We all have those periods as writers-whether we are novices or well-practiced in the craft-when we face that point in our story and can’t seem to figure out where to go from there. We stare at a blank page for hours, we go back and read through what we already have, we go away and come back again, and still nothing.
We get officially hit with writer’s block. And that period can come with a vengeance. This is one of the most frustrating moments in the life of the writer.
So what can we do when this happens to us? Author Larry Brooks offers some helpful tips in his article, “Stuck in the Middle.”
(Unless otherwise indicated, all quotes are from Larry Brooks’s article as featured in the 2015 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market. See reference citation below.)
“A mid-draft slump is a symptom,” he writes, “which calls for a diagnosis before you can effectively treat it. Believing you can write your way out of this mess, that you can rescue the middle with a strong closing act, is a seductive trap, because your reader may never make it that far. When that reader is an agent or an editor, this assumption becomes a fatal one (original emphasis).” 1
He continues, “there are four common maladies that can result in a miserable middle. While you may find overlap in terms of these symptoms, sometimes all it takes is some simple care administered to any one to get your story ticking again.” 1
The four maladies he describes are as follows: 1) a dramatically weak premise, 2) an unclear or drawn-out core story, 3) a poorly-placed first plot point, and 4) a shift in protagonist priorities, mission, focus, and decisions/actions because of the implications of a first plot point change. 1
DRAMATICALLY WEAK PREMISE
If your premise isn’t being naturally driven forward after a certain point (i.e. the middle), then it may be lacking in more than one area. Premises are one of the most important (if not the most important) aspects of your story. They set the stage for the conflict and development of the characters you want your readers to get attached to. They draw on people’s natural sense of curiosity to see how your story will develop into something fresh and different from everything they’ve read before. That being said, your premise has to have a number of “dimensions,” so to speak.
“Premises grounded in rich or thematic settings can lead to wonderful stories,” Brooks writes. “The problem comes when the setting becomes the story…rather than the context for a dramatic arc set within it. If your narrative is composed primarily of a series of moments and happenings showcasing place, time, setting, culture, politics, or a specific chapter in history, then your middle pages may already be asleep as a result (original emphasis).” 1
Your premise should be able to move without relying on setting or something that is supposed to function independently from it.
Another issue can arise when your readers can’t get attached to your hero because your premise is lacking. If your hero is strong but your premise is weak, then your story needs some work.
“The role of a premise is to give the hero something to do rather than something to exist within, and good ones always ask the reader to care about the hero rather than just his surroundings or the issues he’s facing (original emphasis).” 1
Conflict is crucial. Strong heroes and heroines are a given. BUT A SOLID PREMISE IS IMPORTANT FOR THE INTERACTION OF THESE ELEMENTS AND MORE.
“When a story comes off as more diary-like than dramatic, when the narrative reads like a series of one-act plays rather than a larger, singular dramatic arc, the middle takes the hit.” 1
And guess who suffers the most when that happens? Your readers, because they can only take what you give them.
UNCLEAR OR DRAWN-OUT CORE STORY
Your story should flow from one main plot line, even if you have several sub-plots threaded together in your work.
Brooks writes, “A workable premise almost always poses a compelling dramatic question that entices readers to stick around and see what happens. It keeps readers reading because there is something at stake, something you’ve made them care about. The dramatic question is the dramatization of the core story you are telling (original emphasis).” 1
Brooks informs us of a clear distinction between the dramatic question of your story and its premise. The premise is what your story is about. The dramatic question is an element that comes from your story. 1 For example, if you are writing a suspense, then your premise might be a single mom being the witness to a terrible crime and having to be put in the witness protection program with her young daughter. Your dramatic question would then be something like this: Will they be safe in the program, or will the criminal find them and kill them before the mother can testify against him?
The next hurdle is making your dramatic question one that will want to keep your readers reading to see how your story ends. Brooks states, “Causing your reader to care will be in the opening chapters, where you set up the premise, but you take it to another level when the hero is put under pressure or threat, which is the job of your middle chapters.” 1
If you’re at mid-point with your story, have you done that yet? If not, your story will need some revising.
After you’ve accomplished these points, you need to consider what resolution you will have for the dramatic question you’ve set up. Be realistic, but don’t be too predictable and/or boring. Your readers won’t want to stick around for a disappointing ending like that.
POORLY PLACED FIRST PLOT POINT
Brooks writes, “Defining a conceptually rich premise and then executing it are as different as taking a picture of a house and actually building one. Even if your core story is solid, how and where you launch it-story structure-is what defines the efficacy of your middle (original emphasis).” 1
Your middle point is your climax. Your climax is built upon your overall premise. Your premise begins with your first plot point. Therefore, if your first plot point is weak, then your premise more or less will be weak, so when you reach your climax (a.k.a. the middle) then it may fall flat and you won’t know where to go or how to fix it from there.
“Mess this up, ignite this in the wrong place or leapfrog it entirely, and your middle will instantly be in trouble. Because your middle is entirely about the core story itself (original emphasis).” 1
The first plot point compels your main protagonist(s) to reaction and action. Readers feel the sense of urgency for he/she/they to do something based on the problem(s) at hand.
“Your First Plot Point commences the whole of the middle arc of your story, a full 50 percent of the total, give or take.” 1
That being said, your first plot point should take place less towards the beginning and more towards the middle.
SHIFT IN PROTAGONIST MISSION AND OTHER ELEMENTS DUE TO FIRST PLOT POINT IMPLICATIONS
“An effective middle depends so heavily on a viable, potent, and clear First Plot Point because it defines what the middle is about: your hero’s response to the newly minted quest (original emphasis).” 1
As your story progresses, so should your protagonist(s). They need to move from reacting to the problem to directly addressing it and trying to come up with a solution based off of information offered in the middle. 1 Your hero needs to “[turn] a corner from responder to warrior (proactive and bold…”
“Change is the name of the game in the core of your story: from setup to hero as responder, from responder to warrior, and then, in the final quarter, from warrior to heroic problem-solver. Which won’t work unless those middle chapters are solid.”
Excite, embolden, enhance. Drive the story forward and make it memorable.
Embrace your writer’s side, and let the words of your imagination run free.
- Brooks, Larry (n.d.) Stuck in the Middle. In Rachel Randall (Ed.) 2015 Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market (pages 30-35). Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2014.