Writing Fiction: 3 Tips To Boost A Sagging Novel

You love writing fiction when you begin your novel. Your inspiration soars. You’re convinced that your novel’s central idea is the best idea you’ve ever had.

Sooner or later however, usually after the first 25% of your novel, you flag. You doubt your plot and your characters.

If you’re not aware that your novel needs POWER to energize the middle portion of your novel you’re in trouble. The middle’s often called the “muddling middle” or the “sagging middle” for good reason.

Writing fiction: power through the middle of your novel

How do you avoid the horrid slump which can occur somewhere between the 25% and 70% portion of your novel?

Recently I started reading Dennis Wheatley, who was a bestselling author from the 1930s to the 1960s. Someone in our writers’ group recommended him as a classic author who knew how to plot. He does — not a sagging middle in sight.


  • Confounds you. You think you know where something is headed. You don’t;
  • Differentiates all his characters, even the minor ones;
  • Expertly intertwines the threads of character, and plot.

If you feel as if your novel’s boring you — and will bore readers — these tips may help.

1. Make use of character attributes: ensure your characters have flaws

An attribute is a quality of character; a trait. Use this list and choose your characters’ attributes. Show your characters displaying their attributes; avoid labeling them — allow your readers to decide what your characters are like.

Choose one positive attribute, one neutral attribute, and a negative trait for your main characters. We’re all flawed; flaws make your characters seem real.

For example, let’s say you’re writing a cozy mystery. Your main character is a retired detective who’s bought a farm. She’s observant, and kind. Her flaw? She’s deeply cynical. How would you show those traits? Could you develop a subplot from her cynicism, or one of her other traits?

2. Fire up a subplot or two: know your minor characters’ stories

When you focus on your characters’ traits, especially their flaws, you can develop subplots easily.

Do some journaling about your characters, and their backstories. Don’t reveal each character’s backstory, because it bogs your novel down. However, use those backstories to surprise your readers when characters act in unexpected (to readers) ways.

Tip: avoid over-explaining, it’s death to your novel:

When authors break their habits of over-describing and over-explaining in their fiction, their writing improves for one simple reason — a reader’s curiosity ensures that he’ll keep reading.

3. Unsettle your readers. Aim for constant surprises

Aim for constant surprises for your readers. Keep your readers curious:

You don’t need to kill people to provide a little shock and surprise for your readers. Keep surprising readers in mind while you’re writing, and you’ll find clever ways to do it.

How do you create a surprise?

Think about jokes, and punchlines. The best jokes deliver a surprise, which makes for humor. You build readers up to expect something or other, then you deliver something unexpected.

While reading Wheatley, I’ve noticed that when he delivers a surprise, he does this. He draws out a situation, which (the reader thinks) can have just one result. Then he delivers something completely different.

When writing fiction, strategize to boost a sagging novel

Your characters need goals:

Just as you need goals, so do your fictional characters.

Failing to motivate your characters means that you don’t have a plot.

Your plot is what your characters do, to achieve their goals.

Focusing on your characters’ traits, their goals, and your subplots, will boost your novel, so that you hook readers and they keep turning pages.

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