A Toolkit for the Muddy Middle
My friends and I have been talking about the middle of our stories, specifically how muddy it can be. When I first started writing I didn't understand why people would call it that. Until I got stuck there and realized it felt like I was wading through mud. Now, when I'm drafting a new story, it still feels daunting. There's so much space there, half the book, what do I fill it with?
But with the last book I drafted I came up with a strategy, a kind of toolkit, that served me well. I plan to use it moving forward.
If you've read Save the Cat Writes a Novel and worked with their beat sheet you'll be familiar with the terms Fun and Games and Bad Guys Close In. This is how the book defines the two halves of the middle - one on either side of the Midpoint. For the uninitiated, the Fun and Games section is the section from about the 25%-50% of the book, the Midpoint is at the 50% mark, and the Bad Guys Close In runs from the 50%-75% mark. Together, those three things make up the middle of the story.
Once you've laid out your main character's desire, flaw, wound, and the setup of your story/world in the beginning (the first 25% of the book) you move into the heart of their journey (the middle) - the part that teaches them what they need to learn and helps them transform at the end. As they move through it, they approach their challenges from their flawed perspective, doing things the wrong way. The further into it they get the more the forces of antagonism, the bad guys of the story, come into play. Tensions rise until the crisis where the worst thing that can happen to the main character happens.
So, how do I fill it? Here's the toolkit that I use.
Forces of antagonism
What does the main character need to learn in order to transform?
A story thread is a plot line - things like the career the main character (MC) is trying to get off the ground, a romantic relationship, a contentious relationship with a family member, a school project, etc.
I'm a divergent thinker. I will always be able to come up with ideas in all kinds of directions. But when it comes time to draft a story my divergent thinking can get me into trouble. Without some sort of constraint I end up with several stories squished into one and the whole doesn't make sense. So, I've learned that I need to constrain myself when it comes to the story threads that I work with.
Before I start drafting, I make myself a list of all the threads I want to include. Then I consider how they tie into the story. Do they run all the way through the story? Do they contribute to the main character's transformation at all? Do they connect to any of the other story threads that I want to use? I cut anything that doesn't fully tie in or contribute something crucial. Or, if I really love a story thread, I consider how I can tie it into the story more.
Whenever I get stuck I look at my story thread list. What haven't I touched on in a while? Which one can I move forward here? Focusing on my story threads keeps me from wandering too far off the path and keeps the story moving.
Forces of Antagonism
Every story needs obstacles for the MC to navigate. While these can be one off situational issues - i.e. the MC is running from someone or something and needs to hide in a busy market, but runs into a pushy seller who won't leave them alone and causes a scene - there are always recurring obstacles, usually people, who run through the whole book. You might think of them as villains. These are your forces of antagonism.
You'll notice most stories have more than one, i.e. not just one bad guy. While there is usually one big bad that the MC must face, there are also a number of forces at varying threat levels. The pushy seller who won't leave your fleeing MC alone is a small one, unless they are the ultimate villain in disguise. The person who can't stand your MC and is happy to do whatever they can to make their life miserable might be a medium sized force. Or, maybe you have someone who works for your ultimate villain, that does all their dirty work, and looks like the ultimate villain but isn't. Keep in mind these forces don't have to be people. A future event the MC knows is coming, like a storm or friend going off to college, can be a force of antagonism.
I make a list of all the forces I can think of for a given book. That way, when I'm stuck or need to build tension, I have an easy reference. It also allows me to check in every few chapters - when was the last time one of my villains made an appearance? While the third quarter of a book (Save the Cat Writes a Novel refers to this as the Bad Guys Close In section) is usually when these forces start to really wreak havoc, they need to be established earlier to be effective. I make sure to sprinkle chapters, throughout the first half, that introduce them and setup the dynamic between them and the MC.
Main Character Lessons
Every MC needs to learn something, or things, over the course of a book in order to transform. This might be obvious, but I've found that writing out what those lessons are is incredibly helpful. Not only does it make me articulate them, it gives me another reference for when I get stuck.
Save the Cat Writes a Novel refers to the second act of a book as "fixing things the wrong way". I love this. Your MC will spend most of the book going about getting what they want the wrong way because they haven't learned what they need to yet. And it's these experiences that teach your MC what they need to know to transform.
It is so much easier for me to conceptualize this when I know what it is they need to learn. Hence, the list.
Using the Toolkit
Once I have my three lists and at least a rough outline I'm ready to start writing. My outlines don't tend to be super detailed for the middle section of the book. I know some of what happens but the rest I usually find as I go. This is where my lists come in.
When I don't know what happens next, I go to my lists and ask myself the following questions.
What story thread have I not touched on recently?
What force of antagonism could help build tension here?
What does my MC need to learn? How can I teach them that in a way I haven't already?
Then I pick something off of my lists, or combine multiple things, for the next scene. This keeps me on track and the story moving along without long detours that don't serve the story or the MC. And, because I've already thought through all those things in advance, it's relatively easy.
Writing the middle of a book often gets a bad rap, for good reason. Figuring out how to get your MC from the beginning to the end can feel like a hard slog. I've found that giving myself a helping hand in the planning process makes it less miserable.
Do you have tools or strategies that you use for the middle of a story? Let me know what they are in the comments.