By Julie Wright
Often times, writers refer to manuscripts as their child. They created it, breathed life into it, making it belong to them in every way. And since we refer to a manuscript as a living breathing being . . . it stands to reason that a manuscript experiences the same emotions and pitfalls of humanity. It stands to reason that every manuscript experiences a midlife crisis.
Middle ages and middle pages have more in common than a few letters.
We understand the beginning of life. It's filled with wonder and discovery and excitement. The end is filled with wisdom and an excitement of it's own as the actual climatic end draws near. But the middle? What are we to do with the middle?
If it's a romance, the beginning is so they can meet. The ending is so they can finally confess their ardent love and admiration. And the middle is where your characters learn exactly what it is they so love and admire.
If the book is a mystery, the beginning is the crime. The ending is where we find out who's guilty after all. And the middle is the setbacks and push forwards as we collect clues that lead us to the ultimate discovery.
So we understand the purpose of the middle. It is our bridge from the beginning to the end. But why does it feel like our bridge comes with a horrible sagging defect in the center that forces us to tread through the freezing water underneath after all?
One of my friends from high school is an artist. She once told me that every work of art has an ugly stage. When I'm cleaning cupboards and I rip everything out to reorganize it, invariably my kids and husband will come in and tell me I made a worse mess. I chant her statement to myself.
Well sometimes the middle feels like the ugly stage.
But it shouldn't. In life, the middle is where you finally have some wisdom, and you're still young enough to have it matter. In books, the middle is the meat of your story. It's where all the good stuff happens. And consequently the middle has a beginning middle and end too.
The middle beginning: This is where you start the "suffering chain" for your protagonist. The "suffering chain" is where you make their life and end goal impossible. You flesh out secondary characters and give them purpose in the protagonist's life. You make sure we understand the antagonist's goals.
The middle of the middle: This is where you have lots of choices. Someone said at a writer's conference once that the middle middle needs a betrayer (whether real of imagined) of some sort. I don't think it needs one but if you want one, the middle middle is as good a place as any to throw it in. The middle middle is where you squeeze the protagonist into tighter spots and limit their ability to get out of those spots. This is where, in a love story, the character recognizes they love the other person and find themselves impulsively offering over a kiss or whatever. Then immediately regret the action. In Pride and Prejudice, the middle consists of Darcy confessing his love to an unwilling Elizabeth. He was squeezed into a tight spot emotionally until he acted out irrationally. This is a good place for your character to act out too soon and irrationally creating a longer chain of suffering for the protagonist.
The end of the middle (or beginning of the end)?: Your character needs to wrap up all the little issues here. The big issue needs to be saved until the actual end, but the little things need wrapped now. Do not introduce new characters unless they can be quick about their business and aren't pivotal to the plot. You must force the protagonist into serious action here. In order to be likable, the protagonist must have made several small choices for themselves, but here is where they must shine with action. They must be forced and squeezed ever tighter until they can only choose the one final thing that will lead to the actual end.
Then you can have them ride off into the sunset or finally show the widow who murdered her husband (or show that the widow murdered her husband, whichever works for you)
Like in life, the middle is better when we don't fill it with "filler." Empty calories don't lead to satisfying endings. If we want our middle to have zip and energy, then we need to stick with your basic food groups and save the ice cream for dessert.