Why is writing the middle of your novel so darn difficult?
In my experience, I find the beginning easiest to write because I have a lot more freedom. Then, as the novel progresses, I add so many constraints on what I can/can’t write next that it’s a struggle to continue once I reach the middle, like I am crawling through a narrowing tunnel.
At this point, it is easy for many writers to quit or get distracted by another, shiny new story idea. However, for those who want to get over this hump and reach the climax that drew them to start writing their current story in the first place, here are five tips that are guaranteed to work!
Tip #1: OUTLINE
If you are a “pantser,” feel free to skip this step, but I’m telling you… having an outline handy, especially through the middle section, is incredibly helpful. Imagine you are driving through a desolate desert, and you are unclear how long the drive is going to be, or when you are going to see people again. Would it be handy to have a map in this scenario? A map might help you avoid meandering, thereby shortening the trip. A map will also tell you along the way how much farther you have to travel, which will help you plan breaks, speed, and perhaps prolong your sanity. With a map, you are less likely to give up, die of thirst, turn around, and lose your way. Even if the map is vague, it still gives you a sense of direction.
Some people prefer the adventure, the meandering through the unknown, which is fine. But if you are unsure what method to choose, at least draw up a timeline of your novel. Many pantsers do plan ahead before writing, even if they don’t write a detailed outline. If you are serious about finishing a book and making it marketable to readers outside your immediate family (especially within a certain time frame), it’s a good idea to have a plan even before you start your rough draft. It will save you time and undue stress.
If you do have an outline and you are STILL stuck in your story, it’s never too late to alter it! It’s almost inevitable that as you write your novel, you aren’t going to strictly adhere to your outline. Here is what I recommend once you reach the midpoint: break the middle of your story down into three steps (or however many steps you want), that will lead you to your climax. Take stock of all your characters, settings, and subplots, and consider what it is going to take for them to get where they need to be by the end.
For example, if your two main characters are imprisoned and destitute in the middle of your story, and you want them to defeat the bad guy by the end, you might be overwhelmed by the wide gap between their current state and their ultimate destination. How can you simplify your story and bridge the gap so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming? You might break it down into these steps (under each of which you could include sub-steps that I will not outline here:
- They break out of prison and help other prisoners escape.
- The prisoners rouse citizens to form a rebellion.
- They storm Bad Guy Headquarters and defeat Mr. Enemy!
You can add as many steps as you want. How are they going to break out of prison? That alone could take fifty steps, each of which you could outline. Now you have a clearer vision of where your story will go, and you can return to your computer and write it!
Tip #2: Take a Break
Taking breaks works! Don’t let your creative juices run dry. If your writing muscles are fatigued, or if you find yourself stuck in the middle of your manuscript, get up, walk outside, watch a movie, read a book, take a nap, or just take a week off writing, period. Your well-rested, rejuvenated future self may know what to do with your story.
Tip #3: Introduce a New Character or Complication
Maybe by the middle, your story simply doesn’t excite you anymore. What’s the solution? Add a new character or set of characters to spice things up! Figure out what new complication you can conjure to set your characters back or propel them forward. Give your protagonist an illness or injury. Make your character(s) angry, sad, or hopeful. A character’s vehicle breaks down, or help does not come when it was expected, or something occurs to squash your hero’s confidence. It could be anything! Just make it exciting.
Tip #4: Write a Mini Climax
This tip can be helpful if you are bored by your story and just want to get to the climax already!
The middle of your story can be a mirror-image of the climax. Have the protagonist meet the antagonist or their minions and give him/her the chance to fight their enemy. Make the hero lose — badly. Show exactly what is at stake. Make the hero question their purpose and previous commitment to the cause. If you write a period of doubt, shame, or fear in the middle, it will make the point where the hero overcomes all doubt and defeats the enemy incredibly satisfying. You have to break them down before you can build them up again. The journey beyond the middle toward the climax and conclusion will be exciting to read, since the reader will expect an approximate repeat of the explosive middle, but reversed. They will want to see the hero redeemed. That anticipation will keep them turning the pages.
Tip #5: A New Beginning
This is similar to Tip #3. If it helps get you through the middle, divide your novel into parts and transform the middle into a new beginning. Pause your plot for a moment of reflection (that you may or may not cut out in editing). Add a new hook and a scene that more heavily foreshadows what’s to come. If your manuscript lacks the newness that threatens to lure you to a new story idea, shine it up! Clear the clutter, drop some characters, add new ones, and narrow your focus. Give your protagonist a chance to breathe and reevaluate their goals, as this also allows you to breathe and reevaluate. We’re halfway there, baby, and the conclusion is in sight! Revitalize your story and keep chugging along…
What do you think about these tips I’ve listed above? How have you avoided “sagging middle syndrome” in the past? Drop your own insights and/or experiences below!