Posted On November 15, 2017 by Print This Post

Maddening Middles and the #NaNoWriMo Midmonth Slump by Kris Bock

You’ve reached the middle of your story and you’re out of ideas, so what’s next? RU Contributor Kris Bock offers advice on tackling the troublesome mid-point of your manuscript.

If you are doing NaNoWriMo, you should be about halfway through your 50,000 words. (No judgment if you’re not there. National Novel Writing Month can be a great way to motivate yourself, but whether you “win” or “lose” is less important than whether you are satisfied with your writing progress.)

Middles can be a special challenge for many people. We hear of sagging middles, where the tension fades. Or muddled middles, where the plot goes off on tangents or subplots take over, leading to confusion. How do you make sure your middle is as strong as your exciting beginning and your dramatic ending?

The middle of the story is where the complications happen. Your main character tries to solve her problem or reach her goal. But of course it isn’t easy for her. She probably fails a few times, and the situation gets worse, perhaps due to her own actions.

In a sense, this is pretty straightforward. But it doesn’t always feel that way when you’re writing! Maybe you can’t figure out what happens next. Or maybe you’re afraid you don’t have enough material for a novel. Here are some tips that might inspire you.

Add Plot

Sometimes a single idea isn’t enough to support an entire novel. You may need to combine two or three different concepts. Or you may need to find a way to make the main idea a greater challenge.

Example: In my treasure hunting romantic adventure, The Mad Monk’s Treasure, Erin and her best friend Camie are searching for a long-lost historical treasure. I could have tried to make that enough of a problem on its own, between the challenges of historical research and the difficult desert setting. But adding a group of villains who are trying to get to the treasure first provides for many possible plot twists. It allowed me to introduce the hero in a dramatic way, when he rescues Erin after she’s run off the road. And it means that the good guys aren’t only facing natural hazards, such as flash floods and rattlesnakes – they also have to outwit and escape the bad guys.

Tip: How easily does your main character solve her problems? Can you make it more difficult, by requiring more steps or adding complications? Can you add complications to your complications, turning small steps into big challenges?

Add Subplot 

If you can’t pack your main plot any fuller, try using subplots to add complexity and length to your manuscript. A subplot can add complications even if it’s only loosely related to your main plot. You can also think about using one or more subplots to bring out your theme. A subplot can show the other side of the story, or delve into thematic ideas more deeply. If your main plot has your main character learning to be honest in order to develop a strong romantic relationship, a subplot might show her friend lying to win a guy, and then losing him.

Example: In my romantic mystery What We Found, 22-year-old Audra finds a dead body in the woods. Of course there’s a love interest – the brother of the murdered woman – and Audra’s 12-year-old brother thinks they should solve the murder themselves. Meanwhile, Audra’s difficult mother has a bad opinion about men in general, and one of the murder suspects had been accused of abusing the victim. These subplots help with character development and plot twists, and some of them address the romantic themes.

Tip: Can you add or expand a subplot to develop your theme? To find subplots, consider showing other aspects of your message.

Use Secondary Characters 

Parents who want the heroine to marry the wrong man, a boss who makes unreasonable demands at work, a relative who needs special care, friends in trouble – secondary characters can provide complications for the main plot or for subplots. Supporting characters don’t have to be mean, or want to cause harm. They might simply have goals that conflict with the main character’s goals.

Example: In the humorous YA romance Plumb Crazy, by Cece Barlow, the main character Elva takes a grueling summer job as a plumbing assistant so she can buy a laptop and pursue her writing dreams. It takes all she has to stay at the job for the whole summer. At the same time, Elva has two close friends, who have their own challenges with summer jobs and romance, and the three girls find their longtime friendship strained by their different goals and choices.

Tip: Look at your supporting characters one at a time. Could you use them more? How could they add more trouble for your main character? Could adding additional minor characters make the plot more complex?

Use Your Villain

Your villain’s role is to make your hero’s life difficult, right? Yet sometimes a villain sets trouble in motion and then disappears, twiddling his thumbs offstage while you focus on the hero’s actions.

If your story action is sagging or you can’t figure out what happens next, check in with your villain. Get him actively trying to thwart your hero, plotting new complications and distractions. By keeping your villain active, you’ll keep your story moving.

Of course, not every book has an actual villain in the “evil genius trying to take over the world” sense. But even if you don’t have a major villain, a minor one can cause trouble, either in the main plot or as a subplot. Your villain might be a bully, a competitor, a nasty coworker, a difficult sibling, or a manipulative “friend.” Whatever the villain is, his job is to make your hero’s life miserable.

Example: In my children’s Egyptian mystery, The Eyes of Pharaoh (written as Chris Eboch), I got to a point where I couldn’t figure out what should happen next. The heroine had tried everything I could think of to find her friend, and she’d failed. Then I realized the villain knew about her attempt to expose him, so he’d be actively plotting against her. He drove the action in the next few chapters, setting up the main character’s darkest moments.

Tip: Consider your work in progress. Do you have a major villain? If so, is the villain as active as possible, aggressively trying to stop, hurt, or kill your hero?

Do you have secondary characters with villainous tendencies? Can you enhance these, so they cause even more trouble? If you have no villain at all, consider adding one.

Use Setting 

Set your book someplace specific, where the setting has the potential to affect the plot. Then remember to use that setting!

Example: My romantic suspense Whispers in the Dark is set at an ancient Puebloan ruins site, based on Hovenweep National Monument. The site has a visitors’ center and campground, but is otherwise quite remote, with ruins scattered along the cliffs of a canyon. Clearly this provides for lots of dramatic scenery, as well as exciting action scenes (trying to escape the villain in the canyon at night) and complications such as the challenge of getting help quickly. This is an extreme example, because the story wouldn’t exist without the setting. But even a contemporary romantic comedy set in the city could be set in a specific city, drawing on local landmarks and challenges such as transportation failures or difficult weather.

Tip: Look for ways to use your setting to add complications. What if the weather changed? What if they went somewhere without cell phone reception? What if they had to pass through a bad neighborhood or sneak through a rich gated community with a guard? If your setting could be Anywhere, USA, charge it up for dramatic value.

Try these tips if you’re having trouble making your manuscript long enough, or if you are concerned about a sagging middle. For more plotting tips, check out my book Advanced Plotting.

Do you find anything especially challenging about middles? If you are doing NaNoWriMo, how is it going?



Bio: Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance with outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. The Mad Monk’s Treasure, “Smart romance with an ‘Indiana Jones’ feel,” is currently free at all e-book retailers. Whispers in the Dark features archaeology and intrigue among ancient Southwest ruins. What We Found is a mystery with strong romantic elements about a young woman who finds a murder victim in the woods. In Counterfeits, stolen Rembrandt paintings bring danger to a small New Mexico town. Read excerpts at or visit her Amazon pageSign up for the Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.

Kris writes for children under the name Chris Eboch. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots. Learn more at her website or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.

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One Response to “Maddening Middles and the #NaNoWriMo Midmonth Slump by Kris Bock”

  1. Hi Kris,

    By the time I get to the middle of the story, the doubt starts to set in. Is the plot viable? Are my characters believable? Would anyone really want to read this dreck? For me, it helps to know how the story ends.

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | November 15, 2017, 3:01 pm

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