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“The Dreaded Middle: Story Block”
Written by
Diana Y. Paul
January 2020
Written by
Diana Y. Paul
January 2020

Writers talk about writer's block but, for me, story block is a much bigger deal. When I have the theme, the conflict, the character arcs in place and know the ending (or think I do), the middle looms large and I dread it. My story seems stuck and writers even have a term for this: “the saggy middle.”

“The Sag”

All writers can think of books they didn’t finish reading. It always comes down to the middle. The hook and inciting incident in the first chapter will hopefully pull the reader in, anticipating a story built on the promises embedded into the character and his or her conflict. All this time, the reader expects the middle of the narrative to get more exciting, not less, or worse yet, listless.

When I finished my fifth (or was it the sixth?) draft of Things Unsaid, it was a painful struggle to go through it yet again, word by word, to see what revisions were still needed. My beta readers marked exactly where the story sagged. And there was a consensus.

So I looked at the page number. It was almost exactly in the middle of the novel. This is where I needed to escalate the tension –the dilemma for my main character – and not later on, which is where I had originally placed the chapter. The character’s mission, the stakes raised to a crisis, had to be here or the story would sag. The dreaded middle. So, I ramped up what happened to the protagonist at this point. A story without this type of conflict is a story that few readers find interesting.


What had made the middle 90 pages so flabby? It was because I had provided a lot of backstory, the psychology behind the protagonist’s actions. But, as a result, the momentum of the plot had been sacrificed and the motion of the book did not move forward. In the rewrite, I moved the “big doom” moment in the protagonist’s life earlier and used the backstory very sparingly. 

In addition, I created a major subplot to increase complications further: how to choose between aging parents and her daughter. Both needed her financial and emotional support. I had to sharply raise the tension rather than diffuse it. The “resolution” of choosing one would further complicate the relationship with the other. In other words, all hope is lost. There is no way the character can achieve what she wants. The dilemma must loom larger and larger. The relationships in the narrative had become stale, in early versions of Things Unsaid: either the story looked like the choice made was a good one (everyone seemed to be satisfied) or there was conflict and anger as a result of the choice.

Loss of narrative momentum is structural, similar to the pacing of a movie. Almost mathematical in timing, the beginning of a well-edited movie has to present the problem in the first ten minutes and the climax has to build at approximately the midpoint or there is a risk of losing the audience.


In a poorly edited movie, the pace lags and nothing seems to “happen” until about halfway through. What does that even mean?  The character is conflicted but we know that already. In a novel, what if the writer adds a character flaw to make the tension even stronger? In Things Unsaid the protagonist is torn between helping her dying parents with their assisted living expenses and her daughter with her college tuition.  Let’s add another problem here: her husband is growing impatient with her tendency to choose her parents over her own family. Here I made the low point worse.

But perhaps a bit of relief is needed too. What if I add a combination of a few encouraging moments too—that the main character might be able to pull through, just maybe? Provide a bit of hope to the reader. Then prepare for the dramatic finale.

Since almost all of the important events of a novel happen in the middle,  I had to revisit the beginning to make sure that the action was not too long. I mapped out the major plot points (landmarks on my story map) and made sure they were high points of interest.

I read all the aspects of character and points leading up to conflict again, looking for complexity that would sustain interest. I identified where the characters were not changing enough, and realized that I was thinning out the story in order to fill up pages.  Writing a novel is not all about word count. The narrative has to be clean, lean, even mean—more muscle and less fat and flab in the heart of the plot: more change of character without too much backstory, more plot and scenes, and more motivation as well as doubts. 

That is how I eliminated sag and how you can, too.

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