For many writers, beginnings are easy. An image floats in your head for months or an idea marinates for years during the commute to your day job or a line comes fully formed into your mind while cooking dinner. When you finally sit down to honor this image, idea, or line, the story pours out. Kicking off a story and complicating a protagonist’s world can be loads of fun for a writer. You follow your train of thought and watch the word count stack up. But then…inevitably, you hit the dreaded murky middle of your story. You’re only 40,000 words in and have 40,000 or more to go. The shine of your idea has faded a little, the image in your head only took you so far, and suddenly even sitting down to write may feel like a chore.
Like quicksand, the harder you fight the murky middle, the worse it gets. Scenes feel forced. Dialogue stilted. Plot holes abound.
When you feel the pull of the murky middle quicksand at your feet, here are five things to try to get your writing back on solid ground:
1. Go back to your why.
Why are you writing this story? What was the germ of the idea that started you down this particular story journey? Was it an article you read, a beautiful setting you happened upon on vacation, or a snippet of overheard conversation? Try to recapture the original feeling that sparked your creativity. Next, dig into why you were drawn to this idea. What about you makes you the best person to write this story?
Understanding why we want to write a particular thing is a powerful motivator for both your writing and for your story. Keeping your why front and center will make coming to the work easier and, let’s be honest, the only real way through the murky middle is through. You have to keep writing. Remember why you started when the middle feels tough, let it inspire you to keep going.
2. Articulate the point of your story.
Whether it’s that love conquers all in your romance or the triumph of the human spirit in your dystopian novel or that we are all worthy of redemption in your literary fiction, you have something to say in your writing.
Knowing the point of your particular story is imperative to keeping your writing on track from beginning to end. Setting up all those plot complications and secondary characters can easily distract even the most focused writer from their point. Take a moment to step back and articulate your book’s point. Re-read the chapter where you last left off and see if knowing your point opens up the door to what should happen next. If not, back up another scene and another until you find the spot where you lost your point.
Now, write your point on a Post-it and put it somewhere you can see it when you sit down to write. Keep that point top of mind as you write forward.
3. Skip ahead.
If whatever you are writing is boring you, stop. If you’re bored writing it, your reader will probably be bored reading it. Skip ahead to a scene that excites you. Know what your climax is going to be? Write it. Now, back it out. How do you get there from where you left off?
This tactic can be hard for a chronological writer—that’s me!—but giving yourself permission to skip ahead will open up new ideas and can keep your writing fresh. You may find that whatever scene you thought needed to come next doesn’t actually have a place in your story after all.
4. Brainstorm a list.
If you find yourself not sure what should happen next in your story, take a break to brainstorm. Write down the first five things that come to mind of what your protagonist could do next in their story. Now throw that list out. Take out a new sheet of paper and write another five. Then write another five after that.
Your first five ideas are more than likely the most predictable—and no one wants a predictable story. Generate more and more ideas until you finally find the option that both surprises you and feels most authentic to your character. Chances are, it will be exactly what needs to happen next to move your protagonist forward.
5. Shore up the “because of that” trajectory.
Outline what you’ve written so far and see how each scene or chapter is linked. Are the scenes linked by “and then” or “because of that” or “but” or “therefore?” If your scenes are linked by “and then” you have a problem. “And then” means either not much is happening in your story or things are happening to your protagonist and, as a result, your protagonist lacks agency.
Each action in your story should have a consequence (because of that) driving the next scene’s action or create a complication for your protagonist (but/therefore). Take a look at the outline you made and analyze your connectors. If you are stuck in the middle and unsure what happens next, go back a scene or two and see if your connectors slipped into “and then” territory and make an adjustment. Ideally, your action should be falling dominoes of action/consequence/action/consequence that lead the reader right into your inevitable climax scene.
The middle is always going to be somewhat slow going and difficult, but don’t be tempted to abandon your project for the next shiny new idea. Take the opportunity to slow down and get intentional with your writing. Go back to the heart of your story and remember when it was a sparkly and woke you in the middle of the night with its brilliance. Harness that energy and use it to propel you—and your protagonist—through the second half of your story.
Monica Cox is a writer and book coach living in North Carolina with her husband, two teenage boys, and a cranky but adorable cat. A former public and media relations executive, she now guides writers through their writing and revision process, including navigating murky middles. Her goal is to give writers the encouragement, feedback, and tools they need to keep writing, finish their manuscripts, and strengthen their craft along the way. Connect with Monica at monicacox.net and on Instagram and Twitter.