Nobody Wants a Sagging Middle – Ask Alice Saturday

Question. How do I keep the middle of my story moving at a fast pace?

Answer. The struggle in your story is the drama of your story. That struggle must begin at Casablanca - middleyour dramatic opening and continue forward without letup. The course of the struggle is the course of your plot. The more intense the struggle – the more intense the plot.

That’s all there is to writing a page turner story. Escalate the power – intensity – drama of your main character’s struggle and you’re in the winner’s circle. Until you get to the middle where you might find a muddle. Because the middle is where the story line is likely to sag.

When your story loses momentum in the middle you must make a crucial assumption. You need to know more about your characters. You need to ask three crucial questions.

  • What hidden relationships could there be between your characters?
  • What further conflict lies beneath the surface of their relationships?
  • What further secrets do they have and why have they kept them from you?

In “Well Begun is Well Done” my blog post about the Dramatic Opening I used the classic film Casablanca as a story example. Let’s continue with that.

At the dramatic opening we found Rick – played by Humphrey Bogart – bitter and disillusioned. But we’re well into the story before we learn the source of his bitterness. Near the opening there were hints at the problems in Rick’s history but we still don’t understand what’s up with him. Then beautiful Ilsa arrives – played by Ingrid Bergman – and Rick reacts.

We would say he overreacts because we still don’t know what’s really going on inside him. Ilsa is with her husband Victor so we don’t get an explanation until she returns later to the closed café where Rick is alone. Now we find out about Paris and the love affair between Rick and Elsa that sent him soaring then smashed him back to earth.

We are hooked as the suspense plot becomes a love story too. We’re hooked in the heart even more deeply than our adrenaline was pumped by the danger. We’re also at the middle of the story and there’s no sagging anywhere. Because we’ve learned more about the characters. Hidden relationships – deep conflicts – secrets that had been kept from us.

Want even more momentum? Make another crucial assumption. The hot water you’ve put your characters in needs to get much hotter. Now you must ask three more crucial questions.

  • What additional misfortunes can happen to your characters?
  • What potent dangers surround your characters?
  • What can happen that will jolt your main character?

Casablanca has the mother lode of misfortune and danger – World War II and Nazis. And a potent villain in German Major Strasser. Nothing accelerates story tension better than a truly evil bad guy. There are high stakes too. Ilsa’s husband Victor must be smuggled to neutral territory or be captured and tortured and his heroic anti-Nazi work will end.

The jolt to main character Rick comes via the Letters of Transit. They are what Alfred Hitchcock called the Macguffin. The thing everybody in the story wants for good or evil reasons depending on who they are. Rick has these letters. They will decide Victor’s fate. They will also decide the fate of Rick and Ilsa’s rekindled passion. Da Da Da Dum!

Drama – high stakes – an uncertain outcome. The middle of Casablanca provides all of this and more. Make your story middle do the same by digging beneath the surface of your characters as you see them now. Excavate your own mother lode. When you find it all sign of sag will disappear and never return. Plus – you’ll always have Paris.


 My latest story is A WRONG WAY HOME – Riverton Road Romantic Suspense Series – Book #1 – Matt & Kara’s Story. Available at This is my 12th novel and the middle doesn’t sag. The same is true of A Year of Summer Shadow launching May 15th.

 Alice Orr –


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