Your eyelids are heavy. You’re losing steam. You can barely navigate the twists and turns. No, you’re not slogging through the last half of a marathon—you’re reading a novel with a sagging middle.
Even the most inspired novels can fall victim to clumsy, lackluster plotting as the story progresses. There’s a term for it: Sagging Middle. I’ve seen it happen with countless manuscripts: It starts out strong, with a promising character and a meaty conflict. But soon, tension dissipates. The story development stalls. Maybe the events feel convoluted. The plot sags and the reader quickly loses interest before the story ends.
Below are 5 effective ways to revive a sagging middle and make your novel as marketable as possible.
5 tips for reviving a wilted plot and fixing a sagging middle:
1. Trim backstory.
Many first-time authors include way too much backstory. It’s natural; after all the planning that goes into the story-crafting process, authors want to tell readers as much as they can. But sometimes, it can interfere with the novel’s present events, or stall the pacing. If past events hog the focus of too many passages, readers can lose sight of the actual story.
Try this: Only have backstory emerge when it best suits the story. Ask yourself: What does this exposition reveal about the character? How does it drive forward the progression? Can I show—not tell—something about this character that implies their backstory? Think of backstory as a decadent dessert best enjoyed through smaller bites that have stronger impacts. Less is more.
2. Scrap dialog.
Dialog is essential to a novel. However, first-time authors tend to rely on it too much, almost as if they were writing a play and not a narrative. A common mistake is writing long, multi-page swaths of endless conversations. These cumbersome, attention-sapping passages can weigh down your plot.
Try this: Examine parts of your manuscript that feel lackluster and see if you have passages of dialogue that last more than two pages. Can you distill the conversation down to its most salient points? To lighten the pace, intersperse the dialog with action, description or internal thought. Consider if you should eliminate the exchange entirely.
3. End on questions.
An effective way to make your plot engaging is to keep readers guessing throughout your novel. Plots that resonate as dry or lifeless often resolve conflicts too quickly, rarely giving the reader a reason to wonder what will happen next.
Try this: Always plant a question in the reader’s mind. This doesn’t mean you should insert literal questions. Rather, dangle unresolved information like a carrot on a stick, beckoning readers to turn the page. Have each chapter wrap with something that’s unanswered in the reader’s mind—be it a new danger, a dramatic cliffhanger, or a lightbulb moment that triggers a new opportunity. If you already have these elements in your draft, have them fall on chapter endings.
4. Raise the stakes.
Another culprit behind lackluster plots and a sagging middle: characters who solve their problems way too easily. Without worthy challenges, your readers will wonder, “Why is this story even worth telling?”
Try this: Always make life more difficult for your main character. Take a look at your protagonist’s key moments throughout your novel. See how you can ramp them up with even more dramatic consequences. For instance, if your character loses a job that he doesn’t even like, you can make the pay cut devastating to his worsening gambling habit. Continually upping the stakes is a great way to breathe new life into your plot.
5. Get secretive.
Many first-time authors get so caught up in all the elements of their story that it’s easy to lose sight of the most important aspect: the protagonist’s internal journey. Neglecting this can cause your plot to feel untethered or weighed down by extraneous events.
Try this: Give your main character a secret. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a shameful, dark, or dirty secret, but something that causes tension. It could be as small as a piece of information the character has to keep close to her chest—letting it get out would be a disaster. This is also a good way to reorient the plot to your story.
Are you having issues with your plot? Tell me in the comments below.