Marshes, Monsters and Mud: Writing the Middle of Your Story

There is a stretch of chapters in every novel that is affectionately nicknamed the “Murky Middle."

The Murky Middle is so named because, as an author, you’re wading through a proverbial slough with no end in sight, slushing your legs through knee-deep slime and mud. This is the part of your story where you forget why your hero is the hero, why the villain is the villain, and generally feel like the whole story is grinding to a halt.


So what's an author to do?

My current novel is at that halfway point. The same story that gushed onto the page a couple chapters ago is now shoving back against me. I’m having doubts about the plot, the main character, and the whole perspective I’m writing from. When I sit down to write, it’s like yanking my feet from the grasping suction of quicksand.

Whew.

So what’s the solution? How do you survive?

Well, the thing about swamps is that if you keep walking in a straight line, eventually you’ll make it to the other shore. The main trick is to never turn around, but keep plodding forward in the same direction you started in. Because if you keep making course changes as you go, you will tramp around in circles and never escape.

And the same goes for writing. The Murky Middle is NOT the time to rethink the novel, rewrite the outline or throw away a few chapters. Let me repeat: Do NOT re-haul the story line!

Major novel revisions should only be made at the beginning and the end … never in the middle!

Why?

Because you can’t trust yourself in the Murky Middle. A swamp fever known as Self-Doubt Dysentery is common in these waters, and the only way to stay immune from it is pushing forward, never stopping, never pausing. The longer you remain in the Murky Middle, the higher risk you run of catching Self-Doubt.

So write your way through it! Even if you have to write “To Be Determined” at the top of some pages just to get past, it’s better than getting stuck. You can tackle those on the next draft. Certain wildly successful authors admit to doing this themselves—it really does work.

Even if you have to write “To Be Determined” at the top of some pages just to get past, it’s better than getting stuck. You can tackle those on the next draft.

I’ve made it through the middle of a novel several times. Every time I look back at the stuff I wrote in the middle, I realize that it wasn’t as hideous as I imagined. There are usually several major story points that are worth saving.

In the Murky Middle, you may write your best work, even though you didn’t know it at the time. Often, the middle of a story is the best part, even if the author had an awful time writing it.

Think about the moment that Luke Skywalker faces his own weaknesses in The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.” That famous line falls smack dab in the center of the middle movie of the series, and it’s one of the most quotable lines of the trilogy.

The middle of a story can be the best or worst part of a book, depending on how you handle it.

What if you haven’t hit the Murky Middle yet, but you’re getting nervous about when you get there?

It is possible to lay stepping stones across the Murky Middle.

It is possible to lay stepping stones across the Murky Middle.

Many authors are sticklers for plot outlining, and it turns out they have a point. Laying a strong outline before you write your novel is like constructing a bridge across the swamp. It may take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to build, but it will make the middle of your story much easier to write.

James Patterson once said that if you hit a block, it’s because you didn’t do enough research.

So there is hope. The Murky Middle doesn’t have to be that bad if you plan properly.

The Main Takeaway

If you’ve hit the Murky Middle and you haven’t laid enough stones along the way, don’t panic. Just plod through it and you WILL make it to the other side. Remember that you might even write something incredible along the way, regardless of your feelings at the time. And there’s no shame in typing TBD in some spots, because you can fill those in on your next draft.

All right, I have to get back to my own Murky Middle. I’ll see you when we’ve made it to the other side. Maybe we can talk about our near-death experiences of quicksand and swamp creatures over a hot drink and a warm fire ;)

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Joshua Pior

I'm a twenty-something writer of several short stories and (bad) novels, an artist, board game enthusiast, and homeschool grad. God has used stories again and again to impact my life, which first inspired me to become a writer and to help other young adult authors write their best stories yet!

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