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Middles – Part 2: Propel Yourself Into the Middle

Two weeks ago, I started talking about mushy middles and why I think writers encounter them. Now that we’ve identified mushy middles as an issue, let’s look at some of the problems around them and how to fix them.

Three Basic Types of Mushy Middles

The Meandering Middle
This is a middle that wanders… In a meandering way… Through the story… With a lot of events and scenes, but little action or forward momentum in the plot… or an exercise in backstory… or exposition… or setting…

The Crammed Middle
It may have been plotted to some degree, but this type of mushy middle suffers from too much plot. It’s cramped like a VW Beetle full of clowns. There’s a difference between a cramped plot and an action-packed plot. Lots of action can be great. A cramped plot is stifling and unbelievable.

The Wispy Middle
This middle is plotted, but not enough. There may be a couple of key points, but they’re wrapped up too early, and the author makes up things that don’t really matter to fill up space. Or, the author has a great beginning and climax, but pulls out crazy, inconsistent, or pointless events in the middle to fill up space. Either way, there’s so little plot in this middle that a weak spring breeze would blow it away.

I want to look at each type of Mushy Middle in a separate post, but for today, a much more pressing issue:

Propelling the Story Into the Middle

Propelling Forward

Remember when your story was young, pretty, new, and shiny? It had that new car or newborn baby or new boyfriend/girlfriend smell. You couldn’t wait to see it every day. You dreamed about it at night, and you rushed home from work to visit it.

And then…It got stinky. You would stare at it in frustration, wondering what to do with it now that you were out of the cute newborn stage. Or you stared at it over dinner, wondering what you would talk about now that you’d talked about movies, bands, books, and restaurants. But you had some sense of obligation to it. After all, you started down this path—you should do something, right?

But where to go?

Some writers call this stage “writer’s block.” I don’t like that term for a variety of reasons, but I do acknowledge that it’s easy to get stuck sometimes. There are a lot of psychological reasons this can happen, but there are so many articles out there that deal with those issues, I’d rather talk about a much bigger problem. I think many writers fall prey to a beginner’s mistake: Not knowing where the actual story should go. Here are my thoughts on why this happens and what to do about it.

Problem: We start with characters, but we don’t know them very well.
Sometimes I think the beginning of a story is where we’re still in first date territory with our characters. We only know surface things about our characters, so we don’t know where they’ll go or what they’ll do past that initial introduction.

Solutions: Back up.
Find out more about the characters. Figure out some of their motivations and goals, and see where that new information takes your story. Or, go forward and just see how they surprise you. Just be prepared to edit more. This is the direction I tend to go. I like my characters to surprise me. That’s how I get to know them. But I always end up going back to the beginning to make sure they sound and act consistently all the way through.

Problem: We don’t really know the story well enough.
A lot of writers do meticulous character studies before even setting down a word, but when it comes to the plot, they’re stuck in mud or awash at sea. They can get things rolling, but when the plot doesn’t unroll like a red carpet, they don’t know what to do next.

Solution: Do some kind of plotting exercise.
You don’t have to be a “plotter” and do a meticulous outline. It can be as simple as a storyboard. Here’s a version of a storyboard that worked for me. It just consisted of color-coded sticky notes with major scenes jotted on them. If you list just a few major scenes, it will give you some signposts to follow. You can still discover the story as you write, and you can always change things later, but just looking forward to those few scenes will propel you out of the beginning.

Problem: We mistook a short story or novella for a novel.
It’s totally possible that you just don’t have enough story for a novel. That’s okay. All stories have a natural length. Don’t feel compelled to write a novel if all you really have is a short story or novella. There’s a market for everything. Don’t discount the power of a short story. Don’t believe me? Re-read The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. Or anything by Raymond Carver.

Solution: Look at your story in a new light.
Is it really a short story or novella? Did you already wrap it all up? Don’t force the story into a predetermined length or stretch it out too much. The world needs fabulous short story writers as much as it needs great novelists.

In two weeks, a look at the Meandering Middle and how to get your characters back on the main road to the climax of your story.

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4 Comments

  1. […] to get all those projects past that initial hump, in two weeks I’ll look at how to get into the middle of your story and keep it crisp, clean, and compelling […]

  2. […] Part 1: Mushy Middle Syndrome Part 2: Propel Yourself into the Middle […]

  3. […] 1: Mushy Middle Syndrome Part 2: Propel Yourself into the Middle Part 3: The Meandering […]

  4. […] 1: Mushy Middle Syndrome Part 2: Propel Yourself into the Middle Part 3: The Meandering Middle Part 4: The Wispy […]

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