Stuck in No-Man’s-Land: Your Novel’s Middle

If you have hit the point in your draft where you’re looking out at the vast landscape of your novel with no idea where to go next, congratulations…you’ve probably made it to Act 2.

I know, I know, there’s an ocean of cracked, barren earth on all sides and you don’t where to go next in the story. It’s not a fun place to be, but at the same time, you’re not the first to arrive in No-Man’s-Land, and you won’t be the last. The middle of a novel can be difficult terrain to navigate if we’ve lost our map (or didn’t have one in the first place…looking at you, my pantsing friends!).

Stories tend to change and evolve, so whether you’ve wandered away from the original outline or you didn’t do much planning to start with, it’s okay. A novel’s middle is a foe all writers must face. So if you feel stuck because your pace and plot are flagging, take a break and do a novel check-in.

By Act 2, you should know your character’s main story goal. (It will look like one of these.) Hopefully you also know WHY they are chasing this goal, and the missing human need causing their internal discomfort.

The Second Act is about challenging your character, forcing them into corners and throwing rocks at them. In fact, this might be familiar:

Act 1: Force the character up a tree
Act 2: Throw rocks at him
Act 3: Get him down again

It’s simplistic, but the second act is all about rocks. We want to cause them pain, push them into the meat grinder. Why? Because challenges and trials will do two important things: 1) force them to prove they really want this goal (through sacrifice) and 2) give them a big, old reality check that this is going to be hard and if they want to win, they’ve got to change.

When it comes to trials or challenges, we want to throw a few things at our character. A good rule is three challenges. Have you written three moments that squeeze your character and force them to struggle? If not, what situations can you write into the story that take them out of their element?

Keep in mind your character will not always be successful when facing these obstacles or adversaries. Failure is part of a character’s journey because when this happens, they realize they need to do something different if they want to achieve their big goal. This epiphany happens at the midpoint of your novel and James Scott Bell has a great name for it: the Mirror Moment. Usually that “something different” involves internal growth where the character must change how they see the world, let go of past hang-ups, and face old fears.

Ideally, challenges will cause your character to doubt themselves and at times fear will rise up, but ultimately their internal reasons for wanting the goal and the stakes push them onward despite danger or hardship. Sometimes though, a character has too much self-doubt or fear. This can also cause a saggy middle, because they stubbornly refuse to act and instead try to run from the obstacles in their path.

Some running is normal, but too much is a death knell because your pacing goes into sloth mode. Because characters often let fear dictate their actions – causing inaction – is such a common problem, we created a tip sheet on applying Pressure Points at One Stop for Writers. PRESSURE is exactly what you need to get your character moving again. Download this Pressure Point Tip Sheet here.

Finally, if your story stalls and you just know it needs…something, try a Plot Push. Plot Pushes add another layer of complication or intrigue to a story, giving it more depth. You can download this Plotting Pushes Tip Sheet here.

The middle is also a good time to examine your subplots and to work on developing the other characters in the story who interact with your protagonist. What makes them tick? What do they want? How are they connected to the protagonist and how do they aid the hero or heroine toward their goal…or stand in their way of it? Find ways to develop these characters and use the subplots to provide those challenges and tests for the protagonist!

I hope these ideas get your brains thrumming. A few more posts to check out:

Saggy Middle: Use Conflict to Nip and Tuck It
Four Ways to Fix a Boring Story
The Dangers of Anecdotal Writing
Beating the 30K Slump
5 NaNoWriMo Hacks to Keep Words Flowing
Fall In Love with Your Second Act

If you’re feeling stuck in the middle, don’t give up. Finish that novel. You’ve got this!


Angela is a writing coach, international speaker, and bestselling author who loves to travel, teach, empower writers, and pay-it-forward. She also is a founder of One Stop For Writers, a portal to powerful, innovative tools to help writers elevate their storytelling.
This entry was posted in Action Scenes, Backstory, Basic Human Needs, Character Arc, Characters, Conflict, Fatal Flaw, Middles, Motivation, One Stop For Writers, Pacing, Plotting, Tension, Tools and Resources, Uncategorized, Writer's Block, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons. Bookmark the permalink.
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[…] in the large craft elements and the structural choices made by the writer. Angela Ackerman explores what to do when you get stuck in your novel’s middle, Lisa Hall-Wilson investigates why bestsellers don’t use deep point of view, and September C. […]