Oh, the horror of the second act! So many things go off kilter here. And when a story isn’t flowing it’s easy to get writer’s block, avoid editing, or give up on it all together. The solution can feel really confusing and just out of reach. I’ve done a lot of thinking on this section of a story and just recently changed my perspective on it. I now look at a saggy middle as no more than a simple structural issue that can be resolved with a couple of easy lists. I’ll explain…
Organization – A saggy middle is a plot problem. And it often means that you’re not tormenting your characters enough. In act one you put your main character (MC) on the edge of a cliff. In act two, you should be swinging at her with a sharp sword. It should get so bad that she falls and clings the crumbling dirt for dear life. That is until act three when she pulls herself up, picks up her own sword, and fights back. So the first question you want to ask yourself about act two is, are you swinging a sharp sword or a limp noodle? Is your character gripping the edge with white knuckles or is she sun-tanning with a mojito?
Know Thy Weapon – In order to be an effective sword-swinger, you need to first know what types of threats/conflict/abuse work on your MC. So here comes the first list; on it goes: 1) your MC, 2) what your MC wants more than anything in the world, 3) what your MC’s weaknesses are emotionally, physically, and situationally.
Sinister Plotting – Now comes the really evil bit where you use your MC’s weaknesses against her. Here comes the second list divided into three columns: emotional, physical, and situational. And in each column you list as many obstacles and conflicts that you can think of that accomplish two things: 1) keep your MC from getting what she desperately wants, 2) take advantage of her weaknesses (from your first list).
Brandishing Your Steel – Once you know all the ways you can make your MC suffer, taking full advantage of her vulnerabilities, you have to organize them. This is a personal choice and will vary by story. You can put them in escalating order or they may organize themselves organically based on your plot arc. But the point is to list them out and know exactly which ones you are gonna use (the most difficult ones). The more these lists make you cringe and feel bad for your MC, the better.
The point of doing this is to keep your stakes and suspense high. Ask yourself every step of the way if the conflicts are as bad as they can be or if you can make them worse. This makes the resolution of act three so much more gratifying and keeps readers up until 3AM desperate to know how your book ends. Of course, there are lots of other elements that need to connect in act two, but this plot structure will give you a backbone on which to accomplish them. And if you find yourself writing a scene that resolves your character’s tension… imagine me calling you a “limp noodle” in your head and then press the delete key.
Happy writing, everyone!