No, not the title of the ABC series starring Patricia Heaton about a Midwestern family’s daily mishaps.
The real middle. The middle of a story. That’s where writers often run into their biggest problems and get hit with their heaviest writers’ blocks. I am a poster child for this ailment, having three, yes, 1-2-3 half-baked feature scripts and zero completed scripts. So where’s a frustrated writer to turn? To those who have made it through the middle and arrived at the end and still had an audience there to see it.
The journey out always seems longer than the journey back. It is new, and demands our furious concentration as we look for signs, for the characteristic, for the shortcut. On the return we are better able to separate the essential from the extraneous; our concentration has been narrowed to the goal. So the progression toward the climax, denouement, conclusion accelerates in tempo. We have been given the facts and our attention has narrowed. We now need only to remark our progress toward the goal and the occasional incursion of the unusual impediment, the unusual turn of plot.
–David Mamet, Three Uses of a Knife
No for real. Let’s stop and think about this a sec. He makes it sound simple. Easy. No big deal. But the essence of what he’s saying isn’t so simple: “Just retrace your steps but end up at a different destination.” I’ve done that on Arkansas ‘highways’ before, but that definitely was NOT the intended outcome. It’s counterintuitive, but essential to basic dramatic structure.
NOTE: The word “drama” in all its forms does not strictly refer to plays and movies in this post. Think bigger. Broader. Inclusive-er. 🙂 This is an equal opportunity blog post. All fiction encouraged to apply.
So this middle part between Destination and Destination 2.0 is the crux of the hero’s journey. In it, the audience must be lied to, made to laugh, disappointed, given hope, suspended and released so that when they get to 2.0, they find fulfillment in having traveled the hero’s journey. That’s a lot of weight to carry in the middle.
Mamet’s been there: “‘Oh lord,’ the artist says, at this one-third point, ‘here I find myself neither with the resolve and strength of the beginning nor with the renewal of strength that comes from a sight of the end.'” Exactly!
But this “second act struggle” is an inherent part of the creative process. As artists, our fight to get to the end reflects the protagonist’s fight to the end. If we do not struggle, the protagonist’s struggle will be vicarious and therefore empty. It’s the striving to face the demons of the middle that give our creative work power to fulfill and enrich.
I may be preaching to the choir and myself here, but to all the other writers with half-baked stories and endings somewhere still in the abyss, take heart. Press on and fight with your hero to the bitter end.
Or the pretty end.