Five Ways To Tighten Your Script’s Mushy Middle
By Chuck Wendig
There sits your script. In the recliner. Feet up. Mouth open.
His gut pooches out past the sweat-stained wife-beater. Bulging at the fabric. Flopping over the arm-rests. Pale as a cave-cricket. Sweaty, too, exuding the smell of hoagie oil.
It’s time to talk about the fatty, smooshy, mushy, gushy, blobby middle of your screenplay. The middle is the toughest part of a script. The first act is easy: it’s the part where you light the fuse, bang two plates together, kick down the door. The third act isn’t always easy, but a lot of the times, an ending writes itself. Comes with it a sense of inevitability, of dominoes falling the way they must.
But that second act, boy howdy. It’s half the script. The first and third acts are lean and mean — they set up the ball and spike it into the noses of the audience. The second act is when the ball is in mid-air.
Which admittedly doesn’t sound very exciting. And therein lies the danger of the second act. It runs the risk of bloating like a water-logged corpse. It runs the risk of going on and on, an endless mire of boot-sucking mud.
If you’re second act is a dog dragging his ass on the carpet, then it needs some attention. Here, then, are five quick ways to tighten the mushy middle of your story.
Escalation, Escalation, Escalation
The old saw is, “When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.” What this is, though, is short-hand for: “Escalate the conflict or introduce a new problem.” Put differently: make shit worse for the protagonist.
Sometimes, the mushy middle just needs a hot Taser dart to channel some high voltage into the narrative. If things aren’t moving along briskly enough and the story is getting boggy, the metaphorical “man with a gun” will get that fucker moving. The man with a gun can be anything: divorce papers, a lie exposed, a cheating spouse, an attack by a subterranean race of badger-people, whatever you need to crank the volume on your story’s conflict.
Use Midpoint As An Act Turn
Scripts are generally broken out into a three-act structure. I’ve seen enough iconoclastic railing against the three-act structure to know that the three-act structure remains the go-to-hierarchy for film narrative, for better or for worse. (Remember: just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t so, and further, doesn’t mean it isn’t worth utilizing).
The problem with that second act, as noted, is that it’s too long — it’s effectively twice the length of the other acts, comprising roughly 40-60 minutes of screen time.
Time then to embrace the power of the mid-point, which happens around page 50-ish. Use this as a secondary act turn. Imagine it to be another pivot point where the stakes are raised or changed, where the game shifts once again and the narrative reveals a new side. Same way that first-and-third act turns are about that shift in the story, make sure to use that midpoint as a similar shift. Something changes. Someone dies. Explosion. Implosion.
Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally
Remember that? PEMDAS? It’s about the order of operations in solving equations. Given that plot is in many ways one big equation, it helps to consider the order of operations — or, the revelation of the sequence of events through the eyes of the audience. If the middle of your story sags, it may not need a reinvention of plot but merely a reorganization. Play with the narrative. Utilize flashbacks. Or break the flow up and change the timeline. Use the order of revelation to build upward momentum for escalation.
It’s also possible the plot is just too complicated. The middle of the script is a good time to hit hard with sharp, cogent plot points and for the rest of the time learn more about our characters and the choices they’re going to make. If your plot involves a tangled and complicated sequence of events, then the plot might be the problem. Get in there with a chainsaw and start chopping off vestigial limbs. Cut off its tail. Remove its wisdom teeth and appendix. If you pull links out of the chain — meaning, events out of the plot sequence — and the plot still holds up, you know that’s the right move. Further, if you can see ways to shore up the plot and connect the first and third acts more directly, well by golly it behooves you to do so, doesn’t it?
Sometimes, your script is too big for its britches. Too fat for the clothing it must wear. The script goes on 120 pages but, as it turns out, would feel sharper and more keenly honed at 100. That means you’re going to be cutting pages and, I gotta be honest with you most times the majority of pages should come out of the middle. You need to tighten dialogue. Ratchet and cut description. Remove some scenes that hang there like colostomy bags.
It’s never fun going at your work with a camping hatchet, but sometimes it’s how you make the script trim and get it in fighting shape. How do you know what to cut? Have someone else read the script. Or, worse comes to worse, just chop out a whole scene. Leave it on the floor for a week, then come back, read the script again without that scene. Does it still work? Do you miss the scene? If you find that the flow is more forthright without it, then you have one contender for a scene that needs a bullet to the brain. Start shooting more holes: see where you spring leaks.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out Three Questions To Ask Before You Start Your Script.