Well we’ve just passed the middle of November and for all of you out there participating in National Novel Writing Month you should be somewhere around the middle of your novel.
First – Congratulations to you – all of you.
The fact that you have made it this far puts you in a entirely different category from the “commoners”, and you should be proud of your accomplishment. You might not necessarily be happy with the 25,000 words you have written (writers seldom are), but trust me you’re doing great.
What’s that you say?
You aren’t anywhere near that 25,000 to 30,000 word mark? In fact you’re telling me that you’ve spent the last few days staring at your screen, sacrificing thesauruses on the alter of your writing desk just to appease the writing gods? You mean you’re stuck trying to figure out what’s next?
Well, I’m here to tell you – it’s okay!
Being a writer is kind of like being an inventor. You start when that killer idea pops into your head. That one thing that you know people out there are just dying to get their hands on. You’ve developed a basic design, you’ve set up your workspace, you have all the tools you’re going to need to construct this masterpiece at the ready, and then you begin building your prototype.
Only, shortly into the build, you suddenly hit an issue you never anticipated. How is this do-hicky ever going to fit with in that thing-a-ma-bob. It’s something you didn’t anticipate and now you find yourself struggling to move forward.
Talk to any inventor or creative person and I promise that they will tell you how it often takes several designs before eventually arriving at that wonder product that we all demanded. And that’s EXACTLY what you are doing now – you’re prototyping.
So maybe now is a good time to step back a little and evaluate what you’ve got so far. Take a few moments to look over your story and prepare to break down your second act so that you can push forward for a strong finish. What follows are five ideas to help you with that unruly middle of your book.
Increase the Pace by Staying Lean:
Agents and publishers love it when they come across a story that grabs them on page one. You might actually be surprised how many fantastic story ideas come across their desks all the time. The common problem is, however, that at about twenty or thirty pages in, the story starts to sputter and drag on.
Beginnings and endings should be engaging and even extravagant, but the middles need to be targeted and lean – devoid of fluff. Many people end up adding weight to beef up their story’s interior. But the secret great storytelling is quite the opposite. You can trim the fat, so to speak, by taking a good hard look at the pacing of your story.
Go back through what you already have, then cut everything out that’s not integral to getting you from the beginning to the end. Think of it like writing tweets for Twitter. Try to limit yourself to the minimum amount of words you need to push the story along. Take out any extra words that have to do with setting, unnecessary dialogue, or description. “Just the facts,” that’s all you need.
Challenge yourself to find other ways to describe settings and landscapes, try to see if the characters themselves can help paint your picture for your reader, let the action taking place be what delivers the experience and not mounds of description. If you are just looking to add extra words to your word count then you are just wasting your time.
Make the end your middle:
The problem here, which tends to occur over and over again, is that when you reach the second act of your story, you find that you don’t have much of an idea what has to happen next. There tends to be a lack of substance that causes the middle to sag or wander.
The problem is usually that there’s not enough drama or conflict taking place – and conflict is what drives any story. It’s what motivates characters to do what they do and what causes the reader to want to read on.
I recently read a piece of advice from Chuck Wendig which I think is brilliant. If you reach the middle of your story and find you have nothing to write about, then take what you think is the actual ending of your story and move that event into the middle. Now, see what happens.
This technique might sound awfully extreme, but then you, like your reader, will find that you’re dying to know what happens next. It may also create a completely new story arc that you never anticipated – and that’s where writing gets exciting.
Right from the go, every word you write should raise the action level of the story. By around the time you’ve reached events 4 thru 9, you better have your protagonist out of their comfort zone and on the edge of a core meltdown. If instead you’re finding yourself lost with where to go next, then it’s time to do something drastic; kill someone, commit some atrocity, take something that’s essential away from your hero, just anything that will cause an upheaval and create chaos for your characters.
Take what you thought would happen around events 10 or 11 and move that event into slot 5.
Whoa! That’s intense. But, I bet it’s also dramatic enough so that your mind now goes – I never saw that coming.
Worried that will cause you to lose your ending? Then ask yourself another what-if question, or maybe your story needs to be shortened. The worst thing you can do is to just add filler to your story.
Make more things happen:
Another way to build a better story mid-section is to make more things happen. Add short, sharp, high intensity scenes that will propel your characters into more conflict. The Indian Jones movies aren’t boring because they give you no time to catch your breath. Harry Potter isn’t boring because Harry is never just sitting around doing nothing, he’s always moving.
With every problem you throw at your characters, let them guide you to discover their own resolutions to those problems. Also vary the length of these scenes. Try mixing short events in with a few longer, deeper ones. It’s just like to listening to a favorite song; there’s an intro followed by telling verse, the captivating chorus, another verse, another chorus, then comes the big guitar solo, finally ending in a big finish. Weaving in extra action scenes like a musicians construct songs will make your story more enjoyable.
Try Doubling Up:
In the January 2016 edition of Writer’s Digest, there was a piece of advice which I have found to be a most effective device in good story telling, and that is try doubling up.
What if your protagonist could both win and lose at the same time. Take the movie Forest Gump, for example. Basically the entire movie is about him trying to win the love of Jenny, the girl next door. Time and time again Forest manages to perform some astonishing, almost super-human feat. But with every big achievement, Forest also seems to lose the people he cares about in the process; Bubba gets killed in Vietnam, but he wins the Medal of Honor, Forest gets to visit the White House and sees Jenny but then she leaves on a bus, his shrimp boat is the only one to survive a devatstating hurricane, but then he is told his momma is dying.
Finally, Forest marries Jenny only to have her die shortly after from some unknown illness. Each and every time Forest is just about to get the thing he wants something else gets taken away.
Look at some of the stories that you really love and I’ll bet you find this pattern repeated over and over. When you need to fix a dead spot in your story – try attacking the problem with the power of two.
Break Away From The Cliche:
If it’s one thing all writers are guilty of at one time or another, it’s allowing clichés to infiltrate our stories. There are so many times, especially when I’m outlining a story, that I let myself get lazy and use a cliché to move things along. It’s comfortable, it’s convenient, and it’s a total interest killer.
I’m not saying dump clichés altogether, in fact there are good reasons why certain things become clichés in the first place. It’s because they work. I’m merely cautioning you to do everything in your power to avoid using them, or at the very least using them too often to build your stories.The real art of it all is finding ways to turn those clichés to your advantage by turning them on their heads.
In every story, readers will be on the lookout for clichés, so use that fact to lure them in. Just when the reader is expecting one thing to happen throw a whopping curve ball that they won’t see coming. Instead of the Princess marrying Prince Charming, how about having her hook up with his twin sister. Or, instead of having a murder mystery where the butler did it, how about a murder mystery where it actually ends up being the butler who solves it .
You’re a writer; be bold, be reckless, be avant-garde and chose the path less traveled because it does make all the difference both in storytelling and in life.
Make the Most of Your Middles
Yes, middles can be very difficult to write. Some days you might feel like Moses wandering around in the desert for forty-years. Yet really the middles are where the great things can happen.
Remember the Cantina Scene in Star Wars? Remember the Quiditch Scene in Harry Potter? Remember Ralphie’s Dad getting the Special Award in A Christmas Story? Of course you do. These are iconic moments and they are integral to memorable stories.
If your having trouble getting words onto the paper, then the best thing you could be doing is getting absolutely radical with your story. The words that you write may not ever make the final cut, but they can propel you forward and keep you moving. That’s the key – getting words onto the paper.
Joanna Penn always says, “you can’t edit a blank page,” and she’s right. In order to write a novel you have to get words onto the page – even terrible words. Write crappy if you have to. But I think you will find that when you keeping firing away with different ideas, the words will come. Study your ending and then try to find new and interesting ways to get there.
Just let the ideas explode!
What Are Some Other Ideas to Get Un-Stuck From Sloggy Middles? Let Me Hear It!!!!