Structure in fiction: saggy middles

I’m currently reading a novel that seems endless. There appears to be plenty of action, but … it’s all pretty much the same kind of action and despite quite pacy writing, I feel as though the story is going nowhere. It’s a 400 page novel and at page 350, I should be anticipating a lot of things – deeper complications in the plot, growth and change in the main character, an increasing escalation towards the climax. I’m not. Which got me thinking – what is the problem here?

I think it’s a saggy middle, definitely, but why? The writer seems to be doing all the right things, yet the story has stalled. To try and work out where the problems lie, I went back and looked at the hero’s journey structure. We’ve been examining this in my Story Structure class, and I decided this novel was a hero’s journey, due to the nature of the main character’s external and internal journeys, and this is what I found (which is a checklist for your own novel if you feel as though your story is bogging down):

* Nothing new has happened in the story for the past 100 pages, just more of the same kind of action and reaction. If I diagrammed the plot/storyline, it would be pretty much flat. No rising tension.

* The intensity of the action and drama, and the intensity of the main character’s problem has not changed – everything is still the same as it was 100 pages ago. In other words, the stakes have not been raised.

* The main character has not changed or grown – in the journey, major things that happen to a character should give them gradually more of what they will need to fight the final battle, even if they are not consciously aware of it – the reader should be able to see the growth and feel hope for the character, even when things get worse. In this novel, the character is still a loser, still thinks like a loser, is still making stupid decisions and relying on everyone else to get him out of the situation. I’m starting to dislike him – a lot.

* I don’t much care about the climax anymore – there seems to be no build-up.

* The villain has no redeeming features – this might sound strange, but a one-dimensional or poorly portrayed villain means the reader cares even less about the outcome.

All of these things are helped enormously by being aware of your structure – what underpins your story and keeps it moving forward. If you have a “feel” for structure, you can sense the saggy parts, but most writers take a long time to learn this. However, if you study structure and its elements and stages, it can often help you see where the story has come to a stop.

When we are in the middle of writing, we just want to keep going until we get to the end. I know I do. But at the second draft stage, if you can diagram out your story and its structure, it just might save you a huge revision headache.

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