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Are You Struggling with a Sagging Middle?

Updated: Jun 11

Guest Post - Dr. Diana Stout

There’s nothing worse for a fiction writer than having a great idea and reaching the middle but not knowing where to go next.

As I mentored writers who have been stuck and who believed their story idea wasn’t as good as they first thought, I started asking them questions about their story.

What we discovered was that the story was a good idea. The problem had to do with its execution. We found the problem occurring in one or both of two areas:

  • with the main character’s journey, aka the plot, or

  • with the main character’s lack of a wound; meaning, they haven’t hurt the character enough.

Generally, a sagging middle will reveal a weakness one a writer reaches the Mid-Point plot structure, also known as the Point of No Return, or as the Mirror Moment.

Michael Hauge, script consultant and author of Screenplays That Sell, Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds, and Storytelling Made Easy, tells us that the Mid-Point plot structure should show the protagonist realizing they’ve burned too many bridges—they can’t go back.

Allen Palmer, screenwriter and script consultant, tagged Christopher Vogler’s 12 steps of the hero’s journey in his book, The Writer’s Journey, with one-word emotions that succinctly summarize each of those 12 plot points. According to Palmer, when the protagonist is at the Mid-Point, the protagonist should be feeling inauthentic. They’re rattled, realizing they can’t go back because they’re no longer that same person, and yet they’re not who they really want to become either.

James Scott Bell, author of Write Your Novel From the Middle, coined this self-examination within the Mid-Point Plot Point as the Mirror Moment. It’s when the protagonist sees themself for the first time as others have seen them. That they’ve been fooling themself all this time, and for the first time, they realize how much work still needs to be done to make that change.

In mentoring these writers and helping them analyze the Mid-Point Plot Point, I asked the following questions. The writers found themselves unable to answer one or more of the questions.

  • How has the main character burned their bridge(s)?

  • Why is it the character can no longer return to their former life?

  • How does the character see themself?

  • How is the character feeling?

As the writers reviewed the event that led to their middle, they discovered that there was no crisis occurring, that bridges hadn’t been burned, and that the main character had resolved a big battle or problem with no real consequence. Also, the character was feeling good.

As we talked through the story, the writers discovered

  • that the battle really belonged later in the story, where the writer needed to build up a series of events leading to this big event.

  • if this battle did belong there, it needed to become a crisis leading to a larger later event, which would become the climax.

In either case, we often saw there was little to no emotion involved. The writers had focused on plot and hadn’t layered in the emotion.

By the time a reader gets to the Mid-Point, they should be so thoroughly hooked engaged in the story that they’re turning pages quickly or can’t stop watching the movie.

For that reader engagement to happen, the main character has to be seen as struggling, realizing in that Mirror Moment they’re in a world of hurt, doubting if they can achieve their goal.

In this Mirror Moment, the main character is finally admitting to the wound they’ve buried their entire life, which has been at the core of their decision-making ability that led them to feeling unfulfilled at the start of the story. They want to be become a better person and be seen as authentic.

These writers were thrilled rediscovering their passion for their stories again. The surprising revelation for each one of them, though, was in discovering they weren’t true pantsers after all. Plotting was needed, allowing them to remedy their sagging middles and to never get stuck in one again.

Is your Mid-Point Plot Point meeting the needs of your story?

For more lessons, check out Dr. Diana’s book, CPE: Characters, Plot, & Emotion and its companion CPE Workbook.

Diana Stout, MFA, PhD, is a screenwriter, author, blogger, and writing coach, owner of Sharpened Pencils Productions LLC, and former university professor of writing classes. She’s taught in-seat and online, has been a contest judge for writing organizations, and has provided presentations and workshops at various local, regional, and national meetings and conferences.

To learn more about Dr. Stout, visit her website at

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