John Cusick: Escaping the Awful Middle and GIVEAWAY

Three Ways to Jumpstart Your Draft When the Plot Starts to Sag

I don’t know about you, but I find it’s much easier to start something than finish it. When I begin a new draft it’s all sunshine and rainbows. The ideas just come unbidden, new characters leap onto the page like circus tumblers, and conflicts pop up unbidden.

Cusick_GirlParts_CoverThen I get about halfway through the story and bam: suddenly the fun’s over. I’m not sure where I’m going or what happens next. Maybe the story has begun to feel stale, or the tensions I’ve created aren’t enough to sustain my interest. The middle is where our author-brains begin to fatigue, and as a result, this is where many of us get stuck.

There are a few remedies, I think, for that middle-of-the-novel slog, tricks for jumpstarting your story when your characters are as lost as you are.

In life, if you’re in a funk, you might need a change of scenery. Chances are your characters feel the same way. Try switching up the setting. Have your detective chase a lead to Beliz, or your hero seek the counsel of a distant oracle. In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, halfway through the novel Elizabeth Bennet leaves home to tour the Derbyshire countryside, a journey which ultimately brings her closer (emotionally and literally) to Mr. Darcy. A new location can keep the story fresh and open up new avenues you’d never have discovered if you’d stayed at home.

Writing Exercise: Drop your hero and a few pals into a new setting. What new conflicts await them there? Does the change of place change the way the hero behaves or thinks?

A change in time can be as effective as a change of location. In John Irving’s The World According to Garp, an early scene features a horrific car crash involving most of the major characters. The reader turns the page and…whoa. We’ve jumped ahead in time and the exact outcome of the crash is unknown (until much later). The leap forward creates a terrific cliffhanger, and pulls the reader deeper into the story. The effect is more compelling and exciting than if we were shown the aftermath of the crash immediately.

Writing Exercise: Explore what your characters are doing a week, a month, or a year from now.

Ever run into an ex at a party? Things can get…interesting. If you’re not sure what happens next in your story, try bringing your whole cast together for a big group scene. Nothing stirs up tensions and conflict like getting a bunch of characters with differing agendas into the same room. Dostoevsky is famous for his large, chaotic dinner scenes. In Crime & Punishment Raskolnikov attends a funeral dinner thrown by Katrina, only to have Sonia, Luzhin, and most of the main characters show up. The result is a disastrous series of arguments that propel the story into its next phase.

Writing Exercise: Write a scene in which all of your characters attend the same party. What goes wrong? Who argues with whom? What secrets are revealed?

Keeping your story feeling fresh and vibrant is as much for your readers’ benefit as it is your own. It’s easy to get bogged down halfway through a draft, with all that writing still left to do and possibly no clear end in sight. Fatigue often means boredom, and if you’re not excited by your story, chances are your readers will be bored too. So shake things up, surprise yourself, and you’ll get through it. I promise.

JCusick_HeadshotJohn MCusick is an agent with Folio Jr. / Folio Literary Management, representing picture books, middle-grade, and young adult novels. He is also the author of GIRL PARTS and CHERRY MONEY BABY (Candlewick Press), as well as a regular speaker at writers conferences. His clients include New York Times Bestselling Author Tommy Wallach (WE ALL LOOKED UP, Simon & Schuster), Courtney Alameda (SHUTTER, Feiwel & Friends) and Hannah Moskowitz (A HISTORY OF GLITTER AND BLOOD, Chronicle Books) You can find him online at and on Twitter @johnmcusick.

John is giving away signed copies of GIRL PARTS and CHERRY MONEY BABY. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of John’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.


122 comments on “John Cusick: Escaping the Awful Middle and GIVEAWAY

  1. Keila Dawson says:

    Telling secrets? That will get the creative juices flowing!


  2. writersideup says:

    John, I’ve always come away with gems after your workshops and this is no different. These are GREAT tips! Thank you SO much 😀


  3. great tips! I especially love field trips.


  4. julicaveny says:

    Great suggestions, John! I really like the idea of giving my character a change of scenery. I can see how she would still react in character, but the scenery would give her options/situations that would allow me to explore the depth of her character differently. Thanks!


  5. Thanks for the tips and worksheet. Great ways to get your middle hopping 😉


  6. Hi John, thanks for this wonderful post. Though I absolutely love the field trip exercise, I can’t wait to bring all my characters together and see what happens. Thanks for sharing!


  7. Lynn Alpert says:

    Thanks for the tips – great, simple ideas!


  8. Another great tool to get through the middle: deadlines!! Often hugely useful for me to push on and get to the finish line. And they should be as strict and inflexible as possible, so as not to be wiggled out of too easily… I also love your ideas of moving characters around, and shoving them together. That can solve a lot. Thanks for sharing.


  9. colleenrkosinski says:

    Great post. I like the party idea.


  10. kpbock says:

    Excellent activities!


  11. Melanie Ellsworth says:

    Yes – a change of setting for a writer or a character can shake things up! Love the field trip idea. Even if you don’t end up actually taking the character there, it might give you some new insight into your character’s personality.


  12. Margaret Greanias says:

    Thanks for sharing your tips! I’m plotting the awful middle and in the throes of fatigue/boredom. I will try the field trip (literally) and party exercises to see how they shake things up!


  13. Traci Bold says:

    I love field trips. Makes sense to have my characters take one too when they feel stuck. This trick definitely stirred up the creativity to get me back on track when I tried it. Thank you John! Best of luck with your books. I have added them to my list of mustreads.


  14. John, the three tips that you shared are excellent. I look forward to trying the field trip, quantum leap and who doesn’t like a party?
    ~Suzy Leopold


  15. Bobi says:

    Great food for thought in this “class.” The three writing excercises are spot on–and just what I needed to push my main character! Thanks, John.


  16. Susan Schade says:

    I loved your post, as well as your presentation last year with SCBWI-PHX. Your words inspire others. Thank you, John!


  17. Lauri Meyers says:

    Great exercises to eliminate that saggy middle!


  18. MaDonna says:

    Thanks for the homework! (and I’m not being sarcastic!)


  19. angelcat2014 says:

    I’ve been stuck in the middle of my middle grade novel forever. Thanks for helping me dig my way out! 🙂


  20. ptnozell says:

    Love the idea of shaking things up, changes in scene or time. Thanks so much for these tips!


  21. Sylvia Liu says:

    Excellent tips.thanks.


  22. kathyhierholzer says:

    Great tips. Thanks so much.


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