Overcoming the Middle Muddle
By: Donna Schlachter
The Middle of Your Novel
The middle of your novel comprises about 60% of your book and is the part of the story where stuff happens. The problem that happens in many books and movies—usually the ones we don’t finish watching or reading—is that the middle is boring. Unfortunately, the middle of our novel sometimes becomes a series of similar situations and circumstances that take up time and give the characters something to do, but doesn’t really move the story forward.
That’s the Middle Muddle.
- We don’t know where the story is going so we ramble on and on, revealing a little more of the character’s backstory here, explaining (or excusing) their behavior because of their past over there, alluding to what might happen, what could happen, what should happen.
- We write more about the past than the future, or more about possibilities than actualities, that’s a sure sign of a Middle Muddle.
- We spend a lot of time in the middle of the book trying to figure out what genre we’re really writing in.
- When we don’t start the story in the right place, we spend too many chapters getting to the First Choice or the First Turning Point.
Solution 1: Make the Goals Clear
Everybody has goals. Cinderella wanted to get to the ball to meet the Prince to get out of her life of drudgery. The ugly step-sisters wanted to get to the ball to meet the Prince and have him fall in love with them. The wicked step-mother wanted to get her daughters married off so she could enjoy a life of luxury. And the Prince wanted to find the woman of his dreams.
Even villains have goals. Few set out to destroy the world just for destruction’s sake. They usually want revenge, or power, or wealth, and they’re willing to do whatever they think it will take to accomplish that goal.
The power in every story is when the reader knows what the character’s goals are—even if the character hasn’t verbalized them or even acknowledge them—and then complications are thrown in to prevent them from reaching their goals easily or at all.
Complications can be internal, external, or spiritual. They can be evident to everybody but the character. They can involve only a personal struggle, or they can include the outside world, as in the case of overcoming an epidemic or a ticking bomb.
Solution 2: Add Tension
Begin each scene and chapter with a hook to catch readers’ interest, have a specific struggle or problem that is worked out in that scene or chapter, and reach a conclusion that propels the reader into the next scene or chapter.
Another technique is the cliff hanger, where the problem isn’t concluded at the end of the scene or chapter, but the reader is left hanging, and they want to keep reading to find out what happens.
Repeated images, phrases, themes, and thoughts can also increase tension. So if every time a character asks, “What else can go wrong?” and something does, the reader wants to keep reading whenever that phrase is uttered.
Giving the reader a break from the action by ending a scene or chapter at a high point, and switching to another scene, perhaps of lesser intensity, with other characters, can also increase tension.
Solution 3: Add Subplots
A subplot is a secondary story within your story. It often uses some or all of the main characters, and explores another part of their lives. Just as we all have different overlapping circles of friends, family, and acquaintances in our lives, so do our characters.
While a subplot might feel like a rabbit trail, in reality, a new story actually enhances the telling of the original story, since the reader will wonder how the two (or three or four) are connected. Which they might be. Or not. These subplots should arise naturally from the characters and the circumstances, and should never be the destination—simply to scare or worry the reader. At the same time, subplots should delay and prolong that anticipation.
Introduce different subplots at varying times in the middle of your story, then resolve them at varying times and degrees of intensity, some before the third act, and some in the third act. All subplots will generally be resolved by the end of the story, however, for the reader to feel satisfied that all the “loose ends” were tied up.
Solution 4: Add Turning Points
A turning point could be the introduction of a new character, a new obstacle, new information. It could be a shift in attitude which alters how things happen. It could be a revelation—either internal or external—such as revealing a character’s secondary role or their realization that they aren’t willing to persevere to their original goal, or the understanding that they are going to be forced to do something they never thought they’d do. It could be a challenge or a disaster.
We can increase the impact of turning points by using strong verbs; introduce foretelling; give new meaning to ordinary objects; or put our character into an unfamiliar setting.
Rule #1: Don’t think that you must incorporate everything in this article into every book.
Complete your first draft. Do a quick revision on it with regards to using stronger verbs, get rid of –ly adverbs, and tighten the writing, particularly dialogue.
Then ignore the first and third acts. Start reading where your first turning point happens. Are you still intrigued with what’s happening? If not, where can you interject tension or another subplot? Is the pattern of your intensity predictable? If so, how can you re-order your scenes to change that? Do you have enough turning points for each problem that faces the main character? If not, add some more.
I don’t know everything about the Middle Muddle, but I am happy to answer questions or offer insight, so feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org at any time.
I have written two books on writing, Nuggets of Writing Gold and More Nuggets of Writing Gold, comprised of articles on all aspects of the writing life as well as targeted exercises to apply the information in those articles. They’re available at Amazon and Smashwords.
I offer two quarterly newsletters, one for fans of historical novels and one for contemporary. When you subscribe, you’ll receive a free novel as a thank you, and you can also follow my historical blog and my contemporary blog for helpful articles from other authors, as well as book and author spotlights.
Here are books I used to develop this article:
- Novelist’s Essential Guide to Creating Plot by J. Madison Davis
- Write Your Novel in a Month by Jeff
- The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman
- Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
And here are websites with great articles on writing in general:
Did you miss previous installations of Producing a Novel?
Generating—and Testing—Ideas for Fiction and Non-Fiction Books – Part 1
Genre and Markets – Part 2
Building Believable Characters – Part 3
Character Sketches and Backstory – Part 4
Hooking Your Readers – Part 5
Character and Story Arc – Part 6
Outlining Your Book – Part 7
Overcoming the Muddle Middle – Part 8
Racing to the Finish – Part 9
Writing a Series – Part 10
Self-Editing – Part 11
Cover Design and Self-Publishing – Part 12
Donna Schlachter writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts, and has been published more than 30 times in novellas, full-length novels, and non-fiction books. She is a member of ACFW, Writers on the Rock, SinC, Pikes Peak Writers, and CAN; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests.