How to Save the MIDDLE of Your Story
Here’s a comforting hug for any writer who’s had to suffer the pain of knowing the middle of your story is dragging.
If I’m going to use a hug gif, I’m using this one.
For a writer, is there any experience worse than writing the middle of a story? Unless it’s knowing that the middle is dragging? Knowing it, yet not knowing how to fix it? This is the epitome of writer despair for me, so I’m guessing there are other people like me.
But after a while, you have to stop wasting time on writer tears, and start figuring out what to do to fix that dragging middle. So you ask yourself: “Why is it boring?” Then you ask yourself: “What’s the opposite of boring?” Then you answer yourself: “Action.” (Maybe only my train of thought takes that route …)
Yup, action. What is your main character DOING in the middle?
Main characters take a lot of actions to achieve their goals. And they take the majority of those actions in the middle of the story, the part that can either feel like riding a roller coaster, or feel like driving a golf cart through a peanut butter river. How do you keep readers from feeling like they’re stuck in the contents of a Reese’s cup?
Identify the MAIN ACTION of your story, and make sure it’s darn enjoyable.
So what IS the Main Action? To identify it, locate the goal of the story. Like these:
Star Wars = Save Princess Leia.
Hamilton = Be an integral part of the founding of a nation.
Harry Potter = Defeat one of the most powerful wizards of all time.
Ratatouille = Become a great French chef.
When you think about it, all main characters are like Disney princesses with “I Want” songs.
Then after you’ve identified what they WANT, figure out what that main character DOES to achieve that goal. For example:
Star Wars = He learns and uses the skills of a Jedi.
Hamilton = He writes and he fights.
Harry Potter = He goes to school to become a wizard.
Ratatouille = He goes to work at Gusteau’s (by using a human puppet) and works his way up through the ranks.
You need to figure out the lovely catch-all term that encapsulates ALL of your hero’s actions throughout the plot. Yeah, they’re going to take A LOT of actions, but every one of them is going to be a part of this wide overarching BIG action. It’s not enough to just figure out the goal, then figure out the obvious strategy a person would take to reach that goal, then call it a day. These work for two distinct reasons.
Reason One: These actions are IRONIC.
If the Jedi council were holding auditions for new little Padawan’s, there’s a good chance this guy wouldn’t have gotten a callback:
In the beginning, Luke’s whiney, naive, kind of annoying, and a bunch of other adjectives you could apply to an obnoxious nine-year-old.
When it comes to Hamilton, honestly, at first glance he looks perfectly suited to the main action of “fighting and writing”; those are two of his greatest strengths. That is until you realize that he has zero self-restraint, impulse control, and pushes ALL of his strengths to such extremes they inevitably ruin his life and the lives of others. So, nah this action ISN’T actually perfect for him.
In the beginning of the story, Harry is completely ruled by his abusive Aunt, Uncle, and Cousin: he lives in a pest-infested closet, wears glasses held together with tape and a prayer, and a good day to him is not getting beaten up by Dudley’s gang. In other words, he is utterly powerless.
And Remy … Remy’s a rat. Rat, plus food. Rat putting his little rat feet on food.
Or in other words: Irony! The heroes are NOT SUITED to perform these actions. In fact, they’re the exact opposite of what would be easy for them to accomplish. And if the main action is exactly what they’re not suited to do, that action will apply pressure to their weaknesses. And what does pressure do to weaknesses? Forces you to confront and overcome them. Which makes things interesting. Which makes readers and audiences curious. Which are essentials to a good story.
And what’s the second reason these work?
These main actions are fun. The main action – or the middle of your story – is also the fun and games of the thing. This is why we picked up the book! This is why we spent 14 dollars for a movie ticket! This is the stuff they put in the trailer! Which means it has to be fun. Fascinating. An answer to a longing that this world just can’t meet. Think of this C. S. Lewis quote: “If we find within ourselves a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” You’re a writer, you can CREATE other worlds. Do a good job.
So! To figure out the main action of your story, that will make or break the middle of your story, answer these questions:
1) What catch-all term can encapsulate all the actions my hero must take to achieve their goal?
2) How is that action IRONIC? How is it exactly what my hero is NOT cut out for?
3) How is that main action FUN? Fascinating? Satisfying because none (or few) of us will ever get to experience it?