Sunday, February 10, 2013

Getting Stuck with a Sagging Middle – by Wendy Nelson Tokunaga

In the novel writing workshop I’m teaching this quarter, we’ve been focusing on the middle of novels. This is the place where a lot of writers get stuck. It’s pretty straightforward why we write the opening and climax of a novel, but the middle? How are we supposed to fill such a huge void?

I’m using a terrific book as the text for this course: Beginnings, Middles & Ends by Nancy Kress, which is great for novelists (and short story writers, too) at all levels. Even the most experienced writers can get stuck in the middle of their novel-in-progress (Yes, says this author, raising her hand), and reading or re-reading a practical craft book can often work as a nice reminder and give a needed kick in the butt.

Kress points out that there are several common reasons for getting stuck in the middle. Here are some examples:

Fear of Failing: This happens when a writer compares herself too much to other writers. Novels become half-finished and the writer runs out of steam because she’ll never be as good as _________ (fill in the blank). I remember being in a short story writing class years ago when a fellow student announced to me that she had just read Ethan Canin’s short story collection. “That’s it,” she said. “I give up. I’ll never write as well as him.” I’ve found it’s much better to try and be inspired by another writer rather than intimidated. Otherwise this can become a recipe for paralysis.

Fear of Being Successful: This also can result in the writer not finishing her novel and stopping in the middle. The line of thinking goes something like, “What happens if I finish this book? Then I’ll have to start another one and I don’t have any good ideas. And then I won’t be a real writer anymore and I’ll lose my identity. . .etc., etc.” So the writer keeps polishing and revising and can safely say that she’s working on the book, but becomes bogged down with “The Curse of the Novel that Wouldn’t End.”

Fear of Not Knowing What Happens Next: Bingo! This is the one I’m grappling with right now in my novel-in-progress. Kress calls this “literary fogginess,” which is often the result of not having worked out the complete plot of the story beforehand (or perhaps realizing the original plot won’t quite work) and hoping to discover what happens from simply diving in and writing.

I’ve taken Kress’ advice and started writing extensive notes as to what my characters want and whether there are things I’ve overlooked. I’m also working on other directions for them to take (even wild ones) that will hopefully excite me so I can get back on track. I’m making progress and am convinced that I will turn my stuck, sagging middle into something tight and taut, provided I do enough sit-ups!

How about you? What do you do if you’re stuck in the middle of your novel or story? Any craft books you recommend that can help come to the rescue?

Wendy Nelson Tokunaga is the author of the novels, "Midori by Moonlight" and "Love in Translation" (both published by St. Martin's Press), and the e-book novels, "Falling Uphill" and "His Wife and Daughters," and e-book short story, “The Girl in the Tapestry.” She's also the author of the nonfiction e-book, "Marriage in Translation: Foreign Wife, Japanese Husband." Her short story "Love Right on the Yesterday" appears in the anthology "Tomo," published by Stone Bridge Press, and her essay "Burning Up" is included in "Madonna and Me: Women Writers on the Queen of Pop." Wendy holds an MFA in Creative Writing from University of San Francisco and teaches for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio Novel Certificate Program. She also does private manuscript consulting for novels and memoirs. Follow her on Twitter at @Wendy_Tokunaga, friend her on Facebook and visit her website at:


  1. I been stuck in the middle of my manuscriptfor about,It's going on three yrs,now.some of the things you posted hits home with me.I often compare my unfinished manuscript to these publish authors.Also often question myself when I'm finished the manuscript,what's gonna happened next.I mean I got start on some others it's just this one I have a lot more written in than the other ones.Another thing is the editing part of it,and it felt like when I got to the middle I was getting off of what I was truly writing about if that make any sense.
    I mean I have this intrguing character who's a little bit off the deep end,and as I come to the middle of the manusript,and it seems the character became a little soft.
    If you were to read some of my manuscript some of it is very intense,and it kept you wondering a bit.....but then it just kind of stalled a bit,in which been two going three yrs.Sorry for loading this on you ,but your post hits home on me and my quest to have this manuscript become a book.Nice and helpful post by the way, you definitely to me, put things in perspective.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I wish you good luck with your ms and am glad the post could be of help. I hope you'll understand how common this is and pull through!

  2. I've found that focusing on the midpoint really helps with the middle. It focuses the second act and helps you to figure out where you should be going.

  3. I'm stuck! I've been trying to revise my manuscript after getting rejections that said that the beginning was fabulous but the rest was confusing. What's wrong with it? I think the ending is fine, too, so that leaves the middle that needs work. Maybe I should get that book - might be just the insight I need.

  4. What a great post. When I'm stuck I usually turn to some kind of screenwriting structure book. Christopher Vogel's is a good one or John Truby.

  5. I hear ya, Kathy! Yeah, you might want to check out that book. Good luck!

  6. Sagging middles--love it. I'm off to find Nancy's book!