You: *numb mumbling punctuated by hitching sobs*
Me: You okay in here?”
You: Jesus. You scared me.
Me: I’m sorry.
You: I peed a little.
Me: Like, a real little? Just a couple drops?
You: More than that.
Me: Just a little squirt?
You: More than that.
Me: Well how much are we — oh. Oh.
You: You’re staring at my pant leg, aren’t you?
Me: It’s starting to look like you just came down the log flume ride at an amusement park.
You: I peed a lot. A whole lot. I can admit that now.
Me: That’s a lot of pee. You might want to take a look at your liquid intake? But let’s just… let’s just get past that, for the moment. Let’s address your mumble-sobs.
You: It’s this story! For NaNo NooNoo Repo Weemo or whatever the hell it’s called.
Me: Well, it’s not called that. … Ennh. You know what? Not worth it. What’s wrong with the story?
You: The beginning was pretty cool, right? It was all like whiz-bang, kaboom, shit just happened, oh dang, big problem, characters on the run. And the ending I have planned is gonna be super-cray-cray-ultra bad-ass. It’ll be all like, parachuting ninjas and an exploding blue whale and then the characters will find alternate evil versions of themselves from a dark dimension where everyone wears clothing from the 1980s — like, it’s gonna be fucking nuts.
Me: Sounds like everything’s in good shape.
You: It’s not. It’s not in good shape. My story has swiftly become gorged on the junk food of boredom. His gut looks like a stack of soggy pancakes. All he does is sit on the couch, yawn, pick fragments of snack foods from his belly button, watch Spongebob Squarepants. He’s lost all tension. He’s lost all… motivation. MY STORY IS AN UGLY LUMP LIKE A GIANT WAD OF TRASH COLLECTING IN THE MIDDLE OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN.
Me: Ah. The mushy middle syndrome.
You: That sounds accurate. The middle is mushy, all right. Mushy like mud. Mushy like a plate of overcooked peas. It’s just — meh, bleah, blergh.
Me: You need to tighten your story’s gut.
You: I do. He needs to work out. Get fit. Get back in the game. Except, how?
Me: Don’t worry. You’ll get the bottle, little baby. Before I get into specific tips — part of what needs to happen here is a philosophical adjustment.
You: Are you going to put something up my butt?
Me: I’m not a doctor. This is not that kind of adjustment.
Me: See, a lot of the advice you’ll read about mushy middles — including advice I’ll give — tends to be plot-focused. Start turning dials and knobs on tension and conflict and mystery and randomly insert MOAR PROBLEMS HERE PLZ. And that’s true, to a point, but doing that can also lend itself to another version of the mushy middle. That version feels exciting because OH LOOK WACKY SHITCRAP IS HAPPENING but none of it has any real bearing on the central characters, none of it reflects your theme, none of it has much to do with story. It’s artificial plot contrivance. It’s you just jackhammering needless event into the tale you’re telling. That doesn’t make for good story. It just makes a mechanical exercise that ends up unwittingly reeking of tedium.
You: You mean like how I reek of pee.
You: That sounds bad.
Me: It can be, because the problem isn’t not enough plot. The problem is, not enough character, or character with too small a problem. Or perhaps: I do not yet know my character and her problems well enough, as yet. And so I suggest a focus on — drum roll please! — the characters.
You: I don’t know what that means, “not enough character.” Like, she’s a character, she exists in the story, she’s got hands and feet and stuff.
Me: I don’t mean hands and feet and stuff. I mean that every character has layers, man. Strata piled upon strata. And a story is you pulling apart those layers. To expose. To diminish. To reveal. To damage. It’s like you tearing into a delicious, sticky slice of baklava.
You: Isn’t that the kind of mask you use to rob banks?
Me: That is a balaclava.
You: No, I think the balaclava is an instrument used in an oompah band.
Me: I hate you and shut up for a minute.
You: You’ve got thirty seconds, but okay.
Me: You need to go back to your characters. You need to rip ’em down to the studs and see what’s there. Who are these people? What is their central problem? What has driven them to this journey? Examine the “give-a-fuck” factor — why do we care about them? See, the way you tighten the belt on the mushy middle isn’t just creating conflict by inserting obstacles between them and their goal: it’s creating drama by making those obstacles matter to the characters. Drama is an important notion, so please emblazon it upon your face with a tattoo gun.
You: I admit, I tuned out a little bit there, because my pee-soaked pant-leg is starting to get very cold. Pee is so warm in the beginning it’s almost nice but then it gets icy and I am no longer a fan.
Me: I am disturbed that you were once a fan of pissing yourself.
You: It was a phase. I’m over it. To go back to what you were saying: can I get an example?
Me: Like, it’s one thing to stick your character in an oubliette just as she needs to be saving the day. But it’s a whole other thing sticking her in an oubliette with another character that matters to her — a brother she despises, a nemesis who also needs to escape, an old friend who betrayed her. The oubliette represents a basic physical conflict: an obstacle that must be overcome. But you create a kind of emotional, relationship conflict — aka, “drama” — by putting that other character in the hole with her. It makes it more meaningful. And, frankly, more interesting. But it doesn’t need to just be another character. The drama could be internalized, too.
You: Gastrointestinal distress, you mean.
Me: I mean, when Luke Skywalker ends up in that cave on Dagobah, he’s confronting the fears about his father and, in a sense, confronting himself. Which is of course why, when he chops Vader’s face off, he sees himself staring back. Trippy, right?
You: DUDE SPOILERS
Me: We are well past the sell-by date on Star Wars spoilers, jerk. Here are more examples: The labyrinth that Sarah has to conquer in Labyrinth is very much a labyrinth of her own making — even assuming it’s real and not a dream, it’s the labyrinth she “summoned” by summoning Goblin David Bowie and his magical yam-bag. The same could be said of Coraline, who summons a button-eyed artifice that thinks itself her mother. Characters like Katniss and Ripley are often alone, and their challenges are ones that reflect their survivor nature and are wholly appropriate to the characters (both of whom are kind of lone wolf think-for-yourselfers). And those challenges only get worse for all of these characters. Which leads us to our next important term —
Me: No, it’s —
Me: Where are you getting this? No, the word is —
You: Capybara! That’s it. It’s capybara. Nailed it.
Me: ESCALATION. The word is escalation.
You: I’m a little let down. I was hoping for ‘capybara.’
Me: If you don’t shut up, I’ll send a rabid one to eat yourface. No, listen, escalation is key to the eradication of the mushy middle. Physical exercise requires escalation — increasing effort, maximizing challenge — and so too must you escalate the conflict and drama that surrounds your characters. Once you’ve identified the problem in the first act — within the first 25% or so of the story — it’s time to turn the screws and twist the knife. It’s not about introducing new overarching conflicts or creating drama out of thin air. It’s about seizing the opportunity to escalate the conflict and drama already present. Turn up the volume. Make things harder on the characters, not easier. John McClane goes from trying to save his wife from terrorists to having to deal with an inept LAPD, a psychotic FBI, an increasingly savvy set of terrorists, bloody feet, reduced ammunition, and hostages who are about to be eradicated (which of course, includes his wife). You take the set-up and core problem of Die Hard — “NY cop who wants to reconcile with his almost ex-wife gets trapped in a building taken over by terrorists” — and then keep escalating that problem. The anchor of that piece is the separation from his wife. It’s true in the sense that they’re separated in career and marriage, and now they’re physically separated by Hans Gruber and his ethnically-diverse not-really-terrorist crew. All the things that happen in the film only widen that gulf and threaten to make the separation of John and Holly permanent.
You: You and fucking Die Hard, jeez.
Me: Die Hard is a perfect slice of narrative cake. It contains all the necessary layers.
You: YOU WANT MIRACLES I GIVE YOU THE EFF-A-BEE-EYE
You: I’m ready to go write now.
Me: But I’m not done talking.
You: JESUS GOD SHUT UP but okay fine keep talking.
Me: The point is, keep hurting your characters. Make things harder before you make them easier, and when you do make them easier, make them immediately harder again. Every triumph is beset by two more setbacks. The pain you deliver shouldn’t just be physical. It’s gotta be emotional, too. John McClane’s glass-fucked feet aren’t bad just because they’re bloody and shitted up. They’re bad because his feet are the one thing that can carry him back to his wife. The hurt you bring’s gotta go deep, man. You’ve got to make them really feel it. And to do that you have to know your characters. You have to tailor conflict and drama to the character(s) and to the problem(s) at hand.
You: Cool. Any more tips, Mister-Can’t-Shut-Up-About-Stuff?
Me: Sure. Just when the reader thinks they know where you’re going, go somewhere else. Twist and turn in their grip like a cantankerous viper. (Related: 25 Turns, Pivots, And Twists To Complicate Your Story.) To knock the mud off your boots, try a change of location. Or a POV shift to another character. Or even a jump in time, or a flashback, or the introduction of a subplot. Your story is heading in a straight line, and as I’ve noted before — fuck the straight line. Juke left. Jump right. Zig-zag. Show the status quo a pair of pistoning middle fingers.
You: Switch it up, is what you’re saying.
Me: Yeah. Go nuts. Keep yourself interested.
You: I’ll do that. Hey, can I tell you something?
Me: You don’t need to thank me. I know I’m a big help.
You: That’s not what I was going to say.
Me: What were you going to say?
You: I totally just peed again.