You’re sailing along in your work-in-progress, excited by the story you’re telling and the characters you’re creating. You’ve written tens of thousands of words, and your fingers itch to type “The End.”
Then inspiration flutters away. Your tempo changes from allegretto to largo. You struggle to finish a paragraph and can’t get anywhere near your minimum daily quota of five pages, which you used to easily surpass.
Most authors complain of experiencing some form of writer’s block when they reach the middle of a novel. In the beginning of a story, you’re absorbed in introducing your characters to readers. The plot is new and full of discovery.
But in the middle the freshness has faded, and the events that need to happen feel boring, like an assignment rather than compelling storytelling. Character X has to travel from Point A to Point B. Character Y has to sort through clues methodically. You can hardly make your prose speak, let alone sing, as you slog toward the thrills that come later.
So, my first suggestion for maintaining your momentum and interest in the story is: don’t wait.
1. Jump Ahead
Write the denouement, confrontation, happily-ever-after, or whodunnit conclusion. It doesn’t need to be perfect—or even the scene you include in the book. Just get it out of your system so you can shush that inner child who’s begging to run to the party.
This method can uncover problems that were subconsciously obstructing you. For example, with my historical mystery, Death Is the Cool Night, I wanted the reveal of the culprit to occur backstage during the opera Carmen. I yearned to write that scene. I could see and hear it so vividly that it was distracting me.
So I yielded to the urge. My first shock—I discovered that preventing the scene from straining credulity was trickier than I’d imagined. Equally important, however, was the revelation that I needed to further develop the culprit’s motivation for the ending to be plausible. I kept that in mind as I backtracked.
But what if you do this and you’re still stuck? What if the plot hole you find baffles you into silence? If so, look to the cast of your story.
2. Become Your Characters
I think most successful stories grow from the characters. Their beliefs, personalities, flaws, and virtues influence their actions. When the plot stalls, perhaps the character’s next move contradicts who he is (as you’ve drawn him). If you understand your characters, you’ll be better equipped to guide them through the story.
In “Use Details to Create Realistic Characters,” Kim Vandel mentioned that some writers fill out questionnaires. This is a useful technique, and I recommend going even deeper. Interview your characters. Out loud. Preferably in an empty house or car.
Start anywhere. Describe how a character is feeling now, what he’s angry or happy about, his reaction to a plot twist, or how he views another character. Seal yourself inside his skin. If he has an accent, imitate it. If he’s taciturn and gruff, talk like that. You may be surprised at the quirks this exercise brings to light.
Many writers pen characters who contain elements of themselves. Distancing yourself from a character can be difficult, so you might not immediately recognize her faults. Or maybe you’ve become so sympathetic to her that you can’t picture her doing or feeling anything that isn’t saintly.
This happened to me when I was writing Fall from Grace, a novel about a husband’s public adultery and its impact on his family. I’d envisioned his wife being broken but ultimately forgiving. Only after writer’s block afflicted me and I applied the above technique did I realize she was simmering with resentment that couldn’t be quickly cooled. She ends up charting a course as family breadwinner (instead of meek homemaker) and even contemplates divorce. I’d been avoiding these outcomes because I wanted her faith to carry her through the domestic turmoil unscathed. Her faith was present, but she needed to walk a different path than I’d first scripted for her.
Conquering the Real Problem
I hope these two simple tactics help you when you’re trapped in the middle. But I’d summarize them with a phrase we often try to encourage ourselves with: don’t be afraid. Leap to the ending. Let your characters take you in directions you didn’t expect when you started putting ink jet to paper. If you do, both you and readers will enjoy the ride.
Libby Sternberg is a novelist, an Edgar finalist, whose romantic comedy Fire Me! was bought for film. She writes in several genres, including romance, historical fiction, women’s fiction, and mystery. One of her recent novels, In Sickness and in Health, explores how finding faith brings a couple back together.
So, I’m not the only one who talks to my characters? Talks like my characters, play my characters…? That’s a big relief. Good advice though, thanks!
No, you’re not alone! LOL! I often talk like my characters while driving alone. Except at red lights. And stop signs. When there are other cars around!
You’re definitely not alone. I act stuff out as my characters alllll the time. Talk to them, too.
Oh, I should note that my bio mentions my book “In Sickness and in Health.” I wrote that as Libby Malin, not Libby Sternberg. Maybe one day I’ll pen an article on whether it’s a good idea to use more than one pen name!
This was a great article, Libby! I especially liked what you had to say about jumping ahead–that tactic has always helped me in my own writing. Don’t know what I ever did without it!
Thank you so much for the article, Libby!
It’s super helpful!
Wow, amazing tips! I really, really need to improve my pace. It’s starting to drag badly.