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Stuck in Sludge: Tackling the Middle of Your Novel

Updated: Jul 14, 2020

Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. We're encouraged to begin in media res, and then slog along, (erm, I mean, build the rising action) until we reach an earth-shattering, inevitable (but not predictable) ending. We work tirelessly to build the narrative spine, sometimes deviating with a flashback or a flash forward, but ultimately, like a carrot dangling in front of a horse (or rabbit), our job is to keep the story moving, and the reader engaged.

In short, stuff's gotta happen.

We must keep the reader interested and, more importantly, convinced.

But, what happens if the story stops? As in, full-on brakes screeching, frozen, characters-are-doing-nothing-except-stewing, sans action, and paralyzed on the page. Full stop.

Ah, yes, welcome to the Sludge--the middle of your novel.

Why do we need a middle again..? Just kidding!

Here are a few things you can do to unfreeze/unstick your story, so that you can rev up the engine again:

1. Re-read the chapter before you became stuck

Revision is a lot like soccer/football sometimes--you may have to go backwards/where you came from, in order to launch the game forward. Identify the last chapter where you feel the momentum clicked along--things were happening, your character had agency, and the story was going places, etc. Sometimes boomeranging a chapter or two can help move things forward again.

2. Music therapy (playlist, anyone)?

Okay, hear me out on this; maybe you listen to music while you write, maybe you don't. If you do, try to remember which song/list of songs you were playing when your manuscript was popping along. For me, I've noticed a correlation between the tempo and rhythm of the music I'm listening to, and the pacing of my novel. The parts where the action snaps along--I was listening to more up-tempo, wordless instrumentals. Maybe there's a correlation there, or maybe not, that ain't my field of expertise. I'm just a writer who notices things, and this is one of them. If you don't listen to music while you write, try to think about the music you listen to in every day life (especially around the time when the manuscript was hopping along). Then? Experiment! Listen to it again as you tackle the Sludge. See if it transports you. p.s. Stay tuned for a post devoted to just this! In the mean time, have a look at this article.

3. Scrap/kill that ending

Maybe you already knew the ending of your novel before you started writing. Maybe on some level, you're trying to fit a square peg (the middle of the story) into a round hole (a fixed ending). What would happen if you just let it go, though? You don't have to kill that darling, btw. Just put it aside, (pretend to be a panster if you're not already one), and open yourself to a new possibility. Doing this could "unstick" you!

They say, the only way out is through. So, what do you do to keep the story moving, reader?



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