub-plot, and see what’s left. Sometimes you’ll find a shorter story that’s just the length it needs to be. Other times, you’ll find a roadmap for writing a longer story with new scenes and ideas that stay on track.

13. Twenty Out, Ten In

A more specific method that focusing up that works best for math-minded people, “Twenty Out, Ten In” can be a powerful exercise and solution for anybody who tries this simple formula:

Go through the middle half of your book. Pull out twenty percent of the word count, however you can possibly do it. Shorten sentences. Excise unnecessary scenes. Reduce dialogue. Whatever it takes.

When you’re done with that, go back and add ten percent of new content, but make all of that content add new information and action in whatever form is most appropriate for your story.

It’s a demanding method, but it won’t just unsag the middle of this manuscript. If you do it as an exercise, it will tighten your writing overall for the next books.

14. Double Down

Another issue of middles that sag is they simply take too long. Your book has a list of things that must happen before the climax begins, but it takes a lot of scenes, words, and chapters to get them all in. The result is a lot of flat action before things pick up near the end.

Beat this by making each scene do double or even triple duty. Instead of having 20 chapters with each advancing one aspect of the story, you can have 10 chapters each advancing two. Or you could have just seven, each weaving three points together in a taut, complex progression.
Start this process by going through your draft and identifying the core point of each scene and chapter. Then find ways to combine several. For example, a chapter where you introduce a new character and another where you reinforce a personal growth point in your protagonist can become a single scene where you reinforce that growth in how the protagonist treats this newcomer.

15. Try Scene – Sequel

The scene-sequel concept is something you see in action books and movies, but can extend out into stories with a more sedate pace. It creates a rolling sense of pace that doesn’t leave room for anything to sag.

A scene-sequel structure is exactly what it sounds like. Through the middle of your book, you alternate between scenes and sequels. In this context, a “scene” is a high-energy sequence with physical or emotional action. A “sequel” slows down the pace for the protagonist (and the reader) to recover and consider the consequences of what happened in the scene.

This works well for stories with a lot of introspection in the middle. They start out with lots of early action and discovery, and end with a big finish, but in the middle there’s not much going on. Writing with scene-sequel in mind helps you make sure something’s going on more often.

16. Raise the Stakes

A graph of the tension in a novel should represent gradual upward progress. There will be dips and rises, but overall it needs to get tenser consistently as the story moves forward. Sagging middles often flatline or even dip during the second act, which is why they call it “sagging.”

Walking on a sidewalk is easy. Walking on a platform the exact width of a sidewalk, but 100 feet above the ground, is terrifying. This applies to a sagging middle, too.

You can conquer much of this by raising the stakes in the middle. The same action can be drab or full of tension, based on how much the person performing that action stands to lose. You’ll remember this in your own life by thinking back to answer math questions as homework vs. in front of class. One was much-more nerve wracking, much more filled with tension. That’s the power of raising the stakes.

Raise the stakes either by making things more fraught with danger, or by letting the protagonists (and thus the readers) know about hidden dangers and consequences earlier in the story. That peril infuses all subsequent scenes with its menace, immediately making each less saggy.

This can be as subtle and esoteric, or ham-fisted and brazen, as you feel your story calls for. The point is to make things more dangerous, so the reader gets more engaged.

17. Increase Uncertainty

One final way middles sag is when they become predictable, or when they answer questions that are better saved for the climax. Remember: readers want a mystery. Compelling questions pull them toward the end of your book.

Although resolving some things early can keep the middle more interesting, you want to also increase uncertainty as much as you can. This may seem self-contradictory, but you can accomplish it with a simple trick.

Resolve plot points and character development early in the book, but have each of those resolutions make the final outcome somehow less certain. With each new piece of information, each new challenge overcome, the stakes go up.

18. When in Doubt…

…cut it out. Sagging middles usually happen because writers feel compelled to meet some arbitrary length goal for the story. Forget about that. If your story needs to be 100,000 words that’s fine — but if it’s only a 20,000 word novella there’s nothing wrong with that.

One of the best ways to keep your middle lean is to cut out the junk food. That applies to our writing, too. Eliminate everything that’s not directly related to the core story, and your middle will be as slender and rock-hard as Bruce Lee’s abs.

But That’s Not All!

Novels aren’t the only part of our WIPs that sometimes sag in the middle. Sometimes it’s chapters, action sequences, dialogue, and (especially) exposition. You can do a lot to improve you novel with the same tricks we just discussed, only applied at that smaller level.

You can go pretty deep with this, but that’s a good thing. The tighter a novel is, the fewer chances a reader has to abandon it. A novel your reader doesn’t abandon is a novel your reader will enjoy, and pester you for a sequel to.