NaNoWriMo and the Mushy Middle

It’s now about halfway through NaNo, give or take a few days. I won’t talk about how many words should or shouldn’t have been written by now. Honestly it doesn’t matter – as long as you’ve learned something new by this point in the month, that’s really the only thing that matters.

This is the part that often trips up NaNo writers. The rush at the beginning has died down. Characters have been introduced, the plot is rolling.

I don’t know about you folks, but this is about the time where my brain comes up with a big ol’ “Where on Earth is this going now??”

There is definitely something about the middle of stories, in between the big setpiece scenes, that’s hard to think of content for. Especially when you’re attempting to get a large amount of words written very quickly and you don’t really have time to let each scene sink in between your writing sessions.

If the number of articles about how to avoid a ‘mushy middle’ and complaints on the Internet about the middle being the hardest to write, I’m going to hazard a guess that I’m not alone in this.

Now, my advice is going to tend towards lengthening a story. I tend not to have too much trouble with rambling on in the middle – my problems tend much more towards lack of scenes than too many of them. I’ll try and keep these general, but that’s the view I’m writing from.

(Please note I make no mention of my scenes going on too long – my characters rambling and bantering with each other for far too long before getting to the point of a scene is an ongoing problem and you should all be very glad I do a lot of editing before I put content out for other people to read).

So. The middle of the story is stuck and you have no clue what to do next.

In my opinion, the first thing to do would always be to decide what the characters would do immediately next. Yes, you need to make sure they stay on their paths, but they also need to have freedom to change the plot if need be. Let them do their thing for a few scenes, and see what comes of it.

But I’m going to go ahead and say that if you’re truly stuck, you’ve probably already tried this, and it’s not yielding results, either.

One of the feelings I absolutely hate is to get to the end of a writing session and feel like I’ve done a very good job, only to get back to the computer next day and feel like I have to start entirely again in terms of motivation. I’ve started keeping what I call a “next-five” list. That is, a list of the next five scenes I need to write. Sometimes I go a little further, but I like to make sure that I always have at least five. This way, I always have a prompt to help me start writing for the next day, while I have ideas fresh in my mind.

I’ve heard good things about writing a list of things that wouldn’t happen next, and why they wouldn’t happen next. I’ve never found it particularly useful, but if it helps you, then that’s good.

I find it’s more helpful to me to have a list of things that need to happen in order for the next setpiece to take place. Do two characters need to get into an argument? Then at least one of them probably needs to be getting frustrated with the other. All the things that they’re arguing about need to have already happened in the story. It may be that I need to do some work to develop the characters to the point where they would actually argue with each other, rather than try to talk to each other, or being passive-aggressive to each other, or something like that. That can be a good place to start fabricating scenes. Taking the example of making two characters frustrated with each other, can I add a scene in, using the pieces I already have set up, that will increase that frustration without advancing the main plot? Or has something already happened between them that I can use as the subject of an introspective scene?

(note: It’s also important to consider whether you can add a couple of lines of dialogue to an earlier scene to add in some of that buildup. I know it’s not as attractive a tactic during NaNo, but it a) might lead to some other scenes springing up and b) might save you working on an entire scene only to cut it out later, which, in my opinion, is much better than adding the extra 500 words to a NaNo wordcount.)

Remember to consider what side characters would be doing as well. When you’re writing, especially if you’re mostly writing from one POV, it can be easy to concentrate on what that character is doing next, instead of asking what other characters can be doing to drive the plot as well.

Finally, if you’re still having trouble, try bringing a plot point forward. I find it usually serves the story a lot better than the “just blow something up/introduce ANOTHER complication!” advice, and it produces much the same effect as watching the character scramble for something they weren’t prepared for.

Best of all, you won’t have to completely ditch the scenes in editing (even if you go back to the original order in the end, you still have useable word content).

Best of luck with the rest of the month! Hope everyone is still going strong and having fun!

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