The Muddle in the Middle


The “muddle in the middle” problem has come up before on Magical Words.  Some writers will tell you they love writing the first several pages of a novel, when the characters are fresh, the plot is new, and the words flow like quicksilver.  Other writers will say that they love writing the last several pages, when all the plot pieces are stitched together, all the loose threads are stitched, when every word has a satisfying finality.

Almost no one likes the middle.  (Yeah, I’m sure there are folks out there who do.  And they’ll likely chime in, in response to this post…)

Middles go on and on (and, sometimes, on and on and on – you get the idea.)  There’s progress to be made, but it’s hard to measure against the bulk of chapters ahead, the ones behind.  We know where we want to go, but it can take a long time pushing through.  Every single novel I have ever written has kicked my butt when I’ve slogged through the middle.

However, this is *not* my experience with DARKBEAST REBELLION.  I am now officially more than halfway through the manuscript.  And so far, each chapter continues to be fresh.  It feels exciting to write about Keara’s journey.  The characters are acting consistently with their nature, but they’re also being interesting.

Sure, I might get hit by a 2×4 of “muddled middle” soon.

But it’s sure a joy not to be there now.

What have I done differently, to avoid the muddle this time?  I’m not entirely sure, but here are a few things:

  • Writing fast.  Yes, you’ve read a lot about this technique here on MW, but it’s working for me.  I started writing fast when I started writing category romance.  I would draft those 60,000 novels in two weeks, not letting myself dwell on details that needed editing.  I flew through the middle before I had a chance to be bogged down.
  • Knowing the plot.  When I wrote my Glasswrights novels, my “outline” was a handful of paragraphs that said “stuff happens to Rani.”  When I wrote my Jane Madison novels, though, preparing an acceptable outline was a payment point under the contract.  I took time to create one, to flesh out more details.  Now, ten novels into outlining, I am *finally* secure in this method of story guidance.
  • Applying screenwriter tricks.  Last fall, I took a workshop in screenwriting, as applied to romance novels.  Sure, there were gimmicks.  Of course, there were precise details that don’t apply to my manner of writing.  But there were also a number of points raised, about story structure and turning of fortune that made me realize I had never *really* focused on plot before.  I’m doing that now, and I’m finding that there’s a reason for each and every thing that happens in the middle.

I’m sure there are other elements at play, but the bottom line is this:  I’m nearly through the middle, and the words are still flowing smoothly.

So?  What about it?  If you’re a writer, do you hate the middles?  If you’re a reader, how do middles feel?  (As a reader, *I* rarely feel bogged down, the way I do when I’m writing.)

Mindy, curious


30 comments to The Muddle in the Middle

  • I detest middles. I try – I really do – to outline a full story, but when I get into it, it falls apart everytime (usually in the Middle). Alternatively, I’ve tried writing through without stopping to correct plot shifts, I end up with a mash-up ending.

    Maybe someone has some hidden Chinese Secret to making Middles work?

  • Middles are near and dear to me especially since I’m at the middle of my WIP right now. I think that when I’m reading it is often evident (if only slightly) whether the author had a problem with the middle or not. I’ve read a few books where it was almost as if the writer (if only briefly) completely lost interest in what they were writing. Almost like a voice change for a few pages or a chapter. It often makes it hard for me (the reader) to push through the middle grey area to the good part I know is waiting after. If that loss of connection takes to long then I find myself putting down the book and moving on. Those books that I have no problem reading through seem to contain a conflict or some major plot reveal in the middle. The middle also seems to be the best place for subplot which tends to pull the story forward as well.

    As far as writing middles, I will agree with you Mindy on the fast writing. I found as long as I’m writing fast it’s not as scary as I thought it would be. The middle for me has always held some sort of no man’s land (when reading or writing). You break into the book with this awesome first part and you wrap everything up with that last one… the meat in the middle is what makes the book (or breaks it) and can either be extremely boring or wonderfully invigorating.

    I’ve gotten into the habit of moving forward in the story if I hit a point where I can’t seem to make myself write. I’ll write a few chapters ahead of that point and then connect the two segments. Sometimes it works (other times, it just gives me a wider view into the world I’ve created).

  • L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright

    I have have had the odd experience now on several books that I cannot outline until the middle. If I outline early on, I stop writing. But once I’m about half way done, I find that I can stop and tie the rest of the story together. This usually makes the second half of the book a bit quicker to write than the first…but not necessarily. 😉

    I’d love to know more about what you learned in the scriptwriting class. Have you blogged about that anywhere?

  • I’m with you, Mindy. I think middles are very hard, and they are the places I am most likely to lose interest in someone else’s book. The novelty of the premise has worn off, the characters are starting to feel familiar, and the book just seems to stall. Mmm… maybe there’s a post here for me too!

  • Mindy, I used to hate the middle, feeling trapped in quicksand and every motion forward just pulled me down more. But the *write faster* mantra of the last book shot me through that awful 75 to 100 pages like greased lighting. The book was the shortest novel I’ve ever written, at just over 100,000 words, perhaps because I was writing fast and pulled the plot in tighter. The prose was leaner and meaner and sharper too.

    Re screenwriting. WHen I wrote a script, I felt like it pulled my brain in a totally different direction, as if I was using brain cells that had lain unused until then. Did you feel that left-brain / right-brain difference?

  • MaCrae

    I’ve re-written my beginning four times. I couldn’t even GET to the muddle in the middle because the beginning was so wrong. I realized my problem though, the beginning had no purpose other than mildly interesting world building and stuff I had made up on the fly that was pointless. But this time I’m not re-writting it, I know it well enough to continue and get to the muddle in the middle. I’ve wasted enough time already. 🙂

    I keep waiting for someone to make a stupid “muddle earth” pun. Ha ha…ha.

  • Oh, great post, Mindy. I really like the “write fast” advice. I’ve also tried just “living out” the story through my characters (in my head) while I’m cooking dinner. I don’t know why, but sometimes pieces of the plot and ideas to fix problems come to me while I’m cooking dinner.

  • Ugh, the middle. I’m taking a break from revising the middle of my book HELLHOUND right now, because I’ve added and subtracted so many things in this second draft that I’m not even sure what’s there anymore and what isn’t. Muddle is right. Maddle might be better.

  • Middles definitely give me trouble, but I’ve found reverse outlining has helped. That is, I know how it’s supposed to end, and I have a vague idea of how the plot’s supposed to go, but then I start planning from the ending, bit by bit. Thinking backwards has led to many epihanies about the story, too.

  • Unicorn

    Like L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright, I tend to start outlining furiously in the middle of the story. I have never been able to prewrite extensively; all the excitement goes out of the story and it falls on its nose in the middle of the first page. So, when the plot hits the brakes in the middle, I outline, and usually that can get my momentum back up and prevent me from stuffing the story with endless mountains of dull, useless filler.
    I hardly ever come up with anything interesting whilst sitting and staring at a computer screen. I usually resolve plot holes whilst grooming a horse’s coat. By now my horses have stopped shying each time I leap up, drop the currycomb and squeal, “That’s IT! I’ve got it!”
    Thanks for a great post, Mindy. It’s very timely as I’m stuck in a muddly middle right now…

  • Julia

    Mindy, thanks for a wonderful post! I’d also love to hear more about the screenwriting class, as one of my goals for the new year is to learn more about plotting. When I struggle with the middle, it’s primarily because I don’t have a clear view on my plot.

  • There is this point, about 60-65% of the way through a book where I always — ALWAYS — get stuck. Talk about a muddle. This is the point where I contemplate not just other projects, but other careers. But I usually fight through it and find, once on the other side, that while the process sucked, the actually writing didn’t turn out so badly. Writing faster has helped; so has outlining in greater detail. But for me it still comes down to butt-in-chair, slog-through-it. Nice post, Mindy. Thanks!

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Like LScribeHarris, at the moment it’s REVISING the middle that seems like a huge slog. When I wrote the first draft of my WIP, my focus was mostly on wanting to get *through* to cool scenes I knew were coming up (that turned out to be at the end of this first book) and so that wanting kept me going.

    To second Jenny’s comment, however, I once read a blog post by Jim Butcher that talked about adding energy to the middle by either a) having a big climax scene or action sequence in the middle (think of the zombie hordes attacking Dresden’s house in Dead Beat) or b) introducing a new, cool character (his example was the super-hero fashion designer in The Incredibles).

    My own skills with plotting are extremely minimal, though. I think I’m going to have to try out the above suggestions to build an outline once the story starts to get to the middle. 😀

  • Mark – Have you tried to solve the problem from the other end? Take a short story or novel (written by someone else) that really works for you, and create an outline of it, focusing on the middle (or other parts that give you trouble)? I’ve found that studying other works dynamically like that really makes a difference in my own writing. (And *detest*? Such a strong word! 🙂 )

    Jenny – I found your comment interesting – I haven’t focused as much as you on when writers lose control over the middles of their own work. I’ve found (too many, alas) books where the writing doesn’t hold together, but I haven’t found that to be the case specifically with middle “fade outs” as you describe them. Hmm… Off to do more reading and pay more attention!

    Jagi – While I began my career with very short outlines, I cannot *imagine* working entirely without one, especially for the beginning of a book! Ah, different strategies… I haven’t written about the screenwriting class (aside from a couple of brief entries on my own blog, talking about how energizing it was), but perhaps you’ve given me my idea for my next post here! 🙂

    A J – I look forward to reading what you write about this, um, challenge!

    Faith – For me, the screenwriting brought in almost *mathematical* insights (which I think is what you mean by the left/right brain tugging). It forced me to think of my story in terms of deciles and quartiles (my words, not the instructor’s), focusing on what was happening at very specific action points. And I’m continuing to hone that notion in plotting other projects…

    MaCrae – ::grin:: re “muddle earth”… I edit a lot of manuscripts by up and coming writers, and probably the most common mistake I see is people starting the story at the wrong place. As a result, those authors spend *way* too much time reworking the beginning, when the best answer is often to get rid of it altogether. Of course, then, the former muddled middle becomes the beginning and another part of the story enters the muddling phase…

    Barb – Most of my plot and idea fixes come while I’m moving (e.g., taking a walk.) That movement doesn’t have to be extreme, either – more often than not, I’m scribbling down ideas after the 3-block walk to the subway!

    LScribeHarris – I’ve found it useful, for some particularly, um, difficult manuscripts, to outline *after* I’ve written and revised and revised. That helps me to see what’s there, so that I can tear it all apart one last time… Don’t get mad. Get pad (for outlining). Or something like that.

    Laura – I do something similar when I’m outlining. I use Scrivener, so I’ll complete my index cards for the parts of the story that I know, then fill in the blanks in between. Usually, I know the first 50% and the last 25% – it’s that middle quarter that gets tugged and pulled at from both ends…

    Unicorn – I know people who keep waterproof writing materials for the shower (including “crayons” to write on tile.) I shudder a bit to think of the “proofing” your stable materials would need to undergo!

    Julia – That’s it, then! My next post will be about what I learned in my screenwriting class!

    David – You note that while the process sucked, the writing turned out well. I *totally* understand that. I *still* have trouble judging the quality of my writing while I’m in the middle of it. Some chapters that I think need the most work, based on their difficult birthing process, read beautifully. There are others, though…

    Hepseba – I know authors who are able to write all the cool scenes, then go back and write the connective bits. Alas, I’m not one of those people, though. If I wrote out all the cool stuff, I would never have the stick-to-it-iveness to finish the rest…

  • sagablessed

    I have both issues: I like and despise the middle. I like it because the story fleshes out. Beginings and ending are easy, but the middle is the challenge. And that challenge is the frustrating part as well.
    It is also where all my notes and plot lines go to hell. It is where the story for me takes a life of its own, and becomes more than what thought, but ‘the best laid plans’ and all.

  • PeterLast

    Actually, I kind of like the middles of my books. I completely understand what you are saying about the “bogged down” feeling, but that doesn’t happen to me exclusively in the middle of a book. Rather at random points in the story, lulls in the plot and such, I find myself up against a brick wall. Writing quickly only gets me to those walls even faster.

  • marlenedotterer

    It’s nice to know I’m not the only writer who can’t figure out what to write. Yep – stuck in the middle, one more time. I’m barrelling through it, irregardless of what breaks along the way. I’ll fix things once the whole draft is done.

  • The Mathelete

    Usually I agree with most of what people on MW have to say, but I guess I’ve been outed with this post. I LOVE the middle! In fact, I legitimately hate it when the middle starts towards the end. I slow down, trying to savor the last remaining bit of the cherished story, the last short bit of time with my treasured friends. I do this with books I’m writing and with books I’m reading.

    Beginnings are fun, too — courting new worlds and characters like some fictional cocktail party guest — but after the first few chapters, I get to the part I really love, the middle. The characters become familiar. The plot begins to unfold. Voices crystallize, and personalities emerge. The act of writing becomes easy and comfortable as I no longer have to actually think about how a character would respond, how they would sound, or what they would do. In the middle, I know them as well as I know anyone, and words just appear on my screen. I don’t outline, but I have a weird “waypoints” kind of system. This leaves me enough flexibility to feel how the characters would respond, let them go their own way, and ultimately still end up where I intended them to go. This also makes the writing fun since I legitimately don’t know what’s going to happen on the next page.

    The middles usually fly past until I get close to “the end.” That’s the rotten part for me — about 2-3 chapters from the end seems to be the sticking spot. I drag my heels, kick, scream, gnash my teeth, and anything other than put my butt in my seat and finish. I start revising earlier chapters just to draw out the incomplete status. This is also the time I’m most susceptible to the “shiny things” problem (aka. Let’s write a vampire/space opera/high fantasy/demon possession/etc. book!). I finally finished the second book in my fantasy WIP only after bribing myself by writing the first three chapters of the third book. I’m now to that same point in three different WIPs, and as usual, I’m finding every opportunity to do ANYTHING (like posting long-winded things on MW) other than actually write those last few thousand words that signal the end of a great friendship. I will say, on the positive side, I’ve never had quite so much clean laundry before.

    So am I some sort of weirdo? Probably 😉 I love middles — whether in Oreo cookie form or WIP form. Now, if I could only figure out how to love the ends as well, I could die happy (or at least finish up 3 or 4 manuscripts).

  • sagablessed – “Best laid plans” just about says it all, doesn’t it?!? I’m just challenging myself to lay *better* plans from here on out!

    PeterLast – I understand what you’re saying, about writing faster getting you to problem points faster. For me, though, writing faster also gives me the momentum to get over the obstacle. Usually. I hope. 🙂

    marlenedotterer – Isn’t it liberating to say, “I’ll fix it later”? I’m becoming a *huge* fan of that philosophy… And I’ve only come to it relatively late in my writing career!

    The Mathelete – ::grin:: I will forever associate troublesome middles with Oreo cookies, and they’ll fly by, now that I have a positive connotation! As for finding a way to love the ends of your works, is there a way that you can tweak your “waypoint” system, so that you consciously shut doors and close off options, making you take your awesome character-familiarity from the middle and pour it down the one chute that makes sense? Thanks for outing yourself, you middle lover, you!

  • I love my middles. They’re the meat in the sandwich, where everything happens that the beginning set up and the end finishes. Where all my world-building really takes shape … love ’em!

  • James R. Tuck

    The middles aren’t a problem so far. I am a heads down writer. I do NOT go backwards. First draft from beginning to end do not stop, do not look back, devil take the hindmost. lol.

    Now while writing I do worry that I am dragging on in the middle. That I am being too wordy, not enough action, etc… But no looking back!

    On second, revision pass I find that the middle worked out just fine and doesn’t need any more tweaking than the beginning or the end.

    Of course, I gave up “pantsing” two books and two novellas ago. That helped tremendously.

  • The Mathelete

    Mindy, glad I could give you a happy connotation for your troublesome middles. Maybe with enough creamy Oreo goodness, you’ll one day love the middle as much as I do.

    My troubles with endings are not new, and I’ve managed to overcome them each time in the past. It requires a clean house, a cleared inbox, a large pot of coffee, and usually a friend or two clamoring for me to get them “the next one.” I expect I’ll always struggle with endings, both because of how I plot and my own personality. That said, I think I’d rather hit my roadblock at the tail end than the beginning or middle. One does not simply throw away 300 pages for lack of 30, but 30 for the lack of 300 could be tempting 😉

  • TwilightHero

    As a reader, I’m with The Mathelete (nice name). I love the middle, where you’ve become familiar with the setting and characters and the plot is picking up nicely…IF the plot is picking up nicely. If it’s not, but the first two are well-crafted enough to suck me in, I’ll push on in hope of a good ending. If not…well…I probably wouldn’t have made it to the middle in the first place 😀

    As a writer…it’s funny actually. Before I reached the middle in my WIP, I feared getting bogged down wondering what happens next – since, yes, that was the vaguest part of my plot. But now that I’m almost to the final third, I don’t know what I was worried about. I’m more pantser than plotter anyway; things worked themselves out as I went along. Again, the middle’s become one of my favorite parts.

    Of course that might be because, after reading Hepseba’s comment up top about Jim Butcher’s suggestions, I realize I’ve done both 😛

  • widdershins – With a name like that, I’d expect you to run contrary to my post! 🙂 Interesting – until this discussion, I had not focused on how middles are where the worldbuiliding *works*. (In the past, I’ve thought of worldbuilding as an exercise in timely introduction – and therefore, something that is key in beginnings, not middles…)

    James – Aha! Another writer with “text dysmorphic disorder”… One day, just *one* day, I want to write something and know whether it’s good or bad when I finish that first draft!

    Mathelete – (And yes, another vote for loving your handle!) It sounds as if you know yourself very well. Me? I’d have to throw chocolate into the bribery mix 🙂

    TwilightHero – I think you’ve described my reading experience perfectly. I tend not to notice middles, as a reader, because I’m either hurtling along with the characters, or I’m striding along with readerly determination. I set aside more books these days than I ever did before, but those generally die at around the 50 page mark. so many books, so little time…

  • 2011 was a year of middles for me. I wrote to completion five novels in 2010, and put them to bed for a year, as is my habit, before looking at them again . So in 2011 I started on seven different ideas and never got past the 30,000 word mark on any of them. I guess it was a lazy year. Sometimes it was plot problems, and I didn’t want to take the time to work them out. Other times it was just too much effort remembering the names of tertiary characters, cities, ships, etc. I want to get words on paper (or electrons on hard drives) so I would just switch to another idea and plug away. And then at the end of the year I had 240,000 words and seven unfinished novels, versus 640,000 words and five finished the year before. I tried to solve one the problems by making a notepad doc for each novel with names, dates, and other info that might escape me, and so far that is working. As far as middles being boring, I try to fill them with action and suspense. Of course the endings always rock, as I normally have some kind of major confrontation, normally switching back and forth among characters. Now up to 64,000 words on one WIP and starting to rock into the action, which will take up the second half of the book. Then on to finishing the others, my New Years Resolution, before starting on any new ideas.

  • I used to hate working on the middle (evinced by all the unfinished works I have lying around from my early years). I’d get the beginning down, but when it came time to continuing I’d balk and then, like a magpie spying something shiny, I’d move on to something else. In part, it was distraction with the new thing, but I think it was also that once I left the familiar waters of what I knew (the beginning), I’d lose course. I always knew the beginning and the end, but the middle was something unknown and I wasn’t sure how to proceed.

    Back then, I was more a pantser, or more organic, if you will, and rarely plotted out anything. The few times I did slog through a synopsis (something I still hate doing…more than cleaning the bathrooms or doing dishes by hand), I’d end up finishing the work. I did so on Rogue 5. But I think what’s helped me most is that I no longer think of it as one big, bulky middle piece, and more as several smaller pieces, like a puzzle that needs to fit together a certain way to get me from start to finish. I work scene to scene now, plotting out each before I write it. When I sit down for the day, I write scene notes for the scenes I’ll be working on that day, sort of mini-synopses for those scenes. It’s just enough to keep me on track and chart a course through the rough waters. It’s a trick on writing fast that I learned a while ago from Rachel Aaron’s blog. It helps me during those times when I don’t feel like writing a full synopsis and actually leaves something that could be cut up and used as a synopsis later if one is needed.

    Some people look at their work as a three act structure. I look at mine more as a roller coaster ride of high points, low points, building climbs, and screaming descents toward the next challenge until the end is reached where I, and my characters, can finally sit back and breathe a sigh of relief. And I know, once I do finally read the words that give me that feeling, that I’m finally done.

  • MaCrae

    Oh good:), I thought it was just me. Is there general beginning that would works wonders for any kind of story? I can’t find mine.(Obviously).

  • BrotherofCats – I admire your ability to complete so many novels in one year! I keep my development notes in Scrivener, tracking character names, traits, etc. I also use that software to track dates, in the Notes section for each chapter — so, I echo your Notepad documents. One of the biggest things that keeps me moving forward on the middles of my work is leaving blanks – if I can’t remember a name, or if I need to make up a name, or whatever. I leave a blank and fill it in when I revise the chapter, that afternoon or the following day.

    Daniel – I like the image of “working the middle” the way one works a jigsaw puzzle. And I approach mine in similar ways – especially when I realize that I need to add an interstitial chapter, filling in plot or personality details that I’ll need for later. (Alas, I have to say I’ve always hated roller coasters, so I won’t rely on that metaphor 🙂 )

    MaCrae – Alas, I doubt that there is any one start-point that would work as general advice. I identify wrong start points when the story immediately lapses into a flashback (um, start *there* instead…) or when the story starts with a weather report (which can mean a discussion of the weather, or other not-vital-to-the-plot things.) Hmmm… I think I need to write a longer post on this…

  • MaCrae

    Ah, I see. Thanks; let the cutting begin! You should totally write a post on this.:)