The saggy middle. No, I’m not talking about your stomach; I’m talking about your plot. One of the things publishers dread is a book that starts well but then loses steam in the middle. It happens so often, it’s actually called the saggy middle.
But before we get to the fixes, let’s do a quick review of a basic plot structure.
1. Ordinary World – The hero is introduced going about his normal life. As a writer, you need to accomplish several things in this opening:
a. create empathy so readers get emotionally attached to the hero
b. give the hero a goal and show why it’s important to him
c. avoid showing too many flaws, but lay the groundwork for either the hero’s lie, flaw, or wound (which I’m going to call “lie” from here on out)
d. show what is getting in the way of the hero accomplishing his opening goal
2. Turning Point 1 – Something happens that forces the hero outside of his ordinary world/comfort zone, and puts him on a collision course with his lie.
3. New Journey – Because the hero is no longer in his comfortable ordinary world, he sets a new goal. We’ll talk more about this in a moment. For now, just remember that every hero has two goals, the one he has at the very beginning and the new or modified one he sets after the first turning point. The “saggy middle” happens in this section.
4. Turning Point 2 – Something happens that upsets everything the hero has been working towards during his New Journey. This turning point makes reaching his goal both seemingly impossible to achieve yet immeasurably more important to achieve.
5. The final battle – Everything the hero has learned must be put to use in order to defeat the villain or accomplish the goal.
6. Resolution or New Ordinary World – shows the hero either in a new place or back in the same place he started geographically, but he’s a different person as a result of everything that happened during his journey.
The first fix for a saggy middle is the second goal your hero sets. Every story goal can only last so long. By setting different or modified goal at the beginning of the New Journey, you infuse your story with life. This second goal needs to address both the hero’s outer journey (aka, the plot) and inner journey (aka, character growth). Again, when your character gets taken out of his Ordinary World, what comes next needs to challenge his lie. An example of a new goal is from The Wizard of Oz. When the story opens, Dorothy wants to get away from home. When she gets to Oz, she sets a new goal of getting back home. The goals are opposite. In Legally Blonde, Elle wants to marry Warner. In the beginning of the story, she thinks she’s on the verge of a proposal (which she’s achieved by being blonde and beautiful). When Warner tells her he needs a smart woman, Elle’s goal is modified. She still wants to marry Warner, but now she’s going to get her proposal by going to Harvard Law School and proving she’s smart. As she goes along, her goal shifts again because Warner stops being the best man on campus. Any time you change your hero’s goal like this, it needs to be one with a higher moral standard.
The second fix for the saggy middle is to stop thinking of it as the saggy middle. In truth, there’s a lot that has to happen in this section. Your hero is training for his final battle. He might not be aware of it, but you as the author most certainly are. You need to present your hero with greater and greater challenges, things that strengthen both his muscles/ability (outer journey) and resolve to leave behind the lie that’s been getting him in trouble in his Ordinary World (inner journey). At the mid-point of your story, there is another type of turning point. This is the moment when your hero leaves behind his lie and steps into doing things a new way.
Look at it this way: New Journey=new goal that requires a new way of doing things but the hero is going to try doing it his old way. Give him three challenges to prove to him that his old way isn’t working. Midpoint of New Journey=hero has to look in the mirror, see his lie as the thing that’s keeping him from getting what he wants, and then resolve to accomplish his goal in a different way. This is often called the point of no return. Up to now, the character could go back to his original Ordinary World and still be the same person. After this, he will be forever changed. In the second half of his New Journey, give him three challenges to build his confidence so he thinks, “Hey. This is good. I sure hope it keeps working because I really like this way of doing things.” There’s nothing saggy about this.
Then, just when he’s feeling good about himself, rip the rug out from underneath him by proving to him in the most painful way that his lie is truth, his wound is too deep to overcome, or his flaw is fatal. Except now he’s past the point of no return and must keep going.
Which is a whole other lesson.
Let me get religious on you for a moment to illustrate my point. In Christian circles, we often talk about getting or being “saved.” This is the moment we acknowledge we are unable to reflect God in all His glory to the world around us, which is what mankind was created to do. The Bible calls this inability sin, and no one has been without it since Adam and Eve fell and were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Their fall from perfection to sinner landed every one of their decedents—us—in a mess. We are no longer able to reflect God perfectly but we were never relieved of duty. Romans 3:23 says it this way, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Thus, we need a savior, Jesus Christ.
But before we can get “saved” we need to get “lost.” One of the reasons my husband loves prison ministry is because it’s fairly easy to convince convicted criminals that what they’ve been doing up to this point isn’t working for them—they’re lost.
In fiction circles, the entire first half of your story is getting your hero lost. You have to prove to him that his way isn’t working; that if he keeps going the way he has been, the consequences are disastrous. The only “sag” that should be in your middle is getting your hero to his lowest point emotionally, what we sometimes call “rock bottom,” in order to bring him back out of the pit a new man.
With pen to paper,