Book Writing AdviceBook, Writing, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2020

Your Story Has a Mushy Middle? Here Are Some Ideas to Fix It

jdelay

Fixing a mushy middle is a great challenge, but a common one. No, I'm not talking about salvaging your latest attempt at baking banana bread: I'm talking about rescuing the middle part of your story. Just about every writer is familiar with the three act structure in narrative fiction and its prominence in western storytelling, and almost just as many are familiar with how difficult it can be to get that middle part right.

If you're reading this, chances are you've created a story beginning that you're fairly happy with, and possibly an end that's also in good shape. Your characters feel real, you know their back story, and you might know where they're going to end up and how they'll have changed (or not) when they get there. However, you may also be stuck on the middle of your story, which may seem weighed down and mushy. Maybe you're asking yourself "what's my story's premise?", suddenly finding yourself sinking out at sea rather than skillfully swimming from shore to shore.

When completed, your story will be composed of a middle that equates to about half of the novel's length. The start should set up the story, the setting, the characters, and your ending should resolve everything the middle presented to the reader, bringing it all back home. However, the purpose of the middle of your story isn't to simply bridge the gap between the beginning and ending, like gluing two discrete bits together. The middle has to connect the parts organically while keeping the interest of the reader, making them want to invest in reading on.

Think of the middle more like the filling on a tasty sandwich, without which you're not offering anything satisfying for consumption. That 'tasty filling' should comprise conflicts and develop character arcs, without which the story's resolution will seem unnatural and unsatisfying to your reader (and probably yourself, too).

Here are some things to consider to get that mushy middle into shape.

Rebuild your foundations

For me, this is one the most significant and successful strategies for correcting a story's course, allowing a writer to rethink what the middle is supposed to be by restructuring either the whole, or parts, of their story. Considering and reworking the structure may even help reshape your thinking about the beginning and end of your story for the better, resulting in a more cohesive narrative.

Now, having read this far, you may be freaking out: "I've spent months and months cultivating this story and the beginning and ending are perfect!" My advice is don't freak out; remember it's about what the story needs. If you won't listen to me, know that even renowned author and two-time Booker Prize winner Margaret Atwood advocates for a fundamental rethink of your story's structure:

Don't sit down in the middle of the woods. If you're lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page.

Margaret Atwood

In playwriting and screenwriting there's a saying that if you have a problem with your third act, the real problem is found in the first act. As with houses—or, again, sandwiches—if a story is built on an unsteady foundation (in the form of a weak first act), the middle is going to suffer and affect the strength of the overall story. The remedy is obvious: if the elements for the story's beginning are well thought out then everything should flow better through the middle and toward the end. To do this you must be willing and able to return to the beginning, and reconstruct your story's foundation.

Compartmentalize the middle into its own acts

Sometimes the middle of your story is mushy because the structure is just too formulaic. The three-act structure needn't be gospel for writing. Splitting the middle of the story into discrete sub-sections will help make the entire thing more manageable for you by breaking it down into smaller, approachable chunks. After all, if the start and end sections are easier to write, it may be partly due to them being typically shorter.

If you slice your middle section into two or three parts (or possibly more, if you think your story needs it), you give yourself the opportunity to compose smaller and tighter story chunks. In these chunks, the plot's action and character arcs rise and fall while feeling distinguished from one another and keeping readers interested. You might do this by adding tension for each part as you would gradually with the wider story, or experimenting with pacing on a smaller scale. Employing and quickly resolving sub-plots to raise conflict for the wider plot is also another tactic you could employ. This helps the middle section wrap up with its work done, which is to leave the stakes incredibly high for the ending.

To split the middle up successfully, careful consideration of the story's overall flow and structure is vital to ensure all the parts neatly stitch together and achieve what they're supposed to as a whole.

Swerve the audience

The middle section is one of the best places to subvert your reader's expectations, perhaps second only to a twist ending. If your middle section isn't quite working despite a solid attempt of maintaining interest and raising tension, then you may need to inject some shock into the story.

One shock tactic could include a reversal in the middle of your story: an event that changes the entire course of the plot and leaves your reader with their mouth agape. It could be something the reader quietly suspected in the back of their mind, but never really saw coming to fruition. The reversal, which will raise the stakes for the characters higher than they already were, will have the reader clamoring to continue on through the story, desperate to find out where the new trajectory will lead with the ending now far less predictable than before.

Another tactic to consider is throwing a false climax of the action into the middle. By building tension and making the reader feel like the story is quickly leading toward an eruption, despite there still being much of the book left to read. The dissonance this creates in the mind of the reader will keep them hooked, eager to see what will happen in the book's near future, and how it will resolve toward its end. For this to work, however, the resolution and actual climax must feel even bigger or be incredibly satisfying to avoid it being overshadowed by the false climax.

With the reader shocked there's a new wave of energy pushing the narrative through the middle and toward the story's real climax. A reversal or a false climax can reset the expectations of your reader and have them pining to understand how the rules of the game have been changed for your characters and to see how those characters will respond.

Edit rigorously

This one may seem obvious, but the middle of your story might be mushy because it's simply filled with stuff that doesn't belong. And yeah, we all know to kill our darlings, but it's harder to do on the macro level—wholesale edits of a huge chunk in your book don't seem analogous to a couple of darlings: it ostensibly seems more like a serial killing spree.

You need to look at what is uninteresting and pointless, which are the elements that don't commit themselves to the resolution of the whole story. Being honest with your writing and perhaps taking a small break away from the story to reset your brain will help you return to it with a red pen (or your word processor equivalent). If you feel you're too close to the material to determine what bits might be less captivating, canvass some readers whose opinions you can both handle and trust.

Like hitting the treadmill at the gym to reduce weight around the gut, trimming the fat from your story's middle is essential. If the middle of your story is being chewed up by one or more of your characters ruminating excessively on a topic that is only of interest to them (or worse yet, to you) it's a hard sell to your reader. Interrogate all your plot threads and eliminate any parts that aren't directly or indirectly serving the main plot. Do the same with spots where supporting characters are stealing space on the page without adding much of value to the story. Routinely hone the middle by editing and rewriting it until it's tight and brimming with tension and interest for the reader and servicing the other parts of the story. Cut out all the fat and give the middle of your story the rock hard abs that writers can only dream about.

Mushy middles plague many story writers, and they're one of the most difficult parts of a story because the middle is where most of the work is involved. The correction that the middle of your story needs will be anything from small tweaks to wholesale restructuring—you'll have to be honest with yourself when you look over your writing to determine where you are on this spectrum, and then get to work on getting it firmer and standing upright.

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