How to Write a Good Story: Push Through the Muddy Middle

All aspiring writers want to know how to write a good story. Here’s a misstep that I often catch in manuscripts — simply put, it’s stalling in the good ol’ Muddy Middle.

how to write a good story, muddy middle
Nobody needs to read about your protagonist doing their laundry. Get to the stuff that matters in terms of their ultimate objective.

As savvy writers, you already know that you need to give your character an objective (something to shoot for over the course of the story) and a motivation (a personal and relatable reason for doing so). If you’ve done this, you are well on your way to having the two main tools of character and plot installed in your story already. Bravo! (Want more advice on what makes a good novel?)

How to Write a Good Story

Don’t Stray from the Main Objective

But sometimes a strange thing happens. You have the proverbial “To Do” list, but all sorts of smaller errands end up worming their way in place of the main action, which should be pursuing that objective. First, they can’t get the Key until they go talk to Person X, and Person X isn’t home, so they have to rough up Person Y for details on Person X’s whereabouts, and when they finally get to Person X, they’re not talking…all for the Key, which turns out to be a very small part of the overall objective. This is not how to write a good story.

By giving your character objective and motivation in the first place, whether you know it or not, you’re promising to the reader, “Hey, you get to watch this protagonist do this stuff in the interest of pursuing his ultimate goal.” Every time we deviate from that, it better be for a good reason. In the above example about Keys and Person Xs, you should be able to see how a deviation can spin out of control into its own mini plotline. But if we zoom back out and look at the grand scheme of things, the Key ends up useless and we never see Person X again.

So are you writing subplots that are valuable components of your story, or are you stalling where you really should be working toward the main objective? (Check out this post on character development.) The more tedious the digression, the more the reader feels further from the “To Do” list, and the more they may feel jerked around. In an, “I thought this was going to be a story about dragons but now I feel like I’m picking up the protagonist’s dry cleaning for 50 pages” sort of way.

Why Do Writers Get Sidetracked?

Why does this happen? Writers sometimes have a hard time seeing the big picture of their story. Or they just love a scene or character (maybe even Person X) so much that they don’t want to do the cutting that honestly could be done.

Or the writer is terrified of the Muddy Middle phenomenon where the midsection of the story seems like it’s unraveling or rambling without direction. So they insert a lot of “stuff” into the middle in the hopes that this is how to write a good story. “What do you mean, I have a Muddy Middle?” they ask. “Look at all this STUFF that’s happening!”

Always Keep the Bull’s Eye in Sight

But stuff isn’t the same as action which furthers the plot. That’s another way of saying action that brings the character either closer or further away from their objective, while impacting that “To Do” list along the way. This is the bull’s eye. And when we don’t see the bull’s eye any more, because we’ve taken a detour somewhere to pick up some dry cleaning, your stakes will likely dip and your pacing is going to be affected.

If you’re struggling with a plot that stalls out, set your protagonist out in the pursuit of the objective and don’t waver from this path for too long with things that don’t DIRECTLY impact the outcome. Then you’ll be on the right track in terms of how to write a good story.

Hire me as your freelance book editor and I’ll help you work through the muddy middle of your story.

4 Replies to “How to Write a Good Story: Push Through the Muddy Middle”

  1. Christina C. says:

    Would it be okay to use that key detour if it reveals useful information that will impact later on, even if it’s not apparent at the time?

    Lots of great reminders for us!! Thank you 🙂

  2. I’ve never forgotten this advice, only the person who gave it. “Make your character want something right away, even it’s only a glass of water.”

    Thanks for the post today.

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