Have you heard the phrase the ‘messy middle’? Well, I had a great question from a reader recently. Jess got in touch to say: –
I’ve written a strong beginning and ending to my play but I’m struggling with the middle! Do others have this problem too and if so, what should I do?
Firstly, you’re not alone! This is a very common problem. To me, the beginning and ending can sometimes feel quite easy to write. We’re setting up all the fun and games, we have a very clear focus and structure to follow.
But the middle. Ugh, the middle! How the heck do you approach the middle? This is where the whole story happens, and it’s soooooo long! Just the thought of it can be super scary. How are you going to fill all those pages?!
To stop myself getting overwhelmed, I find it helpful to ‘chunk it down’. So, rather than saying: now I’m writing the middle, instead, I look for ways to break it down and make it feel more manageable. Outlining before I start really helps me too. Writing without an outline, tends to lead to a very messy story that has to be massively, if not totally, rewritten.
Here are 4 simple strategies to help you write the messy middle in a calm but creative way
1. Reframe how you think about story structure
Instead of thinking about your story as having a beginning, middle and end, break it down into 4 equal parts. For example: Act 1, Act 2 a, Act 2 b (with a midpoint right in the middle) and Act 3.
In case you haven’t heard of a midpoint, here’s how Jessica Brody describes it in Save the Cat! Writes a Novel:
“The midpoint marks the middle of the novel [or screenplay] with either a false defeat or a false victory while at the same time raising the stakes of the story.”
Breaking the story down into 4 (roughly) equal parts, stops you panicking about having to write one really long section.
2. Use Sequences
Instead of thinking about writing lots of individual scenes or incidents, try breaking your messy middle down into sequences. So, each sequence might be made up of 6-10 scenes or incidences – a mini story within your main story. They don’t all have to be the same length. To help you focus, give each sequence a name.
For example, off the top of my head, here are a few rough sequence suggestions from a romantic comedy type idea – to give you an idea about how you might build a story through sequences:
- This is the sequence where the protagonist keeps messing up her life and eventually gets sacked
- This is the sequence where she wallows in her pain
- This is the sequence where her friends try to help but she pushes them away.
- This is the sequence where she tries to get a new job
- This is the sequence where she doesn’t find a job, but she meets an interesting man!
It’s a little bit random, but you hopefully get the idea about how sequences can build a story whilst also making the process of writing your middle a little easier. So, rather than sitting down just knowing you have to write ‘the middle’, which is really vague, instead you’re doing something much more specific. You’re approaching a single sequence; that’s your task for the week – you have a clear road map.
3. Analyse an existing piece of work (it’s research!)
Watch a great film or play – and pay particular attention to Act 2. Make notes. Write down all the scenes and even time them with a stop watch. How is the story structured in Act 2? Do they use sequences? If so, how may sequences are there and how many scenes are there in each sequence?
When I feel stuck, especially on days when I just can’t get myself to put pen to paper, rather than doing nothing, I do this, and call it research! I always find it really helpful to look closely at a good example of the exact thing I’m trying to write.
4. Use a formula – such as Save the Cat!
If you’re struggling to build your plot in a satisfying way, following a formula can be a helpful way of approaching it. Here are some book suggestions:
Save the Cat has a great formula (either for screenplays or novels). I’m sure it would work for plays too. If you’re writing comedy, check out the book The Comic Toolbox as there’s a great formula there to help you plot. If you’re writing a romantic comedy, have a look at Writing the Romantic Comedy by Billy Mernit, as that offers a fantastic formula to help with plot and structure.
If you too are struggling with the messy middle of your story, I hope you find these suggestions helpful.
Do you have a question? Get in touch as I might be able to offer a useful suggestion in a future post. You can also just say hi – or give me some feedback, share a tip, or tell me how your writing is going – I’d love to hear from you!
Thanks so much for reading. If you’re new to my blog, I’m Katy Segrove – animation writer, children’s author, writing coach and mum to cheeky 2-year old Otto.
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