25 Ways To Fight Your Story’s Mushy Middle
For me, the middle is the hardest part of writing. It’s easy to get the stallions moving in the beginning — a stun gun up their asses gets them stampeding right quick. I don’t have much of a problem with endings, either; you get to a certain point and the horses are worked up into a mighty lather and run wildly and ineluctably toward the cliff’s edge. But the middle, man, the motherfucking middle. It’s like being lost in a fog, wandering the wasteland tracts. And I can’t be the only person with this problem: I’ve read far too many books that seem to lose all steam in the middle. Narrative boots stuck in sucking mud.
Seems like it’s time for another “list of 25″ to the rescue, then.
Hiyaa! Giddyup, you sumbitches! BZZT.
1. The Solomonic Split Of The Second Act
Fuck the three-act structure right in its crusty corn-cave. See, right there’s your problem — first act is small, third act is small, and the second act is the size of those two combined. Go for a four-act structure, instead. Take the second act and chop it clean in half. Whack. Each act is its own entity — though it connects to the rest and still has its own rise and fall. Allow each its own shape, its own distinct feel. And don’t forget that when one act moves to another it is a time of transformation and escalation.
2. Fake A Climax
Hey, when you fake an orgasm, you gotta commit. You can’t just do a few eye-rolls and go “oooh, ahh, mmm, yes,” and then sit up and flip on CSPAN. You’ve got to sell it. Make ‘em think it’s the real deal. Scream so loud the dog starts howling. Break a lamp with a flailing limb. Release the fluids. And that’s what you gotta do in the middle of your story. The “false climax” is a powerful trick — you make it seem like things are coming to a head, that the pot is boiling over, that the fluid-release cannot be contained. You want the audience to be all like, “Whoa, this feels like the end but I’ve still got 200 pages left in the book. SHIT JUST GOT REAL.” (Of course, do make sure the actual climax is even bigger, yes?)
3. Fewer Curves, More Angles
The shape of a story — especially the shape of a story’s middle — is a lot of soft rises and doughy plateaus and zoftig falls. Each hill giving way to a bigger knoll. But sometimes, a story needs fewer hills and more mountains. Angles instead of curves. Fangs instead of molars. Think of inserting a few jagged peaks and dangerous ditches — take the story and the characters on a harder journey. Let things change swiftly, accelerate the plot, go left, feint right, don’t let the audience feel complacent and comfortable. Rough ground can be a good thing in the middle of a story. Some stories need more turbulence.
4. Opening Presents On Christmas Eve
When I was a kid, Christmas Eve was the most interminable time because, y’know, Christmas morning is everything. All else is chaff and dust and ash in your greedy little mouth. If setting fire to the tree would make Santa come earlier, shit, you’d do it. So, what do some parents do? They let a child open one gift on Christmas Eve. Adopt this strategy as a storyteller. All this time you’re introducing mysteries and conflicts and character arcs that you promise will be resolved by the conclusion of the story. Take one, conclude it early. Give the audience some payoff. (I’d argue if Lost gave viewers a few early Christmas presents the show wouldn’t have dragged its itchy doggy ass across the carpet for the middle seasons.)
5. Introduce A Character
Sometimes, a story needs a bit of new blood in the form of a new character — someone interesting. Not, y’know, “Dave the Constipated Cab Driver,” or “Paula the Saggy-Boobed Waitress,” but rather characters with an arc, characters who will have an impact on the story. You don’t need to replace your protagonist (and probably shouldn’t), but a new strong supporting character may grant the story new energy.
6. Introduce A Character. . . To The Grim Reaper, Moo Hoo Ha Ha!
Sometimes, a story just needs blood. Kill a character. Off the poor bastard. Axe, bullet, disease, chasm, death-by-irritable-wombat, whatever. Blood makes the grass grow. Bread and circuses, motherfucker.
7. Relationship Status: “It’s Complicated”
The middle can feel like a vernal pool that fails to dry up, turning it into naught but a mosquito breeding ground (aka “skeeter fuck party”). That’s because there’s no movement of the water; stagnation sets in. One way to “move the water” (note: not a reference to urinating) is to change the relationship between characters. Get them together. Break them apart. Lies! Betrayals! Exposed secrets! New hate! Old love! Unexpected butt-play! Drama and conflict born of that relationship shift can fuel the rest of the story.
8. Karate Kicks And Car Chases Chop Vroom Boom
Find approximate middle of book. Plant there a kick-ass action sequence. One that is perfectly married to plot, story, and characters. An action scene with ninjas and centaurs and ninja centaurs and Ducati motorcycles and fucking velociraptors and velociraptors fucking and a gladiator named DOCTOR MEAT. Okay, maybe not so much with all of that. Point is, throw in some action in the middle. If not action, anything that creates tension, putting the character’s mission (or life or love or soul or sanity) in doubt.
9. Action! Cut! No, Wait! Cut The Action!
Sometimes, action doesn’t need to be added — it needs to get cut. Quite paradoxically, action can be very boring. Sometimes it’s meaningless — an exercise for the sake of having it. Sometimes it fails to connect to the larger plot. Or have ties to the characters (or feature them at all). Or have any consequence in any way. Action in this mode will drag the story like a colostomy bag filled with buckshot. Cut it. Kill it. Move on.
10. Map Quest
You’re in the middle of the story. You’re wandering around in circles like you’re drunk and got a bad limp. It’s weedy. Swampy. You’re lost. You have to pee. You need a map. You need trail markers and a compass and a magic GPS robot who follows after and is all like BEEP BOOP TAKE A RIGHT AT THE STUMP AND BEWARE LUSTY MOOSE. It’s time for an outline. It’s time for a plan. Pull away from the daily writing. Sit down and start drawing your map — scene by scene, chapter by chapter, however you have to do it. Find your next steps. Discover your narrative landmarks. That’ll get you out of the woods and back onto the road.
11. The Art Is In The Arrangement
Fuck the map. What you need is a time machine. Crash your Delorean into a big blue police box and start hopping around in time — whoever said your story’s narrative needed to be a straight line from Point A to Point Z? Sometimes the middle gets mushy because the arrangement is too conventional. Hopping around in the timeline of the story creates tension and allows you reveal some things early and hold back on other things that might normally be revealed. Rejiggering your story’s time-space continuum can keep it feeling fresh. Like the cooling vinegar winds of a Summer’s Eve. Or something.
12. Escalation, Escalation, Escalation
A karate dude can’t just break one board. He puts two boards down and breaks those. Then three. Then ten. Then he’s karateing bricks and toilets and drop-kicking yaks in half. Point is, he doesn’t just stand there and break one board, then one board, then one board. He ups the difficulty. The effort escalates. You must escalate the conflict in your story throughout the middle. Things become harder and harder. False victories give way to the audience feeling like all is lost. This isn’t just physical. Emotional conflict ratchets tighter. Social turmoil boils over. As you move throughout the middle, ask yourself: “How can I tighten the nipple clamps on this motherfucker?” Add a little tension each time. One board after the other.
13. Tighten Your Own Nipple Clamps
Sometimes writers don’t put enough pressure on themselves — and so, the mushy middle is less about a problem in the story and more a problem with the writer. Tighten your own metaphorical nipple clamps (though mine are not metaphorical and, in fact, are painted like tiny tigers, raaaar). Plan to write more each day. Bring your deadline up by weeks or even months. Sometimes increased pressure on the writer leads to stronger productivity and improved output — take the slack out of your rope.
14. Or: Maybe Switch Back To the Smaller Buttplug
Coal under pressure can make a diamond. But most of the time it makes a pile of coal dust. Could be you’re under too much pressure. Stress and anxiety can do funny things to a writer’s brain. You start to feel like you’re an old person lost in a shopping mall — “I know I came here for a reason but I don’t remember why. Where are the bathrooms? Janice? Janice? Is that you? Oh. You’re just a potted plant. I’ll pee in you.” Cut yourself some slack. Walk away from the story for a day or three. Give yourself the time to think the story through. Then come back to the writing or editing table reinvigorated with the crystal meth of new ideas.
15. Bludgeon Your Doubt With A Nine Iron
Doubt is one of nature’s most insidious creatures — it creeps in through tight spaces, equal parts bedbug and rat, tick and termite, mold and jock-itch. Doubt has an erosive, corrosive effect on the work, too, whether you’re writing a first draft or editing the one hundredth — you lose confidence in your abilities, you miss the distinctions between good and bad, and as a result the middle of your work grows muddled, fumbly, and numb. You can’t purge doubt, exactly — but you can damn sure ignore it. Shoulder past it like it’s just some guy in a crowded hallway. Doubt is an obstacle, but not an insurmountable one.
16. Go Weird Or Go Home
When all else fails, take a hard left turn and drive into the ocean. If you really feel like your story is stale and sluggish, you may be able to give it a jolt by throwing in some kind of epic twist — and not the kind of twist that happens at the end of the film, either (“OMG BRUCE WILLIS WAS A SHARK THE WHOLE TIME”), but the kind where the story transforms in the middle. This can backfire, sure, but a glorious backfire is better than the slow gas-leak emitted by a sleeping beagle.
17. Variety Is The Spice Of Life (Or, If You Prefer, Variety Is The Multi-Purpose Sandworm Excrement Harvested By Fremen)
Scan your mushy middle and ask yourself: “Is it too one-note?” Are you focusing too much on one thing? One character? One conflict, theme, setting, something, anything? Mix it up. Make sure that all aspects of character and conflict are covered — physical, emotional, social, intellectual. A long car ride through a desert is boring because it’s all desert. We wanna see some mountains, a coastline, a village of albinos, a tiger eating a bicyclist, something, anything. Complexity can breed new interest.
18. Rewrite The Beginning (Wait, What?)
I’m sorry, did I just say, “Rewrite the beginning” in a list where we’re talking about the middle? Oh, I did. I’m crazy like that. Crazy like a fox. Crazy like a fox wearing diapers and smoking cigarettes. The middle of any structure relies on a strong foundation and if the foundation is wobbly, the middle will be weak. They say in screenwriting sometimes that third act problems are often first act problems, but the reality is, a lot of problems are first act problems. You need to go back to the beginning. Rebuild the foundation. Make it strong like bull. Bull who wears body armor and shoots a bazooka.
I once wondered if “eschatology” was the study of poop, or maybe future poop. Or Sandworm excrement. It’s not — it’s the study of The End (capital letters necessary). Religious scholars look for symbols and signs leading to the end of history as we know it, and while that’s a terrible way to live your life, it’s a most excellent way to build the middle of your story. The middle needs to build toward an ending. If you find the middle is flabby and without purpose or purchase, start building specifically toward the story’s conclusion. Move characters and plot points into place. Start dropping hints. Start hitting harder on the theme. Symbols, signs, motifs. Building to the end can give tension to the middle.
20. Threading The Throughline
Several threads must run through your work to tie the whole thing together. Sometimes the middle of your story needs those threads to tie a corset together in order to pull its blubbery manatee gut tighter. This is your throughline — any and all elements that run from beginning to end. Your middle may be missing one. Want to read more about the throughline? Look no further.
21. Your Robot Brain Needs New Logic Accelerators
I don’t know what it is about Hollywood blockbuster films these days, but half of them don’t make a lick of fucking sense and appear to follow the logic of a scatterbrained four-year-old after he just ate a bowl of Red Bull and Fruity Pebbles. The middle of your story will go all wibbly-wobbly if shit don’t make sense. The audience might break an ankle in a noticeable plot hole. Writers tend to write toward the goal of this has to happen without ever thinking, does it make sense if this happens?
22. Kill The Noise, Crank The Signal
Some stories become way too complicated. A thorn-tangle of plot, a gooey mess of conflicting ideas, an unruly pubic thatch of character motivations — simplify. Prune that ugly ungroomed tree into Bonsai.
23. Run Out Of Rope
You ran out of story and now you’re stretching it thinner and thinner until the whole thing is practically transparent. Here the middle isn’t flabby so much as it is the hollow ghost of a proper second act. You need more meat in the story’s belly. More plot. More motivation. More fat instead of less.
24. Shrinky Dinks
Cut. Get out your scissors, scalpel, hatchet, Sawzall, jaws-of-life, nail clippers, guillotine, and your orbital laser, and chop shit out of your untamed middle. It’s gotten too long. Too big. Too bulky. Bloated like me after I eat too much cheese (“OH GOD BRIE OH NMMMPHMM GOUDA JEEZ DID YOU GUYS SEE GGRRMPPH WENSLEYDALE CHEDDAR GORGOZOMMMPHGRBLE i don’t feel so good”). Cut. Chop. Kill. Sometimes the act of tightening the middle is really the purest act of that tightening: cut a fuckity-bucket of words. Start with 10%, and cut incrementally until the story has sexy abs.
25. Find The Boring Parts, Put Them In A Bag, Set Them On Fire
I continue to hammer on this point for writers, but hey, sometimes a good point demands reiteration. Your middle is perhaps mushy because you have committed the most grievous sin of them all: you wrote a bunch of boring shit. Now, there’s a danger in labeling things that are interesting but not exciting as boring — “Wait, why isn’t every scene a dude with two Uzis riding a jet-ski through time?” — but there’s an equal or worse danger in writing 30,000 words that are the creative equivalent of dry Melba toast. Survey readers. Follow the whispers gurgling up from your gut. Find the boring parts. Then hang them in the town square.
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