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Prescription for Sagging Middles

By Cheryl Bolen

Susan Macias (aka Susan Mallery) has learned a thing or two about propping up sagging middles while publishing over 20 books in a six-year span, and she shared her knowledge in a workshop at the national RWA convention in Dallas.

"My bathroom gets really clean when I'm in the middle of a book," Macias said with her trademark dry wit.

She likened a book to a diet. You're enthusiastic and directed at first, but then the motivation fizzles.

But motivation--or story goals--drives the middle of the book. It is in the vast (two-thirds of the book) middle that story goals might even change. An example of this is Scarlett O'Hara's goal to be a business woman emerging in the middle of Gone with the Wind.

Macias offers four techniques to bolster those sagging middles: filtering in background; layering characters, plot and secondary characters; begin or continue a subplot; and establish theme.

Filtering in Background

"Don't litter the beginning of the book with a lot of details," Macias said. It's okay to hint at the hero's dark background in the beginning, but feed the reader the details in the middle.

Let your reader learn about you characters in the middle. Share their emotions. Reveal family secrets. Drop clues. Set up resolutions.


Intertwine the characters, the love story and the conflicts. Establish barriers to the characters' goals. Make sure that whatever can go wrong does go wrong.


"Subplots add dimension to the story," Macias said. These subplots can be established or resolved in the middle.


All stories must have a theme. Macias recommends introducing the theme at the beginning of the middle. For example, the hero could be emotionally wounded. The resolution of the theme is "love heals all."

Another suggestion Macias offers for beefing up the middle is to break it into smaller parts. (Remember that diet? One meal at a time.)

Macias also analyzed why middles sag. The reader needs to see the characters develop, and the story must move forward. She cited the following as chief reasons why middles sag:

  • Melodrama instead of motivation
  • Introspection instead of action
  • Lack of focus on story goal and/or story question

Like a pole holding up a tent, the middle holds up the story.

This article was first published in Happily Ever After in 1996.


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