Workshop 17: Working the Muddle Out of Your Middle
According to award-winning author Cheryl St. John (right), every novelist faces the quandary of “the middle” at some point. Signs of a muddled middle include repeating backstory, taking three chapters to say what could be said in one, or feeling bored. If your story bores you, it will bore your reader.
St. John assured conferees this was normal. Doesn’t mean you’ve lost your storytelling ability. Referring to Galatians 6, she emphasized not comparing yourself with others or letting fear stifle you. As she suggested, Leonardo da Vinci may not have been thrilled with his first sketches of the Mona Lisa. St. John then offered tips for finding your way through that troublesome middle.
Keep moving forward
- “You can fix poor writing, but you can’t fix nothing,” St. John said. Focus on finishing that first draft.
- Don’t keep going back and rewriting the beginning over and over because you’re stuck on the middle. If you can’t move forward, you may not have planned enough or included enough conflict.
- Recapture that first excitement that sparked your story. Read everything you have so far and then keep moving.
- While your finished manuscript should be as perfect as you can make it, perfectionism has no place in creative outbursts or the first draft.
Jumpstart your writing
- Free-write for 10-15 minutes without self-editing—cover your computer monitor or change the font to white.
- Set a timer and don’t stop writing until it goes off.
- Put your character in a new place or have your character receive something (a gift, a punch in the nose). Describe how he/she receives it (feelings).
Spice up your middle
- Space out high-action/emotion scenes for a balance of highs and lows.
- Consider changing your character goals at the halfway point—not their overall life goals, but more immediate goals.
- Intensify conflict to the point where even you aren’t sure how your character will get out.
- Think outside the box (Bring in new information, block a way of escape, have a friend turn against your character, force your character to an impossible choice, take away something that could help your character, or have someone missing or believed dead show up.)
- Write a monologue for your character, go on a date with him/her, or jump ahead and write a scene you already know.
- Study a movie (or a favorite book) for the plot points and why they worked.
- Get back to the emotions of your story—it can help to be emotional.
Jazz it up
Finally, St. John outlined her own special writing exercise, Jazzercise. From this exercise, she guarantees something to help get that muddle out of your story’s middle.
- Make a list of 25 things that could happen in your story.
- Get comfortable and have story firmly in mind.
- Number sheets of paper 1-25, put one idea on each page, and fill every line.