It’s a common problem for novel writers: the saggy middle. An Act Two that obediently rises and falls but doesn’t have that oomph of forward direction and building momentum that really makes the story pop. One way I’ve found to tighten a sagging middle of a story is with a mini-climax.
I find it really helpful to include a mini-climax right in the middle of Act Two, just before the Midpoint Mirror moment, (leading to the midpoint mirror moment, actually.) This mini-climax is where the antagonistic forces of the first and second act have risen to a climatically tense moment — the difference between the mini-climax and the Ultimate Climax at the end of your story, though, is that in the mini-climax, your protagonist loses to the antagonistic forces.
That’s right, chums, your character has to lose. Slam up against a brick wall they can’t climb. Be slapped in the face with the consequences of their actions. Have everything fall apart around them. Be shocked when their preconceived notions are shattered. Put trust in someone only for them to reveal themselves to be anything but trustworthy. The disaster and shame of this mini-climax then leads to the Midpoint Mirror moment of self-reflection, that 50% mark in your story in which your character looks at themselves in a figurative mirror and asks these important questions: Who am I? Who am I supposed to be? What have I done? What am I supposed to be doing?
Having a miniature climax leading into this moment gives the Midpoint Mirror weight and context. The Midpoint Mirror can then lead to the Charge – where the character takes control of their destiny, makes vital (potentially disastrous) choices, and inevitably blunders themselves directly into their Dark Night of the Soul. (The most intense moment of self-reflection and desolation, and the last chance at information-gathering before your character faces the Ultimate Climax of the story.)
This mini-climax in Act Two has to be an intense loss. The antagonistic forces winning, or at least severely hindering the protagonist. It has to lead into that moment of self-reflection, has to raise the stakes, and has to show the protagonist that they can’t mess around anymore. They need to take this seriously.
This mini-climax also gives your wobbly middle some great structure, as you can have the events preceding the mini-climax set up for the climax, and the events afterwards consequently spiral out from the mini-climax. Bonus points if your mini-climax can mirror, foreshadow, or greatly inform the Ultimate Climax at the end of the book. (For instance, in my WIP’s mini-climax, a line of dialogue is said by the antagonistic force which, remembered in the Ultimate Climax a hundred or so pages later, provides the protagonist with the last piece of information necessary to put all of the clues together.)
Try it out, and see if a mini-climax can solidify the squishier, marshier, moments of your second act. I think it’ll help your story build momentum, and give you something exciting to structure around.
Do you have any advice for combatting a momentum-less Act Two? Leave your tips in the comments below!