5 Tips to Get Un-Stuck In The Middle For You

by Jason Hellerman on October 8, 2014

The middle of a screenplay is often the hardest part for writers to figure out. When we hear pitches and read scripts at ScreenCraft, we’ll often come across a script that delivers an exciting first 40 pages but then seems to drop off when the characters have nothing to do in the middle. Unless their problems get worse, tensions get higher, or more clues arrive, they have nothing to do and the promise of a great screenplay falls flat.

Part of the reason we struggle with the middle is that the most fun parts of writing are introducing characters and new worlds and tying up all the loose ends and getting to the emotional payoffs. People don't remember how a movie "middles" but we all have our favorite beginnings (Raiders) and ends (Jaws).

What happens in the middle? Subscribers to Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet will tell you it’s the Fun and Games/Bad Guys Close In, Darkest Moment of the Soul but that’s an incredible amount of fruitless jargon. The middle of the script is the time for characters to grow in the eyes of the audience and for stakes to continue to rise. It's where detectives find clues, Goonies surmount challenges, and Katniss suffers the games.

You want to write a middle that’s unique, doesn’t feel like a bunch of stock scenes, and keeps your audience engaged, constantly reminding them of the promise laid out in the first act.

  1. Give us a false climax

So often we find ourselves writing for the third act and forget that one way to make our characters move, face crucial decisions, and arc is to give them the ending they want and then rip the rug from under them. The middle is the perfect time to let hope come toward your protagonist and then take it away.

About 40 minutes into Toy Story 3 it seems like the toys have achieved everything they’ve hoped for and more. They have a plush retirement community, kids who may love them, and a new beginning. Then, without warning, they find themselves in a prison state. The movie switches to a massive escape flick, giving all the toys new goals. While your second act break should traditionally bring your protagonist to an absolute emotional low, the midpoint should dramatically alter their path and ensure that they cannot complete their journey in the way that they had been planning to.

  1. Kill off a main character

Nothing is more fun (or even unexpected) than offing a character your audience has come to know, love, or even suspect. Killing a character raises stakes, reinvigorates action, and the repercussions can save us from the lull of the middle act. It also will have dire consequences for those around them - whether the zombies feel like they might finally win, Private Ryan has never seemed on more pointless of a mission, or Gandalf tells you to "fly." Whacking someone in the middle lights a fire.

Remember Shawshank? The middle of that movie was about to feel slow until we met Tommy. We grew to love the hothead who, under Andy’s guidance, passed his GED and even held clues to Andy’s innocence. Then the warden had him SHOT. This sent Andy into a spiral, revealed deep pain, and set up how cruel the warden was after a period where we saw him as an affable guy.

  1. Discredit the person your character/the audience trusts the most.

You’ve structured the story so your character is always learning, meeting new people, even gathering clues. You could let these clues build into something that pays off in the third act or you could let them expose someone as a LIAR. Trust is a contract between people and when the audience gets stirred up or we expose a lead for being full of it, a new layer is exposed.

In the middle of Chinatown, Jake learns that Evelyn has been lying about her relationship to her father. It’s something he never suspected and something that makes him realize he can trust no one.

The same goes with Tyler Durden in Fight Club. Edward Norton’s unnamed narrator gets thrown for a small loop (before an even BIGGER twist) when he learns that Durden is building an army for Project Mayhem. It isolates Norton, pressuring him and literally driving him crazy.

  1. Write what would NEVER happen

It seems ludicrous but there are times when you need to work backward; maybe, just maybe, it will also lead to inspiration. Especially when writing movies that fall into a particular genre, it helps to think of what would never happen to your people and go from there.  Whittle it back to things that seem like they belong in your universe but haven't been tried.

One of the smarter twists in recent memory is having Gina Carano’s character in Fast and Furious 6 be a bad guy. These movies are built around solid, team ideals, and not since the first installment have we seen a twist involving main characters. The plot didn’t even need there to be a twist but instead, the cop we’ve learned to trust the whole way turns on a dime, thrusting us into more action (and awesome car chases).

  1. Fix the first act

Here at ScreenCraft, we’re always preaching Billy Wilder. His famous quote “If you have a problem in the third act, the real problem is in the first act.” Meandering in the middle is generally a result of not laying down the right tracks for your character to follow. Head back to page one and rewrite, rehash, and see how you can build a stronger foundation for the story. What scenes are missing? What motivations need to be clear? Who's bad/good/expendable?

Get writing!

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