The Mushy Middle

Writers on social media discuss issues like the ‘mushy middle’ of their novel and wonder if it is a real thing. Having encountered the ‘mushy middle’ in my own work, I decided to comment on it in this blog, perhaps more to organize my own thoughts, than to add any extensive knowledge of this subject to the current work on this topic.

The structure of the novel, of course, basically consists of the beginning, the middle, and the end. Story structure is as old as the story itself. Around the campfire, the story teller’s audience expects the story teller to introduce a protagonist: the hero, anti-hero, god, goddess, or searcher for the truth. This person is introduced immediately, as well as the goal of the protagonist.

The beginning also includes an antagonist the goal of whom is to thwart the protagonist for whatever reason. At any rate, the protagonist and the antagonist operate at cross purposes. The goals of both the protagonist and the antagonist are stated as the story develops.

The end of the story is reached when the protagonist achieves his/her goal, and either destroying or neutralizing the antagonist. This ending should satisfy the story teller’s listeners.

The middle of the story is another animal altogether. In the middle of the story are the attempts, usually multiple, to find solutions to the hurdles the antagonist throws in the way of the protagonist. The middle of the story is also the point where the story teller fills in any details about the protagonist and the antagonist that the audience needs to understand the struggle. These items usually include the backstories of the various characters and their relationships.

Frequently, the middle introduces a character or characters that assist the protagonist and antagonist toward their goals. The middle also includes the various complications arising from the progression of the action.

The middle of a novel presents difficulties that short stories do not have. The novel’s extended length presents the story teller with the possibility of a failure of imagination, boredom of the listeners, and a desire to hurry the story to its end. The more complicated the middle becomes, the more difficulties are presented to the story teller to wrap up the loose ends before the climax of the story is reached.

Robert J. Ray attempts to assist the storyteller with the middle of the novel in his book The Weekend Novelist. He suggests the writer choose several points in the middle of the novel to keep the audience interested.

The end of the beginning he calls Plot Point One. The beginning of the end is called Plot Point Three. Plot Point Two is found in the very middle of the entire story, and thus in the middle of the middle. Ray suggests that a Pinch Point be placed between Plot Point One and Plot Point Two to wake up the reader. He suggests ritual, things that happen on a regular basis. Something that happens in the beginning seems to repeat itself at that point.

Pinch Point Two happens between Plot Point Two and Plot Point Three, and once again uses ritual, replaying something that regularly happens, and perhaps echoes the tones of things that happened in the beginning and again previously in the middle.

Successful writers have used the techniques of the ancient storyteller to keep their audiences entertained through the millennia. They remain the refuge of the storyteller to the present day.

Source: The Weekend Novelist, Robert J. Ray, Dell Publishing, New York, NY, 1994

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