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Middles – Part 1: Mushy Middle Syndrome

You can read the rest of the Story Structure series here:

Part 1 – Story Structure: Beginnings
Part 2 – Revisiting the Three-Act Structure
Part 3 – In the Beginning…

Writers worry a lot about our beginnings. We agonize over the sentences, paragraphs, pages that set up our stories. We know the beginning is the part that agents, editors, and readers will use to decide whether our stories are worth sticking with.

Beginnings are tough—no question about it. I’ve just finally slogged through the first hundred or so pages of my work-in-progress, and wow—it wasn’t easy. But the risk we run is that we polish those early chapters to a fine sheen and then let our story middles turn to mush.

I started reading a book several months ago that set out at a rollicking pace and drew me right in with vivid characters and lots of action, but then slowed down about a third of the way in. The author introduced a brand new character out of the blue—someone who hadn’t even been mentioned in passing before—and then spent a lot of time on that character’s backstory. Overall, the book turned into an exercise in exposition, and I completely lost interest. That book may have picked up speed later and even ended on a high note, but I’ll likely never know. I just couldn’t get through the mushy middle.

Before we look at how to fix mushy middles, let’s look at what causes them. I think most mushy middles can be traced back to one of the following underlying problems.

No real sense of where the story is going.

I think this is probably more of a pantser problem than a plotter problem. Hey, I’m a pantser, so I feel this pain, believe me. I discover as I write. But as a pantser, it’s also really easy to just write long passages of dialogue, exposition, backstory, or description that really don’t move the plot forward at all. If you don’t have a good sense of where the story is going, you will probably end up with a mushy middle.

Sticky plot problems.

Another pantser issue, probably. Maybe we start out strong and have a great sense of where we want the story to go, but at some point, we get stuck. In an effort to get unstuck, maybe we sort of start over in the middle—introduce some new characters or another plot out of the blue to try restart our stories or keep them going. Now, maybe those characters or subplots have a place, but when we introduce them in the middle, the reader might be so thrown off by the redirection that he or she gives up—like I did.

Not enough plot.

How many times have you read a book that doesn’t really have enough plot for its length? I read one several weeks ago that was so light on plot it could have been tied up after about two-thirds of its actual length. The author seemed to be purposely dragging things out. What happened was that the characters meandered and the plot wandered and it all started to seem rather unbelievable. If the author had spent a bit more time refining the plot and given the characters a couple more conflict intervals or realistic obstacles, the middle wouldn’t have been mushy. Or, alternatively, just wrapping the story up at its natural end would have been fine rather than dragging it out to some “proper” length.

Too much plot.

On the other end of the spectrum are stories that seem crammed into a predetermined length. Every now and then I read a book that overwhelms me with information and plot, and while the ride is exciting, it sort of leaves me breathless in a bad way—a “head-spinning-vomiting-in-a-trash-can” kind of way. Or, maybe a writer throws in too many plot twists or unbelievable events that are inconsistent with the characters and overall arc. I’ll suspend my disbelief a lot, but at a certain point, I’ll give up in exasperation. There’s only so far I can go. In these kinds of books, I suspect that either the author hasn’t honored the story’s natural length (the story may need to be longer) or the author hasn’t spent enough time on the backstory, character development, or plot development.

Mushy Middle Syndrome is as frustrating to an author as it is to a reader. I’ve known a lot of writers who put down about 100 pages of a novel manuscript and then just stop. They polish and rewrite and play with those first hundred pages, but for a variety of reasons, they can’t get past that point. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard a writer say, “well, I’m going to rewrite the first six chapters again,” and it turns out that’s all the writer has put down. Sometimes it’s even just a chapter.

I’m certainly not casting aspersions at how different writers work. Some writers just like to polish very carefully as they go, and as long as there’s forward momentum, there’s nothing wrong with that. But too many of the folks I’ve known just get stuck and never move forward. Those first few chapters will end up being all they ever put down, because they can never propel themselves past the beginning and into the middle.

So, 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 all the way to the end.

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12 Comments

  1. Avatar Khaldun says:

    The middle is definitely tough. If you know where it’s going it’s easier, but I find the middle 15-20% to be the hardest. Up to that point you’re introducing characters, clarifying the “main” plot, setting the scene for the finale. It’s slow going right now as I try to plod through the middle, but we’ll see what happens. You can always fix it in the second draft, right?

    • Khaldun, I think that’s about where I struggle, too… It’s that transition between the beginning and the middle that really kicks my butt. Once I get rolling and have a good sense of the story, it gets a lot easier.

      I can’t tell you how many times I tell myself, “I’ll fix that in the second draft…” 😉

      Amy

  2. Avatar Bets Davies says:

    Push through. That’s what I’ve always been taught. In grad school and by Anne Lamott. Authors die on the first draft. Never never never go back till you have a full draft. You will hate it. It will suck. You will obsess about the first chapters. Do not go back. You will not have a sense of how your beginning meets your end. As faulty, as ugly, as filled with tangents it will be, by the time you finish, you can look at the beginning, look at the end, and understand the spiderweb you must weave between the two to make them fit together. Sometimes it takes reverse outlining. Sometimes it takes destroying what you thought was the beginning or end when you find the real beginning or end somewhere in the middle. You cut. You cut till it hurts. You leave only what creates a beautiful tight rope from A to B. You may have to add as well to keep that tense line strong.

    • Bets, I totally agree. Even when I write things I detest, I keep going. But I see so many writers who spend weeks, months, even years on just a first chapter, and I just want to shake them by the shoulders and say, “write forward! Keep going! You’ll have to change that anyway, no matter what you do now. Write, for the love of Pete! Write!” I think I’ve had some degree of experience with everything you mentioned in your comment. 🙂 Thanks!

  3. Middle sections do seem often reserved for wordy exposition; I’ve had to fix mine and try to sprinkle backstory throughout, rather than plopping a big course of explanation into someone’s lap in the middle. Great article, as always!

    • Ashley, I think it’s easy to fall into that trap of spending a ton of time on exposition and backstory in the middle without really driving the action forward, too. I mean, you have to put exposition and backstory in–you just do. It’s all important to the story. But you have to keep driving forward, too, and that’s the hard part, I think–balancing it all. 🙂

      Thanks!

  4. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Can’t remember who shared this with me, but it’s hilarious.
    http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/06/20/25-things-you-should-know-about-writing-a-novel/
    Definitely check it out for a good laugh and some sense of the hard realities.

  5. […] Time: Mushy Middle Syndrome. VN:F [1.9.20_1166]please wait…Rating: 10.0/10 (4 votes cast)Story Structure – Part 3: In the […]

  6. […] 1: Mushy Middle Syndrome Part 2: Propel Yourself into the Middle Part 3: The Meandering […]

  7. […] 1: Mushy Middle Syndrome Part 2: Propel Yourself into the Middle Part 3: The Meandering Middle Part 4: The Wispy […]

  8. […] Part 3 – In the Beginning… Part 4 – Propel Yourself into the Middle Part 5 – Mushy Middle Syndrome Part 6 – The Meandering Middle Part 7 – The Wispy Middle Part 8 – The Cramped […]

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