4 Ways to Conquer the Murky Middle

by Kassandra Lamb ~ For all writers, the middle of a novel is usually the hardest to write. The pace often slows as you struggle to keep readers engaged and to move the plot forward…but not too fast or then you will only have a novella. Conquering the “murky middle,” for many of us, is our greatest challenge as writers.

conquer the murky middle
Negotiating the murky middle sometimes feels like you are lost in a fog bank. (photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash.com)

For pantsers—those of us who write by the seat of our pants—the murky middle is particularly treacherous. How to fill up all that space? It is very easy to bog down completely.

Plotters—those who outline and carefully plan their stories—may have a somewhat easier time in the middle, but I suspect they sometimes get a little lost or bogged down as well.

Over the last decade of my writing career, I’ve developed/discovered four ways that can help one conquer the murky middle (three of them, I learned from other authors).

Write the final climax/confrontation scene first.

This one I stumbled on by chance. Often the final climax scene would appear in my brain, fully formed, early on in the process. Maybe while the story idea was still percolating in the back of my mind and I hadn’t even started writing the first scene yet. So I’d sit down and write that last scene, to get the words down while they were fresh.

After my first couple of novels, I realized this was a good idea for another reason. If I knew where the story eventually needed to end up, it was easier to stay on the right path to get there.

Of course, that final scene usually needs some rewriting by the time I actually get there, and sometimes the identity of the killer changes along the way. But that’s okay. Knowing what point I was aiming for helped me to get there, even if there were some detours.

Brainstorm plot points.

This one I picked up from another author in a Facebook group several years ago. I would suggest that even plotters do this, maybe before they start their outlining. It’s a good way to get the creative juices flowing. And some ideas may come to you that you wouldn’t have necessarily thought of otherwise.

Giving your brain free rein, brainstorm any possible things that can happen in your story (include even improbable things). Write them down as they come to you, regardless of where they fit chronologically.

Once you have about twenty plot points, put them in some kind of loose order. Pantsers, don’t get too caught up in this step. It doesn’t matter if the order gets changed later, or even if you add or subtract some plot points along the way.

The purpose of this exercise is to get the ideas flowing. But it also provides a safety net when the murky middle raises its ugly head. You can go back to your plot points list and find ideas for what to do next.

Write the middle scene first.

This one I got from James Scott Bell’s excellent book, Write Your Novel from the Middle. Bell contends that in the middle of every great novel you will find a scene in which the protagonist confronts themselves and/or reality.

I highly recommend this book!

He gives several excellent examples from the classics, and contends that if you write that middle confront-reality scene first, the murky middle is no longer so murky. You can go back and write up to that scene, and then from that scene to the end.

I tried this approach with a cozy mystery I had just started writing around the time I read his book. I wrote the middle scene, where the protagonist is trapped in a wood shed during a hurricane. She’s bemoaning her periodic bad luck (she does tend to trip over dead bodies, since she is the protagonist of a mystery series, after all) when it dawns on her that she’s letting those bad times keep her from enjoying the good times in between. That instead of wishing her life would “settle down” and stay that way, she should be savoring the good stuff more, as it happens.

And sure enough, there was no getting bogged down in the murky middle with that book.

Since then, I don’t always write that scene up front, but I figure out in general what it’s going to be about, what internal conflict the protagonist will be facing.

Then as soon as I get bogged down, I write that scene. I may have to go back and fill in some things in between it and what came before. But I have that scene as a beacon, showing the way through the murkiness.

(A side note: I just finished writing this scene in the story I’m currently working on. I had been bogged down for about a week, letting other things distract me from my WIP, when it dawned on me that I was right smack in the middle of my desired word count…so I could and should write the confront-reality scene. I did so and now I’m rolling again!)

Ask your protagonist 5 questions.

This one I picked up recently from an author. It was advice recently given to him by yet another author. Isn’t it grand how we all support each other!

When you find yourself stuck as to what happens next, go back to the end of the previous scene and ask your protagonist these questions:

  1. What do you want at this point?
  2. Why do you want it?
  3. What is stopping you from getting it?
  4. What are you going to do about that?
  5. How does that work out?

And voila, you have your next scene. At the end of that scene, ask those questions again. Rinse and repeat, until you’ve reached the final big scene.

These are my favorite ways to conquer the murky middle of my stories. Writers reading this, do you have other strategies that you’re willing to share?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington psychological mysteries, set in her native Maryland, the Marcia Banks and Buddy cozy mysteries, set in Central Florida, and the C.o.P. on the Scene police procedurals, set in northern Florida. She also writes romantic suspense under the pen name of Jessica Dale.

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