25 Ways To Fight Your Story's Mushy Middle

This post, by Chuck Wendig, originally appeared on his terribleminds site.

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.

[Publetariat Editor’s note: strong language after the jump]

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.


Read the rest of the post, which includes 20 more ideas for fixing your mushy middle, on terribleminds.

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