The Terror of the Mushy Middle Book

December 5, 2016


It’s no secret that while I’m a novelist, I’m also a screenwriter, a voice actor, and a huge fan of the webseries community. A few years ago, I volunteered on the set of a webseries that eventually got picked up for television (and premiered in October! Brava Second Jen!), and while on that set I met a lot of wonderful, talented women.

A few months after I’d signed The Accidental Turn series with REUTS Publications, one of the connections I had made on that set was talking to someone else, who spoke to someone else, etc. etc. through the grape vine and out of nowhere I got an email from a television producer who wanted to chat with me about my body of prose work to see if there was anything she’d consider adapting.

Now, don’t get your hopes up folks – as with all such casual chats about adaption and development, everything is nothing until it’s something.

I’ve done this “sit and chat with producers/entertainment lawyers/production company representatives” dance at least half a dozen times now for just my prose work alone. For my scripts it’s been many, many more times. They always go well, and end positively, and in the end nothing quite comes of it. And hey, that’s “The Biz”, right? All you can do is shrug and move on to the next lunch meeting.

So why do I bring up this specific chat?

Because this particular producer said something to me that I will never, ever forget, and I will always, always be grateful she imparted to me.

She said: “If this is a series, please, please don’t write a Mushy Middle Book.”

“A what?” I asked.

“You know,” she said, “One of those books whose only reason for existing is to get people to buy the third book in the series. The kind of book that’s all set up, and no pay off. The kind of book that makes for a boring, weak season of television.”

Now, at this point, I had only written The Untold Tale, and hadn’t even begun work on The Forgotten Tale. But with the dangling carrot of the possibility of The Accidental Turn series being adapted for television, I suddenly understood what the producer was talking about. I could imagine it, and vividly.

And there’s nothing worse in TV than a phenomenal pilot or first season that has clearly been worked on, crafted, thought about, and turned into art being followed up by… something subpar, meandering, thematically scattered, and overall disappointing. Though one of my beta readers claims that second books are always her favourite in a series (characters and worlds are established so she doesn’t have to spend the book learning about these people and places, and it’s not the last book so she knows that it’s not over when it’s over), I do not know literally any other human being whose favourites are the middle of anything.

No one I know prefers The Two Towers over the rest of The Lord of the Rings, or The Empire Strikes Back, or Catching Fire. Or, if we’re going to expand to longer series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

In warning me against a Mushy Middle Book, what this producer was really advocating for, essentially, was for me to deliver a second book in the series that she could turn into a season of television that wouldn’t get the show cancelled.

And that, folks, was a lot of pressure to suddenly be under, let me tell you. Even though this particular chat with this particular producer never led to anything, her advice stuck with me as I was plotting and writing The Forgotten Tale.

So, on that note, I want to share my top three tips to avoid a Mushy Middle Book.

Number One: Plot Your Trilogy With the Three Act Structure

Now, the Three Act Structure is a controversial storytelling technique. Some say it’s taken all the creativity out of screenwriting, and some say that writers who slavishly adhere to it have made films predictable and boring. But I say you gotta learn the rules to break them, and the Three Act Structure has been king for long enough that there must be a reason for it. Humans like our narratives tidy, after all.

I learned TAS while taking screenwriting and playwriting classes, and often elect to use the TAS as a blueprint for my novels as well. (This isn’t to say I don’t play fast and loose with the rules, when it’s appropriate for the plot. To paraphrase Captain Barbosa, “It’s more like a guideline, really.”)

But applying the TAS to your trilogy on the whole can help ensure that the story in the middle of your series is packed with ever-increasing stakes and pushes character development. If you consider book #1 your Act One where all the set up happens, then book #2 has to be Act Two, where your characters get squeezed from every side into the actions. And events of book #3, or Act Three when the confrontations inevitably come to a head.

Thinking of book #2 to as the middle of a narrative that cannot slow down, plod, or meander really helped me to ensure that I was building on what came before while seeding things for what would come after.

Number Two: Make Sure That Each Scene Advances Something

When writing a novel, a screenplay, a graphic novel script, or anything else I’ve done, the one hard rule I follow is: “if the events of this scene do not advance something in the book, it does not get written.”

Scenes should do one of the following things (and great scenes often do more than one): advance the plot, reveal a truth, provide the protagonist new important information, force a character to evolve or change, provide protagonists with a needed object, settle a dispute, reveal a betrayal, or spark and/or settle a conflict.

Fight scenes and sex scenes especially should try to at least force a character to evolve or change, or gain a better understanding of themselves or their relationships with the other people they’re interacting with, or else it can be told instead of shown.

For middle books, this rule is especially prescient. Don’t put anything in there that you think a TV producer would later cut out because “no one wants to watch that, nothing happens.” And keep this rule in mind for the second book as a whole, too. Make sure the second book advances something; or better, many somethings.

Number Three: Write It As If It’s A Stand Alone

Generally writers are told to write the first book of a series as it’s a standalone and is never going to be part of a multi-book deal. They’re told to make sure that while there is space for further stories to be told, the ending is satisfying in and of itself and that the character and plot arcs are concluded. Just in case, you know, no series deal is ever forthcoming.

I would say that this is excellent advice for a second book, too. And while a middle-of-three book can have a cliff-hanger ending (after all, there’s no need to be coy about whether more story is coming; both you and your readers know that it is), make sure that besides the cliff-hanger, the ending is still conclusive and rewarding. Book two should not just be part one of a two volume narrative. There’s nothing more frustratingly unsatisfying than a story that doesn’t offer up a satisfying conclusion at the end of the book, or film, or television season.

Will people who had never read the first book of your series understand this book? Can you set up the narrative in such a way that it could conceivably be a stand-alone while also avoiding horrific exposition-laden infodumps. In a sometimes-difficult balancing act, you also want to be sure that you’re not pandering so much to the unknown readers that you are thus boring the readers who did read book one.

(And I can hear you saying, “But J.M., who starts a series in the middle??” and I say: “Me. When I was a kid I found book #2 of a series at a second hand shop and read it and appreciated it and fell madly for this series and went and bought #1, #3-#7 from the book store immediately.” And I could do this because while it was the second book in the series, it balanced exposition and filling me in with fantastic storytelling.)

Consider the film The Avengers. Without having seen any of the other MCU films that came before it, the script did an excellent job at explain who each of the Avengers were, their backstory, and what their major motivations were while still not bogging down the flow of the action and character development, which allowed this film to stand on its own while still being part of a series.

Now compare it to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., the companion TV series, which relies heavily on the audience being up to date and engaged with the MCU films to be understood while still somehow providing some of the most boring exposition scenes I have ever been subjected to.

Both scripts use call backs, exposition, and small infodumps to make sure the backstory is filled in, but one does it much better than the other.

Consider this when you’re plotting book two. Not the assumption that people won’t read your book one, but that if you’re going to create a good book, you have to create a great book in and of itself, despite it being part of a series, not relying it.

An Example

One of the best examples of a “mushy middle” narrative I can think of is literally every Doctor Who episode written from series two onward featuring the villains the Daleks.

Not one of them has lived up to Robert Shearman’s series one episode Dalek.

When I watched Dalek, I was very, very new to Doctor Who. I’d never seen anything save for the five episodes of series one that came before it. I did not know what a Dalek was. I did not know they were The Doctor’s biggest enemy, and biggest fear. I didn’t know they had a reputation for being slightly silly, and yet still the most terrifying and popular monster of the run. I didn’t know that the entirety of The Doctor’s ‘Tragic Backstory™” centered on an endless, millennia-long genocidal conflict with the Daleks called the Time War.

But I didn’t have to know all that in advance, because Rob Shearman wrote this:

Look at how many reversals there are in that scene alone! How many reveals! How it helps us understand The Doctor’s character in ways that the previous fifteen episodes never did. And how it sets up the Daleks as the One Villain that even The Doctor fears.

Contrast that with any other scene in any other episode since (save maybe the final two-parter in the series, Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways,) and it feels like The Doctor is just phoning-in his fear, his anger, and his concern. The interaction between The Doctor and the Daleks is flat, phoney, or in the case of The Victory of the Daleks, simply childish:

See what I mean about it being Mushy?

I hope these tips and examples have helped you. Happy Writing, folks!


J.M. Frey is an author, actor, and professional smartypants on Accessible Media Inc.’s morning chat show “Live From Studio 5!”. The Forgotten Tale, book two of The Accidental Turn series, launches December 6th, 2016, and her agent has assured her that it is not a Mushy Middle Book at all, which is a huge relief.

The Forgotten Tale, book two in the Accidental Turn series, is available on December 6th in bookstores everywhere.

(If you like it, it might make you go out and buy The Untold Tale, book one.)