Thursday, May 19, 2011

Rehabilitating the Reputation of the Middle

Reading thuRsday

I had a peculiar experience reading a well-promoted YA dystopian novel: I quite liked the middle but didn't care for either the beginning or the end.

Writers so often have trouble with the middle of the story that we call that set of problems, "the muddled middle." In general, the problem is that, with an intriguing beginning and a mind-blowing ending, the middle gets reduced to what you have to go through to get to the end.

We talked recently about story maps as a way to navigate what Brunonia Barry calls "The Mess in the Middle." Then I came across Justine Musk's post about, "The secrets and revelations of a powerful middle act." Justine said,
An important part and purpose of a story’s middle act is revelation. The middle act, as Michael Halperin puts it, “is the central place where revelations, motivations, and confrontations take place – making the stories we create live and breathe.” Information rises from that secret underside to raise the stakes, deepen character, and shift the reader’s perceptions.

It also changes the course of the story. The protagonist is forced to deal with this new information and the impact it has on his life. He can no longer hide or deny. He is past the point of no return. But because of the necessary confrontations that result, his character transforms. He gains the wisdom he needs, the shift in perspective, to become a more complete individual — which allows him to defeat the antagonistic forces in a way he could not do at the beginning of the story.
Viewed in this light, the middle is more important than the beginning or the end because it is the place in the story where the transformation occurs that makes the ending possible.

One of the reasons writers have trouble with middles is because they confuse complications and revelations. Complications, often in the form of a string of problems, are like trying to fly into a busy airport where you spend more time either on the runway waiting to take off or in a holding pattern waiting to land than it takes to cover the distance to the destination. A revelation, to continue the travel analogy, is taking ground transport because you missed the flight, discovering you can get get to the destination more quickly, and then using that fact later to help defeat the antagonist.

I enjoyed the middle of the book I mentioned above because it was full of intriguing revelations (and I didn't enjoy the end because it made many of those revelations irrelevant).

Look at your middles. Don't bloat them with empty complication calories. Test each scene in the middle and ask, "does this scene reveal something the characters need to know or be by the end, or is it simply delaying the resolution?"

Image: Michelle Meiklejohn /

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