Words of Wisdom for the Muddle in the Middle

I haven’t reached the middle yet in Book Drop Dead, the mystery I’m currently drafting, but certainly have experienced the muddle in the middle in the past, just like so many other novelists. Today’s Words of Wisdoms provides advice on juicing up the middle of your novel, from Michelle Gagnon’s tips on surviving the mid point, to PJ Parrish’s using tried and true devices, with Jaws as an example, and Clare Langley Hawthorne’s high-level advice for assessing why you have a muddle and how to fix it.

Oh, the saggy middle. How I loathe it. My writing pace slows. Plot points that seemed brilliant 20,000 words ago are now, clearly, just dead wrong. It sometimes feels like I’ll never pull all the disparate elements together into something coherent that readers will actually pay for. These are the days when I dread opening that .doc file, when I’m tempted to do almost anything else (including laundry and cleaning my oven).

So in lieu of more whining, I’ve come up with some tips for surviving the midpoint (or, really, any writing lows):

  1. Walk away
    This can be accomplished literally: by turning off the computer, heading out the door and walking around the block a few times. Sometimes engaging in real-life activities, like dinner with friends or a movie, actually provides a new perspective on a particularly tricky plot point.
    Or figuratively: closing the manuscript file and starting a new document. Writing a short story, or starting the first chapter of a different book. Sometimes to jar things loose, I’ll embark on a completely different project. Lately during breaks from the manuscript I’ve been working on a screenplay. In some ways that flexes a different part of my brain. Then when I return to the manuscript, the well has been replenished.
  2. Engage in some positive reinforcement
    If I’m really starting to feel as though my writing has taken a nosedive, I dig up some of my earlier work and re-read the stronger passages. Reminding myself that once upon a time I managed to write intelligible sentences is always heartening. It also helps me remember that I’ve been in this position before, and in the end I managed to finish the book, more or less on time.
  3. Spend some time with a master
    If re-reading my own work isn’t motivating enough, I turn to authors whose writing always blows me away. For instance, I was struggling with a love scene. The prose was painfully purple, the dialogue cliched, I was beyond frustrated with it. So I went back to a bookmarked passage in Tana French’s last book FAITHFUL PLACE, where a love scene was rendered so painfully well, reading it almost felt intrusive and voyeuristic. Seeing how she accomplished that was inspirational.

There’s simply no getting around it: this part of the writing process is always a monotonous, painful slog. It’s like a train inching up a mountain, the going always gets toughest right before hitting the peak, then it’s a race down the other side.

Michelle Gagnon—January 20, 2011


So what can you use if you find yourself bogged down in the middle of your story? There are some nifty tried and true devices and to illustrate them, I’m going to use a movie we all know instead of a book — Jaws. A couple years ago, I got to know Jaws really well when I contributed an essay on the Benchley book to Thrillers: 100 Must Reads, edited by David Morrell. I hadn’t read Jaws since it first came out and when I dissected it for the essay I was surprised at how flabby the book is. (lots of bad subplots about class warfare, mafia kingpins, and a really icky affair between Chief Brody’s wife and  Hooper). But the screenplay — well, it’s one of the best thrillers written, and I’ve used it when I teach workshops on thriller plotting. Jaws uses six devices that keep the middle of the story moving forward:

  • Setbacks
  • Pendulum swings of emotion
  • Raising the stakes
  • Obstacles
  • Rift in the team
  • Isolation of the hero

So let’s go cut open that shark and see how each works…

First, there was that great attention-getting opening scene.

Then we meet the hero, who is a classic dramatic archetype: the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances. Chief Brody is an outsider on the insular little vacation island — and he can’t even swim. In the setup, he is confronted with the problem, and the girl’s death forces him into action.

The SETBACKS keep coming as the victims pile up. And since Jaws is basically a serial killer plot, each new body plunges Brody deeper into despair. But then — TA-DA! — we hit a peak when local fishermen snag a great white and every one is happy.

But then we get A PENDULUM SWING OF EMOTION when Brody’s own son is almost attacked. And another when a dead boy’s mother confronts Brody and castigates him for her son’s death.

Another SETBACK occurs when Hooper tells him the bite radius of the captured shark is off and when they cut open the shark, they don’t find any body parts. Brody gets proactive and moves to close the beaches until they can catch the killer shark. But then he faces a new OBSTACLE.

The Amity mayor who’s hellbent on saving the island’s lucrative July Fourth weekend. Brody’s overruled, the beaches stay open and all Brody can do is sit on the beach and sweat. We get a slight rise in the plot graph when Hooper and Brody go out  on a night hunt (Hooper is a perfect foil character for Brody, there to give him hope and pull him out of the dips). But then they find that dead guy in the submerged boat and things look increasingly grim. Until we get a major up-thrust for Brody. He gets the money to hire a professional shark hunter — Quint.

Our hero has things under control now, right? Not so fast. Quint is a great character, and he represents one of the most effective devices you can use to beef up your middle — THE RIFT IN THE TEAM. As the three men hunt the shark, the escalating tension between them threatens the quest. You see this device used a lot in cop novels — the errant hard-drinking guy bumping heads with his partner. Think of every partner Dirty Harry ever had. Or watch the sparring between Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in HBO’s True Detective. Rifts in the team. Brody is pulled down in another dip as he tries to cope with crazy Quint, who at one point even smashes the boat’s radio.

The plot goes into fever pitch after this, with dips and rises as they chase the shark. The STAKES ARE RAISED as their weapons prove futile, and the boat starts to fall apart and the shark even starts to gnaw on it.

We’re entered the final big trough when Hooper decides the only option left is for him to go down in the shark cage. (STAKES ARE RAISED AGAIN). Hooper disappears, presumed dead. And then we begin the final plunge into the abyss for poor Brody. Quint goes out in a blaze of gory…

And there is our hero, alone on a sinking ship, staring into the maw of death. Which brings us to one of the most effective ways to beef up your plot — ISOLATION OF THE HERO.   Think of Clarise Starling alone in that creepy basement. We’ve use this device often, putting our hero Louis in abandoned asylum tunnels, on frozen ice bridges on Lake Huron, gator-infested Everglades, and yes, on a sinking boat in the Gulf. It gives your hero that final chance to prove himself  — through guts and brains — and triumph over evil. Remember how Brody did it?

Blasted the bad guy to bits. With his final bullet. And he couldn’t even swim. What a guy. What a climax. What a roller coaster ride.

P.J. Parrish—January 28, 2014


For me, the middle is where you really get to complicate and stir things up for your characters. As an outliner, I focus quite a lot on the middle and often find myself graphing out the tension levels in the novel I’m drafting. If I see a flat line in the middle then I know I’m in trouble. But, whether your an outliner or not – what do you do if, after the first draft is complete, you realize that the middle section just isn’t working? Here are some of my ideas:

(1) Reassess the premise of the novel and explore ways in which you can add complexity, drama and tension to this in the middle.

This could involve adding an additional obstacle for the protagonist, introducing a subplot to add more emotional resonance or tension, or it could be introducing an event that raises the stakes for your characters. Sometimes, the reason the middle of a novel is flat is because the author may not have sufficient depth (in either the premise of the book or its execution) and so the middle feels like ‘treading water’ until the resolution/final conflict occurs. Taking a step back and re-examining the premise might help you identify this and come up with some solutions.

(2) Map out the plot and brainstorm ways to raise the stake or add tension.

As an extremely visual person and a strong believer in outlining, I like to try and display the plot in a visual way that helps me identify places where I might need to add scenes that raise the stakes or add tension. I find once I can see the chapters that meander or sag, I can brainstorm ways in which I can alter the plot to add dramatic tension. This could be the place where an unexpected death occurs, a new character walks in to shake things up, or another obstacle is thrown in the protagonist’s way. Whatever you decide, it should all be aimed at keeping the reader turning the pages…

(3) Eliminate the boring bits!

Sometimes the middle gets bogged down with clues or details of an investigation, the mechanics of the plot or the protagonist going through the motions/actions necessary to progress the novel towards its denouement. One thing I like to bear in mind is that readers get bored…so when re-reading a draft I like to identify areas that even I am starting to glaze over. If, as the author, I’m not riveted, then it’s time to ditch those boring bits and think through how to maintain the tension rather than deflate it.

Clare Langley-Hawthorne—July 18, 2016


  1. How do you manage or change your outlook if/when you are stuck in the middle?
  2. Are there any plot devices, twists, etc you reach for when your plot seems to be a muddle?
  3. Do you go up to the 30K foot view when your novel is mired in the muddle? What do you do when you’re there, looking down at the plot? If you’re pantser, do you do something different than this?

20 thoughts on “Words of Wisdom for the Muddle in the Middle

  1. Good post, Dale. After the first draft I like to reverse outline the book to make sure I can identify the goal, obstacle, and outcome (usually a setback) in each scene. If it’s a happy-people-in-a-happy-place scene, then I know it’s boring.

  2. I’m in the midst of revisions of my first ever mystery–pantsed, not plotted, and I must say I find it harder than other genres. I didn’t get stopped in the middle, I plowed through (bull in the china shop style). However, that just means that those plot issues have to be dealt with now. I don’t know how to describe what I mean but it feels like you have a bit more wiggle room with other genres as you work out moving the plot forward, including the sticky middle. Whereas with mystery everything that goes in the story has to be carefully calculated. As a writer this is something that frustrates me about myself–I consider myself detail oriented and methodical in how I approach life, yet it seems all that flies out the window when it comes to my approach to writing. LOL!

    The question for me in my midpoint is that in reading it over, the sleuth got too easily from point C to point D–I don’t back it up well enough in the story (so it’s missing that strong mirror moment JSB has talked about so often). So I’m trying to reverse engineer from the villain’s standpoint. If I find that works for me, on my next mystery I think my experiment will be to briefly outline the next book by reverse engineering from the villain’s standpoint. I certainly hope I will take away some good lessons learned from the first mystery to make the next one just a titch easier to write.

    • Congratulations on being in revisions for your first mystery, B.K.! That’s exciting. I also find writing mysteries challenging, in a good way. I’m an outliner, and spend time plotting each mystery from the murderer’s POV, but the investigation plot has points that are discovery written. Then there’s the pushback from the villain when they realize someone may be on to them, or at the very least, they want to cover their tracks after the fact.

      FWIW, it took me more than two years to figure out how to write a mystery, and then the final version, largely drafted anew, came together in a few months. I’m betting those lessons will serve you well in your next mystery.

    • BK, I do believe the key to a mystery is the “shadow story” of what the villain is doing “off screen.” So knowing fully the villain’s motives and backstory is the key. Erle Stanley Gardner always began his plotting with what he called “the murderer’s ladder,” that is, his motive and means to commit the crime and his initial attempts to keep from being found out. The dropping in of “red herrings” is much easier this way, because you know the villain is planning things behind the scenes, in the shadows…

  3. When I’m stuck, I remind myself it’s my characters’ story, not mine. I read back over the previous few paragraphs, then trust my creative subconscious and Just Write the Next Sentence, then the next and the next. Within four or five sentences, I’m right back in the flow and the story’s flying along again.

    • Your method certainly keeps you moving forward, Harvey, and not getting bogged down in the middle of your story. Finding and honing our individual writing process is one of the keys to succeeding as a writer IMHO, and you’ve done that.

  4. I call the middle the Pit of Despair. I know where I’m going, but there’s no way to get from where I am, to there.
    Hate it.
    What I usually do is call an author buddy, put the dilemma to them, and in 30 seconds, they say, “Oh, then why not…” and the answer is revealed.
    I think it’s just because I’m studying the termites on the trees, and can’t see the forest.
    Thank God for writer friends.

  5. Great selections, Dale. Thanks to Michelle, Kris, and Clare.

    When things start bogging down, like Brenda, I check in with what the villain is doing. In a mystery, where villains are hidden, they are offstage. The reader doesn’t see them but they are still actively plotting against the hero. That usually leads to a setback that surprises the hero (and the reader) who must react while still trying to figure out whodunnit.

    Like Laura, I also rely on writer friends who brainstorm me out of corners or push me to see the situation from a different angle.

    • Thanks, Debbie. We’re blessed by a wealth of insight here at TKZ. Checking in with the villain can really help get things moving–the secret villain hidden in plain sight, what’s not to love, and more importantly, to utilize? 🙂

  6. Thanks, Dale, for a great selection of articles for today’s menu.

    When stuck in the middle, I usually make a list of possible new scenes and start thinking how each possibility will affect the overall plot, tension, etc. Thanks to Debbie and some other bloggers here, I’m trying to think more about the villain’s agenda. With those two ideas, some exercise, or sleep, the best scene usually jumps out as the obvious choice.

    Have a great weekend!

    • You’re welcome, Steve. Brainstorming new scenes is a great way to unstick that middle. I’m a big fan of figuring out the villain’s story and their agenda. Sounds like you have come up with a great approach for finding your next best scene. Have a wonderful weekend.

    • Thanks, Sue. Good point about milestones and pinch points! Hope you are also enjoying your weekend! I’ve gotten some Moon viewing in before dawn the past two days.

  7. Great stuff, Dale. Thanks for doing a deep dive for this wisdom from the past. As I harp on over and over, I never leave TKZ without at least a few excellent tidbits.

    I loved the dissection of Jaws. One of my still-favorite popcorn movies. Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss were excellent, but Robert Shaw stole the movie IMHO.

    Have a great Saturday, all!

  8. Great examples, as always, Dale. I especially liked Kris’s six devices used in Jaws. (I just copied them.)

    I like the idea of dropping an unexpected, shocking event in the middle. As a hybrid plotter/pantser, I find this gives me new ideas on how to continue the story.

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