Read any good book on writing, attend writer’s conferences, and you’ll hear this warning again and again—beware the sagging middle.
These fine folk are not speaking of the aftermath of that dozen donuts downed in despair over a deadline. Nor are they eluding to the need of sturdier foundational garments. Rather, they are warning authors of the tendency of Act 2—the middle of the book—to bore the reader.
You do not want to bore the reader.
When you bore a reader, they put your book down. And we all know that idle minds cause mischief, so by putting your book down, said reader is free to pursue other less noble activities such as bank robbery or sky diving.
I see you scratching your head, still puzzling over my use of the term Act 2. You’re familiar with the term in reference to plays, but books?
Three Act Structure
Many writers use the three act structure when plotting books. It’s proven to work for the past two millennia—and here’s why it works.
Humans like things in threes. Our world is organized that way. Morning, noon, and night. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Beginning, middle, end. See? Birth, life, death.
Act 1 sets your story up – ordinary world if you will. Usually it’s the first ¼ of the book.
Act 2 starts when a threshold is crossed – something happens so that life cannot continue on as usual. This whole section is about the main characters getting tossed into the new reality and all the trial and error as they struggle to overcome the problem. This is a good ½ of the book.
Act 3 begins at the climax of the story (The Really Big Thing That Happens) and winds down to the conclusion/resolution. This act is the last quarter of the book.
There’s a LOT more to this, but I figured an overview will help understand how and why a middle can sag.
Think back to your childhood. You probably took a long plank of something to span a gap – be it a creek, sandbox, whatever. Because the supports were at the very ends, the plank probably sagged in the middle. Also applies to blanket forts. Blankets are uber prone to sag.
Same thing with a story.
It starts with a bang, momentum builds, then as the second act goes on and on and on, it can lose steam as it slogs toward The Really Big Thing That Happens.
How to avoid saggy center
There are a few things you can do.
Plot twists. “Twists” is plural for a reason. Put in two or three completely unexpected surprises. Donald Maass is a proponent for adding elements of surprise in his book, Writing 21st Century Fiction. Maass suggests taking a plot point, or action in the story and writing out every expected effect of that action. What will the reader expect? Once you do that, brainstorm some character reactions/actions/behaviors that are the opposite of what’s expected. The fall-out from such surprising behavior lends itself to some gripping reading material!
Kill somebody off. Be unexpected about it. Don’t let them see it coming. Again, that hole left by the dead character will create drama to carry you through the middle.
Sub-plots. Life is never one linear story. Each person on the stage has a story of their own. Play out some crisis involving secondary characters that may collide and cause conflict with the main character or the main plot of the story. Give each person his or her personal drama.
Did you notice a common denominator in these suggestions?
Conflict is what keeps a story going. As your main character and friends slog through their new realities, have them try things and fail. Make them fail again, and make the consequences of those failures worse. This method comes from Donald Maass. I don’t take credit for it.
IF you employ one of more of the above techniques, you’ll find yourself at the Really Big Thing That Happens in no time, and your readers will forgo bathroom breaks and sleep to get to the end.
With pen to paper,