The middle is that long stretch between your brilliant opening and your deeply moving conclusion, and all it has to do is carry on from the former and justify the latter. That shouldn’t be hard for committed, talented writers like all of us, right?
But it is. And here’s why. The middle of most anything is often the hardest part. The energy and clarity of the beginning is gone, exhaustion creeps closer while the end is not yet in sight. Labor and birth are the metaphors we often turn to in describing writing: as a medical student on my obstetrics rotation, we learned that the “transition” phase of labor – i.e. the middle – is the most “challenging” part. (Don’t you hate the euphemistic use of the word “challenging?”)
I’m wondering if I can get you (and me) to approach the middle in a more positive way. There are good things about the middle. For example:
1. The middle is an opportunity to use your writerly muscle.
Here’s where you get to forge character (and characters). This is where your characters face their challenges and you discover what kind of stuff your plot is made of. In many ways, the middle of any fiction project is where the real work takes place. This is where you, me, all of us get to hone our skills of maintaining suspense and interest, character development and plot structure. The whole process of writing a novel is an opportunity to learn (there’s another euphemism I hate) but I think the middle is where we learn the most.
2. The middle is a place to try something new.
You are far enough into your novel to have a sense for the major characters and plot challenges. Do you feel that something’s missing? Or is there another element (plot twist/character/subplot) you’d considered but held off from including but now seems like it might work? There’s lots of room and play in the middle, especially in an early draft, so here’s your chance. Try something out, see how it goes. Maybe it will add the lift and tension that your story needs.
3. The middle may be the easiest part to fix.
Of course you can significantly revise any part of a novel, but it’s often the middle that’s most forgiving. Writers have more emotional attachment to beginnings (the seed, inspiration and life breath of their story) and ends (the emotional heft and the gift you want to leave with the reader). The middle can be shifted, shoved, remolded and streamlined often without dislodging the pieces of the story that matter most to the writer.
4. The middle has strength.
Here’s an example that might be helpful: middle age. Yep. Speaking squarely from middle age, I can tell you that I’ve come to realize it’s not all bad. A couple of years ago, I rode home in the car with my three children after a visit with my mother, who was suffering from dementia. My mother no longer had the capacity to connect with my children. They in turn were often afraid of or confused by her odd behavior. One of the kids asked a question about something my mother had done or said and I was reminded of the beauty of middle age. I was close enough to the experience of youth to understand their fears, but had lived enough to have insight into and sympathy for what my mother was experiencing. In the middle of the story, as in the middle of life, we have strength and resources not always available elsewhere.
There are lots of good blog posts and books on fixing middles. Here’s my short list of how to get through when you find yourself stuck.
- Step back and give your story arc/plot a good hard look. Is there not enough to carry you to what you set out believing would be the conclusion? Is there too much? In a recent BTM guest post, Mary Incontro suggested writing a query letter as a way to force yourself to clarify the dynamics of your story. That might be a good exercise to try here.
- Ask yourself what’s providing the drive. If you’re not feeling compelled to write, maybe your characters don’t have enough at stake to propel the story onward. What’s driving them? If you can’t answer that, you may not have a story. More likely, you have some idea but never quite put it into words. Once you do, you may find ways to intensify that drive.
- It may be a problem with timing. Are you stuck because you’ve mistimed events in your story? Two relatively straightforward possibilities: you’ve already given away more than you should or you’re holding back too much to keep the plot fueled. Try writing out plot points and identifying sources of tension and drive. By shifting these in one direction or another, you may get back your middle mojo.
What helps you get through the middle?