writing the middle of a novel

Tips on Writing the Middle of a Novel

Ah, the dreaded middle of your novel – always a challenge during any novel-writing endeavor. But when its slowing effects impact your prized daily word count during the concentrated NaNoWriMo period, the results can be discouraging – even devastating. As your excitement, tempo, and flow wane, you may find yourself stuck in the difficult work of writing the middle of a novel without knowing how to go about it.

If you find yourself stuck and are now, begrudgingly, acknowledging the benefits of plotting ahead of time, wonderful! But there will be a time to do a project retrospective on your methods later. Do not spend any time beating yourself up. This has nothing to do with your ability as a writer or storyteller. It’s merely another part of the process to learn to work through.

So for now, when the likelihood that a short pause in your writing could become a longer stall, let’s consider a few tactics to keep you moving forward and through the rut.

Focus on GMC – Goal, Motivation, and Conflict

Every scene in your novel should contain a GMC: goal, motivation, and conflict. If you’ve hit a rut, it could be because a lack of these forces in the scenes proceeding it. Rather than looking back, look forward and consider your next attempt at the page with GMC in mind.

  • Goal: What does your character want, right now, and in the larger story? Why?
  • Motivation: What is your character willing to go through to get what they want? Knowing her/his motivation will help you play with stakes and can help raise or lower tension depending on the conflict.
  • Conflict: Great fiction grows from the crucible of conflict. So throw things at your character, literally and figuratively. Set impediments in front of them, mountains or even just really bad traffic.

Lulls in the middle of a book often come from a writer’s lack of understanding of where their character wants to go, and what they will do to get there, runs smack into conflict. A common response to this question might be, “But my character would do anything to reunite with his true love!” Oh, yeah? Like what exactly? Be specific and ruthless.

Take a look at Pixar’s Finding Nemo. Nemo’s father, Marlin, is terrified of risk and the open ocean, but when his son is taken from him, he races into the open ocean, trusts and follows a strange fish with short-term memory loss…into a shark den, an exploding submarine graveyard, the bottom of the ocean, a freakin’ poisonous jellyfish forest, a whale’s stomach, and a pelican’s mouth. All to reach his lost son. That’s a heckuva list of conflicts! And when a motivated character meets great conflict, story can sing.

Freewrite out the back.

Freewriting is a powerful method for freeing yourself of your analytical brain, and allowing the creative side to flow. Freewriting out the back means starting with the end of something as your prompt–in this case the end of the last scene before you became stuck.

Try it!

  • Set a timer for 5 minutes and start your freewrite with the following questions:
  • What’s next?
  • So what? What would your character need to do to make that happen? What stands in his or her way?

Allow yourself to move fluidly in and out of prose, outlining, journaling, and deep exposition. Set your intention to answer the questions in a way that provides clear direction before returning to your story.

Focus on Scene Beats

Scene beats are a classic tool of screenwriters to create micro-tensions that keeps a story moving and the viewer engaged. And they’re incredibly useful for moving through a lull in your novel.

On a basic level, these ebbs and flows of tension are composed of:

  • Action: what happens?
  • Reaction: what happens in response to the first action?
  • Hook: based on this volley of action/reaction what’s next? How does this scene conclude in a way that keeps the story moving, the character charging, the tension and stakes increasing?

Write a beat map sticking to the above elements. See if it doesn’t cause you to dive deeper into questions of GMC.

Change the Point of View (POV)

You may find, while writing the middle of a novel, the character you’re writing is dominating the story. If this has depressed your ability to advance the story, consider switching to another, secondary character’s POV. This may help you consider the GMC, setting, and plot from a different angle, and give you a more richly realized primary character. And even if you’re constructing your story from a singular point of view, changing it as a quick exercise can help you realize opportunities you may have missed for your primary character.

As long as we’re using Pixar storytelling examples, Finding Dory is useful to analyze for Dory’s unique perspective on not only the summarized events of Finding Nemo, but of her place in her group and family’s larger worlds. Dory shows how, faced with similar problems, her unique method of overcoming obstacles and focusing on motivation differs vastly from Marlin and Nemo’s.

Call a Friend

Writing can be an isolated endeavor. NaNoWriMo is not. It inserts community and accountability into the process. Use those rich facts of the experience to keep moving when you feel stuck. Join a local NaNoWriMo community writing group, start a group word sprint, or go to a local Shut Up & Write session. In fact, one might argue NaNoWriMo’s magic is deeply rooted in its ample resources and groups of other motivated writers who are more than happy to help give you the inspiration and encouragement you need to keep moving.

This is the point, fellow writers, when the reality of the marathon that is writing the middle of a novel sets in (NaNoWriMo or otherwise) do not allow fear of those many miles left ahead to force you into that gentle goodnight! Onward!

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Improve your writing via a retrospective

2 Comments

  1. M. McLeary-Graham

    I’m in that slump right now. Thanks for the tips.

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