Six Ways to Beat Sagging Middle Syndrome and Fix Your Story

Friday, May 13, 2022
By Madeline Dyer

Is the middle of your story sagging? Do you think this is the weakest part? Are you really stuck on what to write here? If you answered ‘yes’ to any of these questions, chances are you need to dig a little deeper into your novel’s structure to make it more engaging, entertaining, and crucial to the story.

In a three-act structure, the central act is usually the longest act and it connects arguably the most exciting parts of the novel—the opening/hook and the climax/end—and so this is often the trickiest part to write. You don’t want it to be boring, but you also don’t want to reveal everything in the middle, because that’ll affect your ending. Similarly, you don’t want to rush toward the ending, as that’ll affect pacing. As such, the central act is both a place that connects the first and third acts and the place where you develop your story further, while keeping readers engaged.

Luckily, there are a number of ways to do this!

Use Plot Points

It’s easy to create forward momentum in the opening, when you’re introducing your reader to the exciting premise of your story, but you also need to make sure to maintain this momentum going forward. An easy way to do this is to end the opening of the story (act one) on a plot point. A plot point is a point of no return. Something (usually bad) happens to the protagonist as they begin to try and achieve their goal, making their goal even harder to obtain while also meaning they definitely can’t go back to living like they were. The protagonist then has no choice but to move forward, in a different direction, to face this new problem which they must solve in order to continue their journey to obtain their goal. (Note: this is different to the inciting incident, which will happen earlier in act one; the inciting incident will usually cause the protagonist to realize what their goal is.)

Switch up the Setting

You can also maintain forward momentum by introducing a new setting which brings its own challenges. If your protagonist is comfortable and familiar in their surroundings in act one, then shake this up in act two. Act two is where we see our main character being tested. Make things as hard as possible for them!

Picture the Movie Trailer

Act two should be exciting! Think of your story as a film and work out which snippets of exciting scenes would be used in a movie trailer—most of these will be the scenes you want in act two, as these will keep readers engaged while developing the plot.

Introduce a Love Story

You can also use the middle part of the story to focus on your character’s love life (the subplot of ‘the love story’ often really gets going in this central act), and you can show readers the challenges that come with this love story—especially in the wider context of the protagonist achieving their goal. Is the lover a distraction? How does their presence affect the protagonist’s interactions with the antagonist? And has the love interest got their own agenda?

Develop your Protagonist and Antagonist

While we get to know secondary characters more in the middle section, we also need to get to know the two most important characters further here as well: the protagonist and antagonist. Readers need to learn more about these characters, and we need to see interactions between them. Think about how the power struggle between the protagonist and antagonist develops as the central act progresses, and consider whether each will use the other’s darkest secrets, mistakes, flaws, and fears against them.

Twists and Turns

You’re also going to want to have some twists thrown into this central section, too. This will really help with reader engagement and increase the pacing and tension. Sure, save your big twists for the ending, but whet your reader’s appetite by giving them a couple smaller, unexpected twists in the middle, as well. This shows that you really know what you’re doing and will also promise a satisfying ending with an even bigger twist.

Most successful novels use many, if not all, of these techniques in order to keep the reader interested and to prevent their novels from suffering from Sagging Middle Syndrome.


Madeline Dyer lives on a farm in the southwest of England, where she hangs out with her Shetland ponies and writes dark and twisty young adult books.

Madeline has a strong love for anything dystopian or ghostly, and she can frequently be found exploring wild places. At least one notebook is known to follow her wherever she goes. Her books include the Untamed series, the Dangerous Ones series, and Captive: A Poetry Collection on OCD, Psychosis, and Brain Inflammation.

Untamed won the 2017 SIBA award for Best Dystopian Novel and has been a #1 bestseller in its Amazon category in five countries. Madeline’s second novel Fragmented was also a runner-up for Best Young Adult novel at the 2017 SIBAs. Her memoir, Captive and her ace romance novel, My Heart to Find (written as Elin Annalise) have both been nominated for 2021 Reader’s Choice Awards from TCK publishing, for Best Memoir and Best Romance respectively.

She is represented by Erin Clyburn at Howland Literary. Madeline is also a staff editor at Bolide Books, a publisher based in Scotland, specializing in speculative fiction. Visit her website at

--Madeline is also a WOW! Women on Writing instructor. Check out her upcoming classes, NARRATIVE STRUCTURES and HOW TO WRITE A YA DYSTOPIAN NOVEL. More information about our classes can be found on our classroom page.


Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Plotting fiction is so tricky! I always feel like I have a great plan but by the time I attempt to carry it out? I've wandered off into the weeds.

Renee Roberson said...

These are great tips, Madeline! I love the idea of switching up the setting in the middle and doing a bit more character development in the middle.

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