Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: Mapping the Mushy Middle

Last week I wrote about how to Create Character Change and the importance of making sure your character’s flaw is foiling her in Act II. This led one of my fellow Write On Sisters to comment that the “mushy middle” is a hard section to write. That it is. Robin wrote about it here from a baker’s perspective. Now it’s my turn to put a screenwriter spin on this difficult section of the manuscript.

I used to be completely confounded by Act II. I’d read Syd Field and knew there was something smack dab in the middle called a “Midpoint” where the character is farthest from their goal. But that definition always seemed a little vague. It wasn’t until I read Blake Synder’s SAVE THE CAT books that I gained some clarity about what actually happens in Act II.

Screenwriter’s Disclaimer: I’m going to talk STORY STRUCTURE! Plotters, you’ll like this. Pantsers, maybe not, but remember, even if you don’t plot your novel ahead of time, you can use this knowledge during the revision stage.

Before we start, here’s a Basic Story Structure Refresher:

ACT I – Set Up: Establish world, meet characters, introduce flawed protagonist, then throw an inciting incident at her that upends her world and propels her into…

ACT II – The Journey: This is your story! This is the teaser section for your movie/book! This is where sh*t happens! So why is this section often so boring? Because the writer is lost!

ACT III – The Big Finale: Protagonist has figured out what’s preventing her from succeeding (her flaw) and goes on to win! (Or lose if you’re writing a tragedy.)

Act I and III are the short acts. Act II is 50% of the story. That’s a big section, easy to get lost in if you don’t know where you’re going. We need a map. I like to map out my story before I start writing, but you can do it during the revision stage too.

MushyMiddleMap
A child’s rendering of my mind’s Act II options.

The most important thing to figure out is where you are going. The destinations in Act II are the MIDPOINT and the ALL IS LOST, and they’re mirror images of each other.

The writer can take one of two paths in relation to the hero’s goal: 1) the MIDPOINT is a False Victory where hero gets what they think they want, or 2) the MIDPOINT is a False Defeat where hero loses what they think they want. This was a revelation for me! Instead of just wandering around Act II putting obstacles in front of my hero and making her clash with the antagonist until all hell breaks lose in the Act III Finale, the hero has a major success or failure mid-story!

Think of this Midpoint as a tent pole – it props up the story and gives it shape.

Classic story structure often has a False Victory Midpoint (path 1). For example, if your hero is running for president, at the Midpoint they’ll be leading in the polls. But because this is a false victory, something happens to send their approval rating plummeting until at the All Is Lost moment it looks like they don’t have a chance in hell of winning the election. Notice that mirror image thing? If at the Midpoint your character is riding high, at the All Is Lost they’re in the depths of despair, and vice versa.

Now for some random examples of this off the top of my head…

MIDPOINT ALL IS LOST
HUNGER GAMES False Victory: Katniss gets the highest score of all the tributes and has a real shot of winning. False Defeat: Katniss and Peeta are trapped and starving and going to lose the games.
TITANIC False Victory: Rose and Jack hook up and the ship is sailing. False Defeat: Rose and Jack are separated and the ship is sinking.
X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST False Victory: Wolverine gets Professor X and Magneto to work together. False Defeat: Magneto betrayed them and is ruining everything!

Now that we know where we’re going, we can fill in what happens along the roads to our destinations. If your hero gets what she wants at the Midpoint, you know that on the road there she will be encountering hardships that she overcomes. If your hero doesn’t get what she wants at the Midpoint, the road will be littered with her failures.

And after the Midpoint on the way to the All Is Lost, it’s the same thing. If she’s heading towards defeat, the bad guys are closing in and she’s failing miserably, but if she’s heading towards a false victory she thinks she’s overcoming her adversaries.

Avoiding a “mushy middle” is first and foremost about knowing where your story is going. Secondly, it’s about keeping your hero on the road and not wandering down dead end streets or getting lost in the swamp. I’ll give nitty-gritty tips on that next week.

Next Up from Heather… How not to get lost in Act II!

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Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a cartoon screenwriter, YA novelist, small town fugitive, and late-blooming gymnast. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

2 thoughts on “Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: Mapping the Mushy Middle”

  1. That “meandering goat trail” really struck a chord. One of my early attempts at writing had a huge chunk with the hero and heroine just running around a city (they were trying to throw people off their scent, but it went on way too long). Occasionally, I imagined the characters stopping to look at me and give a big shrug, as if to ask what I was doing. I would then stop typing, shake my head, and say out loud, “I have no idea. Just keep running around while I figure that out.” That scene will not survive the editing process and I am much more of a plotter than a pantser now.

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