Writers in the Storm

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May 13, 2024

Dead Zone Ahead: The Sagging Middle

by Diana Stout

Graphic depicting the sagging middle of a story.

You’ve got a great idea for a new story. You have an idea of how it’s going to end. You have at least one main character, maybe two, so you start writing while the idea is hot.

The idea grows as you’re writing, so you’re making it up as you go along, and the characters are revealing who they are. And, then suddenly, you hit a wall. You don’t know what happens next, and your brainstorming ideas are dismal.

Several days pass, and you’re still stuck. Maybe this idea wasn’t as good as you first thought. You’re now wondering if you’ve lost your muse. Even the characters aren’t exciting anymore.

You don’t want to give up because you’re halfway through the book. But, you’re stuck.

Suddenly, you get a new idea. An exciting idea. A different story idea. So, you shelve this problematic story and turn to writing the new idea instead.

And then, it happens again. You’re halfway through the story and you’ve entered the dead zone.

The sagging middle. Where great ideas weaken and get mired in the murky waters of story that creates painful writing.

The Three Biggest Reasons for the Sagging Middle

  1. Nothing is happening.
  2. The climax is in the wrong place.
  3. There’s a lack of emotion.

What Should Occur in the Middle?

Blake Synder, author of Save the Cat!, a bookabout screenwriting, calls this plot point The Midpoint.

According to Michael Hauge, the author of Writing Screenplays That Sell, Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds, and The Hero’s Two Journeys with Christopher Vogler, the middle is one of five major plot points in the story that is designed to “elicit maximum emotion” both from the character and the audience.

This middle plot point should spin the story in a different direction and be fraught with anxiety, frustration, self-doubt, or fear.

Other Perspectives

Different writers have called this particular plot point by different names, but they all mean the same thing: it occurs in the middle of the movie or the book, at the 50% mark.

For Michael Hauge, this plot point marks the Point of No Return. The main character can’t return to the Ordinary World from which they came. Bridges have been burned. They’re now closer to the end of the story than they are from the beginning; and, they’re no longer that same person.

Chris Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, calls this plot point the Approach to the Innermost Cave. It’s both a huge step into the heart of the conflict and the heart of the character’s wound.

James Scott Bell, author of Write Your Novel From the Middle, coined this potent Midpoint as the Mirror Moment. He contends this Mirror Moment is a self-examination within a scene, where the character fully recognizes they can’t go back.

This Midpoint is a highly emotional scene as we see the character wanting to change, with the plot moving forward because of their renewed resolution in changing, which spins the story in a different direction.

The Nothing is Happening Problem

When nothing is happening, there’s always going to be a lull in the story, yet the middle isn’t the place for a lull. The Midpoint is easily the third highest emotional plot point in the entire story. The other two plot points that should elicit more emotion than the Midpoint are the Major Setback (at 75%) and the Climax (at 90-99%).

To determine what’s happened so far, make a list of the story events. Once listed, determine if the main character made the decision or someone else did, which means the character was acted upon; you want the main character making the decisions or agreeing with them. Then rate each event on the previous emotional scale of 1-10.

If lots of events occurred because of the main character’s decisions and the events were emotionally engaging, could your sagging middle be problematic because you’ve resolved the conflict? That there haven’t been enough twists and turns?

The Climax is in the Wrong Place Problem

When consulting with other writers and showing them how the five big plot points will create maximum emotion, they often discover there’s only one big confrontation, and more often than not, they discover it’s in the wrong place.

Once we move that big event to the Major Setback or Climax, they realize they had finished their story too early, that they didn’t have enough emotion or any emotion, or that the story lacked genuine conflict.

All of which led them to ask, So, what goes in the middle? What’s missing?

The Lack of Emotion Problem

Emotion is why we read books and watch movies. We want to experience what the protagonist is feeling. Too often, there’s not enough emotion.

Story emotion is revealed through the main character’s pain. If there’s no pain, there’s no conflict, and if there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

Conflict generates pain, which generates emotion.

Were the emotional scores you gave your list of events high, low, or midline? They should be high. If not high, is it because there’s no pain?

How to Fix the Sagging Middle

To fix the sagging middle, you want to ratchet up the main character’s emotion with tension, danger, stress, and anxiety. They need to be in danger emotionally, physically, mentally—separately or together.

To fix the Nothing is Happening Problem

Make something happen!

  • Create a twist.
  • Another crime is committed or another body is discovered.
  • A character regrets having sex or saying I love you.
  • A character on a quest realizes they’ve just been tricked or been going down a wrong path.
  • The main character discovers something or someone they thought they could trust can’t be trusted.

To fix the Climax is in the Wrong Place Problem

Move your Midpoint to the Major Setback or Climax.

  • Create an added crisis or twist, a mini climax, the first of several battles that lead to the largest battle of all—the climax.
  • If your Midpoint is in the right place, then create an emotion-filled Climax.
  • Make sure that events in the first half are properly leading to this new crisis, which later leads to the Major Setback and Climax.

To fix the Lack of Emotion Problem

Layer the story with more emotion.

  • Hurt your main character.
  • Fill every scene with emotion.

Allen Palmer named each of Christopher Vogler’s 12 plot points from The Writer’s Journey with a specific emotion. Seeing those named emotions, for me, was key to understanding how to layer those plot points more effectively, more deeply.

Final Thought

Far too often I’ll hear a writer, especially a romance writer, say, But I don’t like hurting my characters! Hurt them to the point that you’re cringing or fearing for them.

A sagging middle is a sure sign that something is wrong with the Midpoint plot point.

Brainstorming more events, more pain, more emotion, and moving your plot points around until you feel a lump in your throat occurs, or any other emotion you’re trying to elicit, because if you’re feeling it, your audience will feel it, too.

As you read this blog, did certain movies or books come to mind that provided an emotional Midpoint? Share their titles with us.

Have you struggled with the sagging middle in the past? Do you still?

* * * * * *

About Diana

Diana Stout, MFA, PhD

Finding joy in helping other writers, Dr. Diana Stout has just published two resource guides, CPE: Character, Plot, & Emotion and its companion book, the CPE Workbook, to help writers eliminate their sagging middles and demonstrate with examples and templates how a bit of plotting can be an aid to your pantsering.

Michael Hauge states that “Diana brilliantly reveals and edifies the uniquely powerful principles of plot and character.”

To learn more about Diana, visit her Sharpened Pencils Productions website.

Top photo created in Canva.

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18 comments on “Dead Zone Ahead: The Sagging Middle”

  1. I agree. In my experience, if nothing else, planning the major plot points will solve most problem of saggy middles. Why reinvent the wheel? You can improve on it, but not replace it.

  2. I realized this is why I turned to writing, writing the stories I want to read. I know I may never sell a book in todays market driven literary culture. Emotion is not the reason I read. I long for escape. Places and settings, people and characters are the fuel for adventure and discovery.
    The rollercoaster of emotional plot devices I find to be more of a reason to put a book aside than bad writing or head hopping.
    To the writers out there all I can offer is be conscious of the other reasons people read books, emotion is one of many, not the one and only.

  3. Hi Diana,
    Thanks for this reminder of ways to view the dreaded middle point of a novel. It is pivotal and I appreciate James Scott Bell's Mirror Moment. It reminds me that the internal journey isn't only a growth point as far as a novel goes, it should change the plot and propel the character (and the reader!) into the second half of the book.

    1. Everything you said, Kris! Reading your response, I was reminded that the three elements are like a tripod or three-legged stool. Remove one leg and the story collapses.

      Thanks for adding your insight!

  4. This is really helpful for a story quilter like me. I write the scenes out of order and then stitch them together. Your tips will help me beef up the ones I've identified for Act 2. Love it!

  5. Thank you for interviewing/introducing Dr. Diana Stout to the membership of your newsletter! I immediately went on Amazon and ordered her two books on Character, Plot and Emotion AND the Workbook! Love being introduced to new writers, especially writers who share how they craft their books. I just finished Jessica Brody's class on "Save The Cat," and Michael Hauge's classes--both on Udemy (if you wait until they're on sale, they're quite a good deal--both are great instructors). Just read David Putnam's 12-book Bruno Johnson Thrillers' series and learned that he's a great writing instructor (often speaks for SIC events). Would love to have you interview him (I think he's written 60+ books now) Thank you again, love your newsletter, will enjoy reading Dr. Stout's books when they arrive.

    1. Thank you, Susan, for your support and your passion! I look forward to knowing how you like the books and how they helped your writing.

      Now that I'm writing thrillers, I'll have to check out your recommendation!
      Thanks for commenting.

  6. When I have that happen, I've learned some kind of plot twist is needed.

    Thank you for sharing great ideas.

  7. I found 'Fix Those Saggy Middles' packed with extremely useful insight and wonderful resources. As a predominately non-fiction and academic writer in a previous life, sagging middles referred to my gracious aging. However, entering the world of fiction, I have encountered the beast to which you now refer. I appreciate your thoughts on how to 'enflame' rather than tame beast -- it makes sense!

    1. Oooo, Jennifer, I love hearing about your writing journey. We share in the non-fiction and academic writing journey, though I suspect yours was life-long. Mine was short-lived, achieved later in life, sandwiched between lots of fiction. I love your expression of "enflaming the beast rather than taming it."

  8. My favorite all-time movie You've Got Mail. Why? It came out when my life was going through some deep changes very similar to the story. And I think the very subtle middle of that movie is when they both begin to realize they do/can care about each other. Even though things they both wanted or did not want happened their affection/friendship grew from that point on. Very real and very touching.

    1. Chrissie, that's one of my favorite romances, too. Everything you said. I like the plot points are more emotional than physical, other than having to close the store. That movie is so much about feelings. Thanks for joining in the conversation!

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