The Messy Middle

Starting a story is easy, isn’t it? Our fingers itch to get that magical idea onto paper. We’ve written and rewritten those opening sentences a hundred times in our heads, and they stream across our computer screens with the polish of a final draft. We’ve already envisioned the final scene, too, and maybe drafted it in triumphant, memorable words. We’ve figured out which actors are going to play our main characters in the movie version and we know what the music is going to sound like in the soaring last scene . . . oh right, the story needs a middle.

Often, the middle of the story is where we’re no longer carried forward by inspiration and are relying fully on elbow grease. We’re mired in confusion, both practical and existential—would the main character say this or that? Have I got my chronology in order? If I delete that scene, do I have to rewrite the following five chapters? Are my characters suffering too much? How are my characters going to extricate themselves from their current problem? Do I have to pause for scientific or geographical research? I'm so bored—will my readers be, too?

Between the momentum of the story’s beginning and the motivation of its resolution, we’ve lost an awareness of time and progress. We don’t know whether to keep shouldering through or give up.

I love this quote from Fast Company’s September 2015 issue:

Last year, [Brené] Brown gave a talk at Pixar Animation Studios, where president Ed Catmull (who helped save Pixar with Toy Story) and his team explained that the middle of the creative process is the hardest part. In the script, for example, it’s where the main character must face a tough journey to learn a lesson. That shaped her theory: You can’t skip the second act. “People don’t recount the middle of the story often,” Brown says. “[It has] the most potential for shame. But it’s where everything important happens.” [Read more here.]

When authors struggle with the messy middle, we are encountering a human reality both within the story and within our lives. The middle is rough! It’s a place where we search for meaning and don’t know if we’ll find it. It’s where we strive toward a goal while facing the strong possibility of failure. This is happening to us while it is happening to our characters. To make it through the messy middle, try these suggestions:

Keep plodding.

Set an hourly, daily, weekly, or other target for number of words written, portion of story written, or time spent writing. For example, you could commit to writing three hours each week, or 300 words each morning, or 250 words in a half-hour each weeknight. Make sure the goal you have set is achievable but stretches you a little. Then stick to it. If you’re freaking out about whether your story is worth writing, push those thoughts to the side until you’ve achieved your current target. Write something, even if what you write has to be deleted tomorrow.

Review the beginning and ending.

The point of your story’s middle is to get your characters from the beginning to the end. So if you’re really stuck or lost, step back for the big picture. What things need to happen for the ending to be possible? How does your main character need to change? Does he or she need to make a big decision? What circumstances need to occur? Is the middle, as it’s currently being written, lining up with these objectives? As you work through the middle, are you realizing that the beginning or ending needs to change?

Take breaks.

Hard work is counterproductive if you’re physically or mentally exhausted. Plus, time spent away from a project gives your creativity the chance to operate on a subconscious level. Include regular breaks in your writing schedule. Be sensitive to the fact that sometimes you’ll need to entirely step away from your story in order to clear your mind and restore your energy. Translation: take a vacation, already!

Trust the revision process.

Can you get through this draft? Give yourself permission for it to be good enough, not perfect, because there’s another draft coming. The wonder of revision is that you get to keep taking shots at your story until it’s finally right. Strive for each draft to improve upon the previous one. Gradually your story will take meaningful shape.

Writing is hard work. So is life. In each case, we can balance disciplined work with rest and inspiration to arrive at the satisfaction of meeting our goals.