Have you ever been immediately drawn into a book, only to start to get bored about halfway through? Maybe you had no idea where the book was going, and it felt like the characters were meandering about waiting for the plot to find them. Or maybe you knew exactly where the book was going, and it was obvious that the author had ‘put filler here’ before the end. Either way, here are some tips for both pantsers and plotters on how to avoid this issue in your own writing.
1. Pantsers and Plotters
In case you don’t know what a pantser is, they’re the ones who approach writing by ‘flying by the seat of their pants.’ In other words, they don’t know what they’ll put on the page until they write it. This is in contrast to plotters (or outliners), who can sometimes have planned out the entire book scene-by-scene before writing it. Both are valid forms of writing, and both can suffer from saggy middle syndrome due to different reasons.
2. Saggy Middle Syndrome for Pantsers
As a pantser myself, I have done my fair share of sitting down at the keyboard to start a story without having the slightest idea of where it would end up. The problem is: You don’t know where the story will end up.
- Conflict in storytelling is key. Saggy middle syndrome for pantsers happens when you’ve gotten partway through a story and suddenly find yourself without any conflict—whether because you didn’t have much in the first place, or because the characters solved their problems too fast. Oftentimes, you end up with a couple chapters of characters meandering about, not doing much, then a brilliant idea hits you, you suddenly know where the story is going, and you get back to the plot. There are two solutions to this problem.
- Editing. Sometimes, these couple ‘sandbox’ chapters in the middle where not much happens are necessary for you, as the pantser, to discover where you want to go with the story. There is nothing wrong with that—as long as you’re willing to delete or rework these chapters in the editing stage. This is what I ended up doing with Post-Third Apocalypse. It wasn’t until about 30,000 words into the original draft that I figured out where I wanted the story to go, then I finished at 54,000 words. However, in the editing stage I knew the plot needed to be clarified/foreshadowed more, and I ended up rewriting a large portion of the book in order to keep conflict escalating.
Insert conflict. Of course, you would rather not have to rewrite entire sections of your book in the editing stage, so if you’re in the middle of the saggy middle, try inserting more conflict. Never give your characters an unequivocal victory or loss: Either give them a ‘yes, but’ or a ‘no, and.’ Yes, they got what they wanted, but they made things worse for everyone else. No, they didn’t achieve their goal, and the villain has also raised the stakes. By continually making things worse for your characters, you’ll be advancing towards the eventual conclusion of the book even if you don’t quite know what it is yet.
3. Saggy Middle Syndrome for Plotters
While saggy middle syndrome for pantsers looks like a lot of meandering and not much direction, saggy middle syndrome for plotters tends to look more like fetch quests and filler arcs. The problem here is when the reader knows what the climax of the book will look like, and it’s obvious that the author is simply putting it off because they need their book to be longer.
The hero has to train before they can defeat the villain, the team must gather allies for the coming climactic battle, etc. Whenever a reader knows exactly what is coming and how the author plans to get there, it’s easy for them to get bored and just skip to the ending. Your goal as a writer is to make it so the reader can’t skip to the ending—that everything between the story’s beginning and end is absolutely necessary. That means the solution is:
- Escalation. Every scene should have a purpose, and that purpose should always be to drive up the tension. Like with a pantser, look for ways where you can have a ‘yes, but’ or a ‘no, and.’ You should never have scenes where the whole purpose is to ‘pass time’ or ‘increase wordcount,’ because if that’s the only purpose the scene is fulfilling, it’s not useful to the story. Sometimes, that means your climax comes a lot sooner than you thought it would. Let it. And then maybe let your hero fail, make things worse, and draw the story to an even bigger climax at the end.
At the end of the day, whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, if you’re having trouble with saggy middle syndrome, it’s because you’re having trouble with promises. Either you aren’t promising that the story is going anywhere (pantser), or you’re promising that there’s nothing worth reading between the beginning and the end (plotter). To fix your saggy middle, you need to make more promises, add conflict, and escalate the tension. The reader should never be left wondering why you’re putting off the next major plot point—by the time they figure out what it is, it should already be on the way to happening. In this way, you’ll keep your story moving and the readers guessing, and before they know it, they’ll have flown through the middle to your climactic end.