Stuck in the Middle

January 2, 2010 at 10:12 am (Character, Planning, Structure, Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , )


When I first tried writing any extended piece of work I would always jump right into the project and furiously write out a killer opening scene.  I would usually write about four chapters worth of story and then SLAM.  I would hit the wall so hard I would not be bouncing back from it and finishing the project any time soon.

It is a good thing I never delete stuff from my computer because I still have all of those openings and some of them are pretty good (in need of a desperate edit but the ideas were interesting enough).

The point is, I couldn’t write the middle of a story.  I knew where it began and I could usually have written the ending – I actually have the ending written of a couple of them – but I had nothing for the middle of the story.  It was a complete blank.  Why?

  1. Lack of planning (I am all for ignoring my outline and just writing what I feel but if I don’t write an outline in the first place I am setting myself up to hit this wall).
  2. Having no depth to my minor characters
  3. Not really understanding basic story structure

The first one was easy enough to overcome.  Taking the time to plan out the story and write an outline and even draw a timeline showing key events and just basically know what I want to write before trying to write it.  As I said before, I don’t worry about not sticking to it.  I choose to see it like a guide so those days when I have a complete blank I can look at it and think about what is supposed to come next.  Usually that will inspire me to think of what I actually want to write next.  Suddenly getting through the middle part wasn’t as hard when I had a map, of sorts.  I think if I tried to compare my outlines to a map they would be drawn in crayon and have been dropped into the water multiple times, but they are functional.

The second one came as a surprise to me.  Given I love characters and I build the story around the characters I create I would have thought that all of my characters were well constructed and had depth.  Turns out, they didn’t. Which made sub-plots and relationships really hard to build, which in turn made creating a story of substance quite difficult.  As I had to spend more time planning what I was going to write before jumping into it, I also had to put my protagonist and couple of main characters to the side and think about the rest of the cast of the story.

Finally, I had to look at structure.  I could blame being gen Y for this problem but I shouldn’t.  I have read so many novels and yet when I started trying to write one (as an impulsive high school student) I was the master of over simplification.  Introduce a problem and rush straight off for the final confrontation.  Umm…  Something isn’t quite right there.  It wasn’t that I didn’t know what the structure of a novel should look like, it was more that I was impatient, unplanned and just not ready to really write a novel.

I still find the middle of the story really hard to write and to keep interesting.  I am constantly looking for places where the story goes off the rails or drags and trying to improve on it but at least now there isn’t a brick wall sitting in front of me and I am no longer hurtling toward it in a case of story suicide.

How do you cope with writing the middle of the story?  Do you get stuck?  How do you get through being stuck?

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21 Comments

  1. Jemi Fraser said,

    I don’t use outlines – I usually start with a beginning and ending scene in mind and let my characters take it from there. So … the middle is a bit tougher. Thankfully my characters tend to put themselves into all kinds of trouble and that helps me out 🙂

  2. darksculptures said,

    I could not survive without an outline. But I think the process is different for everyone. I know some things that work well for me, do not work at all for my fiends. And the same is true in reverse. The important thing I learned about developing the story, it to keep the story and plot seperate. Story is emotion. Plot is action.

    I find by outlining the story – the emotional part. I can go back in and fill in the plot — the actual action. Using this step pulls me right through the middle and toward the epiphany. Once I reach that, it is all downhill from there.

  3. A.L. Radcliffe said,

    I had the rare opportunity to have two authors of well published novels help me through my first novel. The advice I was given at any time the story stopped coming…to simply stop writing. Put it down. Let it breathe. Sometimes we need space, coming back to the work with a fresh mind to see again.

    A lot of my work is character driven. Sometimes characters aren’t ready to give it all to me at once. Maybe I’m not ready to write what they want to tell me. Instead of looking at my characters as something I have to construct, I allow them to reveal themselves. You can’t force it. At least I can’t. And yes, there is that nagging thing called “the deadline” but somehow or another, if I am patient with the work, it all comes together in time. Thanks Cassandra for posting a great topic!

  4. Jemi Fraser said,

    I actually don’t get stuck very often – thankfully! When I do, I stop, let it filter around in my head for a day or two. If that doesn’t work, I go back and reread the parts leading up to where I am stuck.

  5. Corra McFeydon said,

    I’m toying with outlining/mindmapping eight now, which I’ve never used before.

    I always get stuck in the middle. ALWAYS. I’m sure my issue is a lack of understanding of story structure. I’m doing a lot of reading in an attempt to glean some kind of light bulb moment one day. 🙂

    Great post.

    – Corra

  6. Elizabeth Spann Craig said,

    I kill someone. 🙂 I have a second body in every book, and always in the dead center of the text….

    Elizabeth
    Mystery Writing is Murder

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      I think Agatha Christie used to do that. I remember reading somewhere that when her story wasn’t long enough she would throw a dead body into it, or something like that.

  7. twaddleoranything said,

    Oh goodness, I have this problem all the time! I usually either take a short break from what I’m working on (and let it breathe, as was suggested above) or force myself to simply Keep. Writing. No matter how absurd things get, no matter how many flashbacks or non sequiturs or unnecessary characters appear on the page, I just keep writing. Eventually I find my footing again, and promptly ditch the bizarre babbling stuff–or, in some cases, find a use for it.

    Of course, it’s different for everyone! I’m glad to hear you’ve at least knocked down that brick wall. 🙂

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Sometimes even when you think what you are writing is absurd, it works out. I don’t know why but it does.

  8. rahmama said,

    Interesting topic. I’ve only written one book and it took me 2 1/2 years because I had no clue how to structure a plot or anything else. Now that I’m starting on my second book I hope to be a little better organized. So far I have some very interesting characters and a good plot up to the middle. But I have no idea how it will end!
    Maybe the characters will lead the way!

  9. Nicole said,

    I think outlining certainly helps — and it doesn’t have to be completely detailed but knowing the major scenes you want to happen can be enough sometimes. I think you’ve brought up an excellent point in the second though, something I’ve never thought of before. It’s so easy to try and use all the minor characters as one dimensional cutouts serving the main character. But if you give them their own depth, that can enrich your story immensely.

  10. j-a brock said,

    i think it’s easy to drift in the middle. when i notice even i’m getting bored, i know it’s time to up the stakes a bit and I whack in a life-or-death scene. big stakes = interest, i reckon.

  11. Therese said,

    For me it is all about your point number 1, planning. I just outline the whole novel before it I start writing so that at a minimum I have a fair idea of what I want to happen in each chapter and how many chapters I’m going to do. I think the reason it works is because then you’ve broken up a huge projects into a lot of smaller chunks (chapters). That gives you a lot more beginnings and endings and a lot less “middle” to get through, because now each chapter is largely beginning and ending, with only a small “middle” in between.

    (Does that even make sense? It’s a bit like my husband’s theory that smaller baked goods are more tasty, because the outside is always the tastiest part, and the smaller the items are the higher the ratio of surface area to inner stuff …)

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      Definitely. Saying you are going to work on a novel is daunting. Saying you are going to work on chapter four is less intimidating. Thanks for the comment.

  12. butchie34 said,

    When I get stuck and I really can’t think of how to get around the ‘wall’ but know what’s on the other side, I jump to the scenen where I know what does happen and carry on writing so I don’t lose my momentum. Once I’m done, I go back and connect the dots before I then sit down and create a mammoth spreadsheet showing all the scenes, the characters in each scene, motivation, etc. and then consider whether it all makes sense.

  13. Kayleigh said,

    For a long time that’s the way I wrote. I got an idea, a sentence and started writing. The beginning was so easy and fun! And then I would stop. And start a new novel. I did this about… a dozen times? Only twice did I finish, and they were novellas.

    NaNoWriMo helped me complete my first novel. Yes, I cheated. I started on the 7th of November with a half-written novel. But I didn’t care that I wouldn’t get the “I wrote 50 000 words in ONE month” feeling. What I go was a “I did it! I finished my first novel! It took me 7 months but I did it!” feeling. I’m pretty both feeling are the same kind of joy. (Bliss? High? Euphoria? Joy just isn’t strong enough.)

    My main problem was I didn’t outline. Uh. The two novellas I completed were ones where I outlined! Eureka! Outlining DOES help me finish novels. Interesting… Don’t know why I didn’t see this before.

    Now I’m writing my second novel and I have 25 chapters plotted in advance. And I have ideas for the end of the middle and for the ending. So I’m confident I will finish this novel.

    Sorry if that was a bit long, but hey, I’m a writer. You know how it is.

    -Kayleigh

  14. dragonfly83 said,

    The middle has always been my biggest problem with novel writing. Plays I can somehow get through, no problem, but novels, not so much. I recently accepted that outlining is the key to getting through the middle, and now that I have a solid outline, not only does my beginning have more depth, but the middle now exists! In addition to outlining, I have started taking the time to really think about who my minor characters are – what motivates them, what they are afraid of, what they enjoy, etc – all the things I would think of for a main character, most of which will never make it into my story, but all of which help me figure out how they will help propel my story past that wall and onto the second half of the story.

  15. catwoods said,

    I usually just start writing. I have learned to leave myself a note in red font where I am stuck and continue writing from the next point of action or scene that logically goes after the don’t-know-how-to-write-it part.

    It seems to work very well this way and takes away the writer’s block excuse.

  16. kimberlyloomis said,

    I so feel the pain of this. First, I never do outlines except as I go. They don’t forecast but more tell me what’s happened and when (if I had known to do that in my first complete manuscript editing would have been sooooo much easier). Second, when I hit the wall I’ll ponder what’s missing. This time around it seems to be the necessity of another character. So- in the new character went! Strangely that seems to have been the case with the first ms as well. Huh. Anyway…. generally I will push myself to write, even if it’s crap and will make me cringe, just to get ideas flowing again. I used to do full blown outlines and found I could never plan out what would happen to the characters when until I had written all the necessary steps showing me how they would act/move in that direction.

  17. mpiskun said,

    Hey thanks for stopping by The Badgerine.

    When I get stuck I work through it. On occasion I’ve let things sit and then the spark went out and the story disappeared into the great waste basket in my head. It’s different for everyone but I’ve yet to back to a story I’ve left in the middle.

    By the way I’m curious. Are you self-published or working w/ a publisher.

    Good luck!

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