Article of The Month

Tightening the Sagging Middle

Copyright 2000 by Alicia Rasley

No, this isn't about sit-ups! The sagging middle we're concerned with is between the opening and the climax of a book. Many writers lose control and motivation in these essential intervening chapters because they forget the purposes of the middle of the book.


Our openings and climaxes usually work pretty well because we know why we write them. The book's opening has introduced the setting, the major characters, the themes, and the basic "problem" or premise of the plot. The climax brings all these elements together in an ending that explodes with released tension. But few of us know why we write the middle, except to join the beginning and the end.

But the middle is more than a transition from point C to point W. The important middle scenes develop conflict and explore the setting, characters, and theme, while moving the plot forward.

The plot purpose is the most obvious-- the middle scenes present most of the events of the story, showing how each leads into the next. The cause-effect chain of the story events must be strongest here in the middle. At the end of the first few chapters, the protagonist has embarked on a journey, and every event marks an advance towards the destination. But we have to be ruthless here so that the journey isn't a meandering one with too many blind alleys– every scene should be centered on an irrevocable event that changes the course of the plot.

The middle is the time of rising conflict, where the "on-the-brink" situation in the opening chapters gets more and more intense. If the external conflict is a campaign for mayor, every scene makes the election outcome less predictable... and the costs of victory more acute. If the romantic conflict is that the heroine is disguising her identity, then every scene should bring her closer to discovery, and her deception should become more dangerous to their growing love.

Another fundamental purpose is to develop the characters, especially the protagonist(s), so that their motivations are understandable and their actions clearly further the plot. These middle scenes also hint at and then gradually reveal any hidden issues or secrets within the major characters.

This is also where we develop the relationships between the protagonist and others. Their interactions, of course, will cause many of the important events-- the conflicts, the alliances, the rivalries-- that move the plot along.

The middle also has the purpose of deepening the "world" of the novel. Here you can explore the setting and its effect on the characters and events, examine the protagonist's relationship to the society, and develop the themes or values that drive the protagonist and the society.

Most important, perhaps, is the evolving of the problem or question which drives the plot. If you're writing a mystery, the problem is "whodunnit?" The question in a romance is "Why do they come to love each other, and how does this change them?" The middle of the book assembles the "evidence" that will eventually solve the problem or answer the question.

Finally, of course, the middle builds towards the climax, setting up the elements necessary for resolutions of the conflicts and the central problem or question.


The middle sags when some of the above purposes are unfulfilled, or fulfilled in a dreary way, or fulfilled not simultaneously but one by one. Experienced readers can identify these single-purpose scenes: "Oh, here's the scene that shows how brave she is and then there's the scene that shows how conservative her town is, and then finally we get to the scene where she defies the mayor." In this kind of middle, every action scene is preceded by a scene of contemplation and a scene of decision, and followed by a scene of reaction. (If this sounds familiar, it's probably because you've read some of my drafts!) The book ends up circling the same ground twice, straining the reader's patience.

An opposite but related problem is a series of action scenes, each merely relating one event and leading into a scene that relates the next event. This will result in a linear plot that stretches out a series of events like knots in an elastic string-- thin and weak.


The middle can, however, be deepened and strengthened by following this advice: Have three purposes at least for each scene. One should be "advance the external plot". For the others, consider these:
Develop character.
Show character interaction.
Explore setting or culture and values.
Introduce new character or subplot.
Forward subplot.
Increase tension and suspense.
Increase reader identification.
Anticipate solution to problem.
Divert attention from solution (but still show it).
Show how character reacts to events or causes events.
Show event from new point of view.
Foreshadow some climactic event.
Flashback or tell some mysterious past event that has consequences now.
Reveal something the protagonist has kept hidden.
Reveal something crucial to protagonist and/or reader.
Advance or hinder protagonist's "quest".

Obviously you won't usually pick out three of these purposes and deliberately insert them into a scene. Rather, realize that action, dialogue, narration, description, and internalization can all be used in the same scene to add greater depth.


1) In this part, the protagonist is really getting engaged in the problem of the plot. Work on crafting exciting events, perhaps confonting the protagonist with some obstacle and forcing growth and change. Avoid the tendency to use this section to show off your research or teach the reader.

2) Show a contrast between the protagonist and some other character (perhaps the villain) which will turn out to be important later. For example, they can face the same obstacle but respond in different ways. The way the protagonist chooses might exhibit the very quality needed to win some battle in the end. A contrast between the hero and the heroine, perhaps leading to a conflict, might work here also.

3) Start developing your secondary characters, and show their relationships with the protagonist. Show, for example, how they reinforce the protagonist's values, or interfere with the quest, or cause some event to happen. The subplots should be starting here if they haven't already. Consider how they will contribute to the main plot and/or development of the problem.

4) Ask "What can go wrong for the protagonist?" Or have the protagonist make a mistake here, setting off a chain of unexpected events.

1) This might be a good time for a little release of tension. Have a quiet scene between the hero and heroine perhaps, preferably during a pause in the midst of danger or adventure. An inconclusive love scene might work here.

2) Keep the tension level ascending, then falling back a bit, then going even higher. Assume a "crisis mentality": Let things get peaceful, then throw deepening trouble in there. Keep increasing the level of emotional risk with every new event, and make each new event contribute to the eventual climax. Consider grouping several events in one scene, or have action taking place simultaneously, which together will force a succeeding event. This avoids that linear plot.

3) The protagonist should have to face internal conflict here, and might get a chance to do some work on it. But consider interrupting that with some external conflict, so the internal isn't actually resolved.

4) Start closing off options or avenues of escape for the protagonist. Eventually (perhaps the beginning of the end?) the protagonist can be left with only two options, and choosing one will lead into the climax.

5) This is a good point for the protagonist face betrayal, actual or suspected, at this point. A trusted friend, even the lover, can betray (or appear to betray), so that the protagonist's sense of certainty is shaken. In a romance, you must be careful not to make this apparent betrayal only a trivial misunderstanding; make the suspicious event worthy of the drama implied in "betrayal".

1) Can you increase the time pressure on the protagonist? Don't allow procrastination! The clock is ticking!

2) Try injecting a disastrously unanticipated event. Then slow the pace, show the protagonist's reaction and options. This forces the character to re-evaluate and re-start.

3) The internal conflict should be affecting the external conflict here, so that later the protagonist has to overcome the internal to address the external, OR find that overcoming the external gives the strength to address the internal.

4) Resolve a sub-plot or two, so that the resolution contributes to the final climactic events.

5) FORCE the situation to require action of the protagonist, either before or after making the choice between two options. Make it intense and dramatic here.

6) This is another good place for a love scene, whether it proceeds to sex or not. (It could be just that they declare their love.) A love scene at this point might mean that the major romantic conflict between them (such as lack of trust) has been resolved, Then they can work together to resolve the external problem. Or the lovemaking itself can help resolve conflicts between them, and so could take place when they're ready to fix things.

For greater emotional drama, however, a love scene can cause more romantic conflict, especially a clash of loyalties (the lover vs. the cause). If so, this should take place at a crucial moment, such as right before the crisis (when the worst happens) This technique can actually bring on the climax (no pun intended!), by forcing the protagonist to choose between the lover and whatever, another variation of the famous two options.

Just keep this in mind: Make the situation demand action. That gives a coherent structure to the middle of the book: First, get the situation established, force the protagonist into taking action, show how the consequences of the action affect the characters and bring on the climactic events. Then all you have to do is write the climax and resolution! But that's another article....

Alicia Rasley is a 13-year member of RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock .

Copyright 2000 by Alicia Rasley

If you like my articles, check out my interactive writing booklets and plot guidebook:

The Story Within Writing Series

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Go to previous articles:

Sharks in the Water: Old Scams in the New Millennium

The Publishing Journey

Lest Ye Be Judged: Contest Judging for Writers

Setting and Character Interactions

Developing the Dark Moment

The Promise of the Hot Premise

Outline Your Novel in Thirty Minutes

Subtle and Sensual

Plotting Without Fears

Structuring the Story

End Thoughts

Details, Details

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