The Sagging Middle 2: How to Make Things Worse

In my previous article "The Sagging Middle," point 3 is to make things worse. There are lots of things you can do to make things worse, so I separated them into a separate article.

a) Complicate, don't just delay things.

Make sure that each obstacle is really an obstacle, not just a delay of the forward action. Each obstacle should somehow change something for the character.

For example, say the heroine needs to drive to the next town for an interview. Her car dies. She phones the hiring manager and explains, and he reschedules her interview. In this instance, the obstacle doesn't change anything for the heroine. It's only a delay of the action.

However, say the hero shows up in his tow truck and the heroine recognizes him as the guy she stole her car from. Suddenly the scene has turned into a complication.

b) Create a powerful crucible.

A crucible is the term used to describe the physical event or emotional relationship that keeps the character moving forward instead of quitting. Some call it the Doorway of No Return at the beginning of the story that forces the protagonist to enter the conflict.

At each disaster, you should ask yourself, "Why doesn't the character quit?" and you should have a powerful reason why. Otherwise, your reader will lose interest in a character who's fighting without good cause.

Why does Joe need to save the lighthouse? He needs the money from the tenants (financial), or he needs the building to hide his gold (geographical), or he needs to save it to restore a relationship with his daughter (emotional).

c) Make the protagonist and antagonist equal.

If your bad guy is obviously at a disadvantage to your hero, then what's the point of them struggling? If the hero is puny compared to the villain, how could he possibly win?

The two should be evenly matched. If one is at a disadvantage, make sure he has something that equalizes things--a weapon that puts them on even ground.

Superman could squish Lex Luthor with his strength, but Lex has kryptonite.

d) Make the stakes high enough to fight for.

Each person in the story should have something at stake that makes them willing to fight desperately for it. A rancher isn't going to fight the big oil company for his useless land, but he will fight them for his badly-needed grazing areas.

e) Keep things moving.

If the villain does something, the hero reacts and it should impact the villain profoundly. Nothing and no one stays the same at any point.

f) Up the intensity.

Make each scene worse and bigger. Drag your hero further and further from his goal. Make each scene more powerful than the last one.

At this point, it might be good to have an idea of which are going to be your biggest, most devastating scenes or obstacles. Plan to have them near the ending of the middle section, then spend the previous scenes or obstacles building up towards the Big One(s).

Make sure those Big One(s) actually do mean a lot to your hero and villain. If the hero cares more about his father's gold watch than the diamonds, then don't have the villain demand the diamonds for the heroine's life.

g) Box the character in.

In my opinion, this is the most important aspect of the middle section. Each scene should box the characters in, take away their choices.

Take away the heroine's options, run down the clock, increase the degree of the threat, make each action result in a dead end.

This forces her into a bottleneck, into two specific choices of action.

h) Keep the reader guessing.

Turn an assumption on its head. Slam the hero with a disastrous surprise. Kill off someone. Crush a dream. Anything to keep the reader turning pages and wondering what will happen next.

Next: Bring It To An End

NOTE: Information in this article is taken from the classic Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain.

Back to Articles from Swain