Muddling Through the Middle

We have reached the end of NaNoWriMo. There are just a few hours left. I did get a long car ride, and I managed to complete my goal. I wrote about 30 thousand words all told in short stories and novel chapters, not to mention all these blog posts and six law school applications. I’m hoping to keep the momentum in December, but we’ll see how that goes. I still have a few applications, and I’ve never been very good at keeping my NaNoWriMo momentum up, even when that momentum is pretty sluggish to begin with, but I will try.


So, this month, I’ve taken you through how I plan my stories, from the ending, to the climax, all the way to the beginning. This week, I’m going to talk about the hardest part for me—and I think the hardest part for a lot of people: the middle.


Every time I’m working on a story, I always make the same mistake. I plan the ending, the climax, and the beginning, and then I’m just so excited that I just start writing. I’ll get through the beginning, and then I’ll hit a wall. Happens every time.


Part of the problem is that I start writing before I’m really ready. I’m not good at flying by the seat of my pants, and yet I continually insist on plunging right in. I have some friends who can write out-of-order, get the scenes on paper that they’re imagining right now, and then go back and fill in, but I’ve never been able to do that. For one thing, as I write and the story grows beyond my outline, those climax and ending scenes I envision so clearly will probably change themselves, so it just doesn’t make sense for me to write them first, even if they are taking up all the room in my head. For me, those scenes are also the goal I am reaching for, and if I don’t have them ahead, I worry I might stop working on the project altogether. But that’s just me. Writing out-of-order works great for plenty of people.


Another reason I have trouble with the middle is that it’s generally tricky and hard to define. Even if I have carefully outlined every step of the middle, I still find myself slowing down and struggling.


The middle is the part between the beginning and the end. Obvious, I know, but it’s not as simple as that. The main problem or problems have been introduced. We have a grasp of the protagonist and the antagonist and what they want and what they’re planning to do to get it. The middle is where everything is developing. The characters are putting their plans into action, but it’s not going well. There might be a confrontation or two with the antagonist. There are side characters who are developing and either helping or hindering the protagonist. The protagonist is growing and learning and changing. There’s probably some subplots as well. In short, the middle takes the story from the beginning to the climax. So the middle needs to contain everything that you need to make the climax and the ending succeed.


Luckily, I’ve already planned my basic climax and ending, so I know what I need to get in there so I can pull them off. And lately, I’ve been making more of a conscious effort to examine all these elements, but even if I’ve spent time looking at all the pieces and planning out how I want them to go, I still have a hard time figuring out where and when they happen, how everything works together, how much space is everything given. I’m not sure where I first heard the expression, but it’s not called “the muddled middle” for nothing. There’s a lot going on that you have to juggle. Sometimes it can be pretty straightforward, but most of the time, for me, it isn’t.


So I do my best. The more I read in my genre and analyze how well-plotted stories move forward, the better I get. But it is always a struggle. I saved talking about the middle for last not only because I deal with it last but because it is hardest for me. When I get particularly frustrated, I think of the middle as a necessary evil. Honestly, I’ve probably given it way too much power in my head, so it intimidates me more than it should (which means I should just keep running at it, right?). No matter how I approach it, no matter how well I think I’ve planned it out, I always find myself muddling through it. But once I have a complete first draft, everything is clearer. I can pick out the real shape of the story under all the mess, and it becomes so much easier to go back in and revise it to what I really wanted it to be from the beginning.


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