You know that cartoon where the person with an idea has a light-bulb appear over her head? I have an energy-efficient, mercury-free, safe-disposal gigantic light-bulb on over my head.
Last week I wrote about David Mamet’s 7/10th theory that I learned in his book, 3 Uses of the Knife. The second big ah-ha I got from the same book is that I now understand (or think I do) the true purpose of the second act, also known as the mushy middle of novels.
Mushy middle is one of those technical writing terms. It’s where, at the same time, nothing happens and too much happens. It’s where we discover that Mabel can’t possibly know that James was at the Chicago riots in 1968 because we eliminated from this draft the scene where she learned that. It’s where Cal’s twin brother wanders through a scene. Not only didn’t we know that Cal had a twin brother, but we’ve just realized that a) the brother has a even better reason to commit the murder than Cal does and b) a sizable chunk of our plot has gone to heck in a hand basket. It’s where when someone asks us how the book is going, we blink and say, “I have no idea.”
I’m quoting and paraphrasing Mamet here. The words in quotes are directly from the book and the words in the middle are my paraphrase.
“[The true goal of the second act is] when the protagonist accepts the burden of the seemingly commonplace, accepts the drudgery, the necessity of continuing without exuberance or even interest in the proceeding. This is the point at which the play really starts to take on momentum.” The problem with many stories parading as drama is that the middle time of struggle is truncated into a montage of unpleasant events showing the hero enduring a passage of time. “The true drama calls for the hero to exercise will, to create, in front of us, on the stage, his or her own character, the strength to continue. It is her striving to understand, to correctly assess, to face her own character, [to choose her battles] that inspires us—and gives the drama power to cleanse and enrich our own character. … The inevitable yet unforeseen complication [of the final confrontation is] literally brought into being by the quest of the hero in the middle term.” (pages 40 to 43)
I’ve never seen Rocky, the 1976 boxer-as-hero movie starring Sylvester Stallone, but I’ve seen enough clips—one of them of Rocky running up a large outdoor staircase—that I’m pretty sure there is a montage of Rocky training for his big fight. We know that time passes because he gets stronger, and he sweats a lot.
Preparing for a boxing match means not only road work and punching the bag, but it also means going to bed early and eating right. It means that real life doesn’t stop: you still have to pick up your dry cleaning, pay your bills, and fight off a cold. This is what Mamet means by the seemingly commonplace, the necessity of continuing. From a cinematic/literature perspective, the commonplace is really, really dull. Do viewers/readers want to see Rocky turning down dessert or curled up in bed with tissues and a cup of hot medicine? Not likely.
If you are, as I am, a fan of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, you’re going to recognize these four steps from Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (1998):
6. Tests, allies & enemies: explore the special world (Begin Act 2)
7. Approach to the inmost cave: prepares for central battle (Act 2)
8. Ordeal: central crisis (Act 2)
9. Reward: rebirth and begins enjoying having survived (End Act 2)
I think the biggest place that writers get the mushy middle wrong is at step 6: tests, allies and enemies.
Mistake #1: ignoring step 6 or combining it into the montage, where step 7 gets top billing and 6 gets a passing mention.
Mistake #2: self-indulgence — possibly more often seen in speculative fiction than mysteries. I want to share with you this wonderful alternative world that I’ve created. The hero gambols through wonderful sights, exotic food, and maybe some alien sex, but what he’s doing doesn’t have a thing to do with the eventual outcome. Eventually he’s forced to make a rapid change into preparing for the central battle because something forces his hand, and he realizes he’s been lollygagging when he should have been in training.
Where self-indulgence does come with mysteries it’s often where the hero gets exactly the information she needs provided by the wonders of forensics or computer searches.
Mistake #3: no pain, no gain. We’re preparing for battle, so we must be serious. And preparing must hurt. All the time. And the hero must show super-human effort. All the time. And he must sweat. You guessed it, all the time.
So what happens when David Mamet’s accepting the drudgery meets Joseph’s Campbell’s belly of the beast?
We stop seeing the middle of a work as mushy. It’s not about the passage of time, it’s not about quick montages. It’s the place in the story where the hero has choices. She approaches each choice with deliberation. He has fun. She accepts that making a choice or even not making a choice has consequences. And though he and the reader don’t know it yet, those consequences will lead directly into the triumph of the final act. Okay, the reader being intelligent — are readers are very intelligent — knows what’s coming, but the hero is still in the dark
Rocky is eating alone in a restaurant. The waitress asks him if he wants dessert, and tells him that chocolate pie is on the menu. Because we’re good writers we’ve already established in act one that Rocky never met a chocolate pie he didn’t love. He ate a whole one at one sitting, stuffing the whole thing in his mouth so that chocolate custard and pie crust ran down his chin.
He hesitates. You can see the struggle on his face. Is he going to break training or not? He’s only human; he orders the pie. But this time, instead of wolfing it down, he studies it. He picks up his fork. He cuts off a piece, puts it in his mouth, chews, savors the taste. Maybe he eats the whole piece, maybe he eats only a few bites, but however much he eats, he enjoys it. He has fun with it. But wait, are we going to stop there? Let’s not.
As he’s paying, Rocky asks the waitress, “Who made the pie?”
She says, “I did.”
He says, “I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed pie so much. It was wonderful. Thank you.”
In the next scene, when we see him running up those outdoor stairs, we know he’s out there working off that pie, but that scene has a whole different meaning.
If we really want to push it to the limit, we put the waitress in the crowd at Rocky's big fight. Maybe she's only in the novel for one sentence, but the reader will understand the meaning. I told you that readers were smart.