Navigating the Mushy Middle

A story idea strikes. The words pour forth. It’s brilliant. Then, usually around the middle, you stall. The words stop coming. Your muse has broken up with you! You don’t know where to take your characters next. Maybe you’ve realized the story isn’t as interesting or doesn’t make as much sense as you thought. Maybe you’re just sick of the story. You may have heard this phenomenon referred to as the “mushy middle.”


Mushy middles are a perennial problem. Your instinct may be to abandon the story altogether. Before you cast your current story aside, consider some of the following methods for luring your muse back to your side.


Just sit down and write. If you are like me, you hit the mushy middle and you stop writing and start waiting for inspiration to strike again. Don’t wait, write! It doesn’t have to be good, it might be downright ugly, but write something. Write about what you did today or what you want to do tomorrow. Write about your dream vacation. Rewrite something you’ve already written using a different POV character or with a change to the setting. Writing begets writing, even when you are writing something unrelated to your current work in progress. Maybe you’ll shake loose a brilliant idea while rewriting your favorite chocolate cake recipe.


Take a break. OK, I know I just said to sit down and write, but sometimes your body and brain just need a rest. You might find it helpful to put your current work in progress aside and start something new (or return to the last thing you set aside). Or you may need to take some time off from writing altogether. Take a weekend, longer if need be. Get outside, see a movie, call a friend just to chat (I’m talking to you, my fellow introverts). Give your characters time to figure out what they want to do next and they just might come back to you raring to go.


Change something. I know you love what you have already written. It is sheer brilliance and it works! Well, you’re stuck—so maybe not. Try changing something. Kill a different character, make a different character the killer, change the method of murder, or make an attempt on a different character’s life. (I’m not a sociopath, just a mystery writer.) The same concepts work regardless of the genre. If you write romance, you can introduce an unexpected love interest or have the current love interest do something that jeopardizes the relationship. Changing some aspect of what you’ve already written may open up new possibilities and get you out of that rut.


Skip around. You can’t see the next scene clearly but you know how your protagonist is going to discover the killer, so write that scene. Who said your manuscript has to be written in a certain order. Write the scenes you can see clearly in your mind’s eye and come back to the scenes that are more elusive.


Read. When I get really involved in a new writing project a lot of other things fall to the wayside, including reading. But reading has been one of the most reliable ways that I’ve found to get past a particularly difficult point in a work in progress. You could choose to read something that is similar to what you are writing, analyzing it to see how the author achieved the elements you are struggling with. But I’ve found that reading for pleasure is the best way to move my own writing out of the mushy middle. Losing yourself in a really good book helps get your own creative juices flowing again. Don’t limit yourself. Look to genres outside of the genre you are writing in. Inspiration can be found in unlikely places.


Hopefully, one of the suggestions discussed in this article may work for you. Or maybe you need to combine suggestions to get motivated again. It is also possible something entirely different will get you going. These are just a few of the innumerable ways to get your story back on track. The important thing is to just keep writing! There may be a wonderful story under all that mush.


First published in theFirst Draft Newsletter, July 2018