Writing Excuses 10.27: Why Can’t I Just Jump to the Ending?
Key points: Between the excitement of starting a new book and the cool ending where lots happens, lies the desert of the middle. Why? Chekhov’s gun! You have to hang things on the walls and reveal stuff before the end. You need to develop relationships, and set up the ending. The middle is hard because it’s where you earn the ending. TRY-FAIL cycles galore! To earn the stand-up-and-cheer moment at the end. The beginning and end are a frame, while the middle is where the meat, the real conflict happens. The struggle. The end of the middle is the do-or-die time. The middle is failures, and successes that are still failures — no-and or yes-but! The events must be conflicts, they must have consequences, push the story forward, escalate! How to have fun writing the middle? Plan on it! Make sure the reader, and the writer, are having fun in the middle! Try-fail has to be enjoyable, even if it does have consequences. Fun, and a plot with progress. Setbacks, pain, consequences make the stand-up-and-cheer moment work. Many writers don’t think of the middle as try-fail cycles, mystery writers think of it as finding clues — but really, it’s about thinking you’ve solved it, but you haven’t (a failure!). Red herrings, dead ends, all failures! Heist plots seem to build on success after success, building to the big finale. It’s all about delayed satisfaction — the treat at the end, and the steps to get there. But don’t just delay, tease the upcoming big success, show that it is just out of reach. Smell the dessert even in the middle. Even a nine-year-old knows the form, but the ride is enjoyable despite the artifice. So buckle your seatbelts and hang on!
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 27.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Why Can’t I Just Jump to the End Right Now?
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] We are moving on to middles. Now, this is July. You’ve been working on your story for six months now, and we want to talk about those middles. Middles, I said, were the hardest part for me, where Dan’s like, “Oh, I can do middles all day.”
[Dan] Middles are easy.
[Mary] I don’t have any problems with middles because it’s, for me… Most of the book is the middle.
[Brandon] Most of the book is the middle. No, a third of the book is the middle for me. It’s that middle third is how I’m viewing it.
[Mary] Ahh… Okay.
[Brandon] Because the middle is where I’m no longer doing the new thing that I’m excited about. Like starting a new book’s always exciting for me. New setting, new characters, new magic. The end is always exciting because I’ve planned it from the get-go and I’ve got really cool things happening and we’re going to hit a point where everything changes and we ramp it up. The middle is neither of those things.
[Dan] So our question is, why can’t you just skip from the exciting beginning straight to the exciting ending? Why is the middle even there?
[Dan] So. Howard?
[Howard] Typically, that’s because there are things that you didn’t say during the beginning that you can’t reveal right at the end before the exciting stuff happens. You have to… Chekhov’s gun. You have not finished hanging things on the wall. You have not finished panning the camera past the bomb under the table or whatever. There are these pieces that need to be done. Similarly, in a romantic comedy, without the middle, nobody believes that these two people can have developed any sort of relationship between just the beginning and the end.
[Brandon] Yeah, I would say…
[Howard] Now, granted, in a romantic comedy, I typically can’t believe that they’ve developed a relationship even after the middle.
[Brandon] That’s right.
[Dan] In most of them…
[Mary] That’s because frequently romantic comedies look like stalker films with a laugh track. But…
[Mary] That’s a whole different conversation.
[Brandon] No, the middle is in many ways… I think it’s difficult for me because I feel it’s the most important part. Because it is where you earn that ending.
[Dan] Exactly. The example I love to use is The Princess Bride. Which, if we look solely at Inigo Montaya, the beginning is where he sets up that he needs to get vengeance for his father, the ending is where he gets it, and the middle is honestly like 13 try-fail cycles. Without all of those… I mean, that’s one of the most satisfying moments of cinema history, is when he finally says, “You killed my father, you son of a bitch,” and… Are we not allowed to say that?
[Howard] Ah, we can totally…
[Mary] That’s not the quote!
[Dan] I know, that’s not even the quote. But I just like saying it. The point is, he earns it, and everyone goes, “Yes! Finally he got what he needed.” You wouldn’t have that emotional reaction without those 13 failures leading up to it.
[Howard] Without the middle there, you don’t have the stand-up-and-cheer moment, you just have the… It’s just eye candy.
[Mary] So… This is, again, where I get into the thing… Coming from a short story background primarily, most of the story for me is the middle, it’s not the third… It’s not one third. The beginning and the end are the frame, and the middle is where all the conflict is happening. That’s where all the meaty, juicy, good stuff is happening. The end is just where I’m like, “Aha! I’ve achieved the goal that I was going for.”
[Mary] So that’s… I find that in a novel, for me, it’s very much the same thing. That I have my big… I’m doing hand gestures for those of you watching the video…
[Brandon] For those benefiting from the video feed.
[Mary] But there’s a long arc that you’re going through with a novel or with a ridiculously long serial of novels where there’s one big central question that the audience is waiting to answer… To find the answer to. The reason that they are buying in. For me, the middle is all about your hero attempting to achieve that goal.
[Brandon] Right, the struggle.
[Mary] The struggle. It is…
[Brandon] See, I would say the end point of the middle for me is when it’s do-or-die time. Everything has… You’ve done all struggles and boom! Something big has changed. The clock has started counting down, or it’s started ramping up, and now the ending is where we now only have one day left or whatever. In a big epic fantasy, that one day is still going to take as much space often as the middle did. But our time is ramping up. That middle is where we do all this stuff that we… We fail. Honestly, it’s where you fail, or… I don’t know, it’s not always the fail…
[Dan] Sometimes there are successes that still count as failures. The first Star Wars movie is a good example, because it’s very clearly split into three sections. You have Tatooine, you have the Death Star, and then you have the space battle at the end. Their goal, overall, is to rescue Princess Leia. But even once they get her off the Death Star, she’s not safe. So you still have that ramp-up of tension, the do-or-die time, they’re going to blow up this planet in T minus whatever, and we watch the little computer screen…
[Brandon] Yeah. We’ve saved the Princess, now let’s save the planet.
[Dan, Mary] Yeah.
[Mary] It’s something we’ve talked about in a previous episode of a yes-but, no-and theory. That every time… Basically your character has a goal and you are as the author systematically denying it to them. So they can… There are many steps they have to take, and sometimes they achieve the step, but things get worse. Sometimes they fail to achieve this step and things get worse. But it’s always things get worse.
[Brandon] So how do you not make that feel artificial?
[Mary] That’s a very good question. The…
[Dan] As we all sit here going, “Man, how do you?”
[Howard] My stories are very artificial.
[Mary] No, I’ve got a good example, because there was a try-fail cycle in a book that made me stop reading the book. Which is that they were… And it’s a book that a lot of people recommended to me. But they were going along and they went… Their path on this quest took them through a field of poisonous plants. Everyone was like, “Be careful, those are poisonous plants. Don’t wander off the field… The path.” Someone wandered off the path and got into the poisonous plants. The answer was, “Oh, don’t worry, I have the antidote.” They gave them the antidote and they continued on their way. Nothing had changed!
[Mary] I was so angry.
[Brandon] Don’t go off the path or you’ll have to drink this tasty, tasty liquid.
[Mary] I was just like, “What?” But the point is that this… This… The whole thing with the poisonous plants… There had been a lot of episodes like this leading up to this. These… These things had nothing to do with… They were events, but they were not conflicts. They were things that happened, but they did not relate back to the central…
[Howard] Try-fail, but the fail has no consequences.
[Dan] They didn’t push the story forward.
[Brandon] It didn’t escalate.
[Howard] The central question that we led the episode off with… Why can’t I just skip to the end? Often that question grows out of I’m not having as much fun writing the middle as I was having writing the beginning or writing the end.
[Brandon] That’s a good…
[Howard] My solution is I know what the beginning is and I know what the end is and typically when I’m working with comics, I’m drawing pictures. I plan to draw fun things in the middle. I plan to make the try-fail cycle enjoyable for me, because I’m pretty sure that if I’m having a good time, the reader will have a good time. If we come back to the poisonous plants, that may very well have been what this author was trying to do without understanding that fun for me doesn’t mean consequence-free for the characters.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week and then get back into this, because I really want to talk about this idea some more.
[Mary] So the book of the week is something that I have recently read, which is The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It’s narrated by Kyle McCarley. The thing that I like about this book a lot is that… We often have the young person… There’s a political intrigue, and then there’s someone who is thrust onto the throne after having been kept in the backwaters or an orphan. But we never see what it’s actually like to be on the throne.
[Brandon] And have this… Yeah.
[Mary] So this starts with… This is like the first page. Everybody dies in the Imperial Court except for this one… Like somebody who’s 20th in line for the throne. Suddenly, Emperor.
[Mary] So the middle of this book is actually also the… I mean, it’s just… It’s all just trying to deal with pol… Court intrigue and political ramifications and not knowing how any of this works. It’s wonderful. Some really rich world building. It’s just very, very meaty.
[Mary] You can head over to audiblepodcast.com/excuse for a 30-day free trial membership.
[Brandon] And download The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison for free.
[Brandon] So let’s talk more about these middles. I really liked where Howard was going with this, the idea of let’s make sure to make it fun. But let’s make sure to make it fun while at the same time maintaining our plot. We’ve gotta progress things.
[Howard] Maintaining plot. Maintaining consequences for the characters. The try-fail cycle has to have setbacks. Because if there aren’t setbacks, if there isn’t pain, if there isn’t some sort of consequence, then the stand-up-and-cheer moment that I’m really looking to deliver at the end, nobody stands up and cheers.
[Dan] I think part of the problem is that a lot of authors don’t think of the middle as try-fail cycles. If you’re writing a mystery story, the middle is the part where they’re finding clues. Yes, but really what’s happening is the middle is the part where they think they’ve solved it, but they haven’t.
[Brandon] Right [garbled]
[Dan] Because they’ve found some clues but not enough.
[Brandon] They lead the reader to think, “Oh, it must be this person. Oh, it must be this person.”
[Dan] If you think of it in those terms as, “Okay, we’ve solved the… Oh, no, we haven’t solved the problem.” Over and over.
[Mary] They’re finding the clues. There’s also a lot of dead ends that they go down. Those are a lot of the fails.
[Howard] A great illustration of this is the New York Sherlock Holmes, Elementary. Police procedural. We all think of Sherlock Holmes as brilliant, ah, he figured it out. If you pay attention to the middles of those episodes, he spends a lot of time frustrated because this stuff doesn’t make sense. And this thing he thought of didn’t work. “I hate this person.” “Why, do you think they did it?” “No, I hate this person because they’re the wrong suspect, and it’s obvious that I’m wrong and I don’t like this.” When you pay attention to that, you realize, “Oh, he’s trying and failing all the way through the middle of this.” Every one of those is clever and fun and enjoyable. But when we get to the end, it’s very satisfying.
[Brandon] I have noticed a different type of storytelling that does not quite do this. I’ve noticed, for instance, a lot of heist plots… If we go to the original Oceans 11, are instead here are all these impossible things we’re going to do. The middle is we’ve done this one, we’ve done this one, we’ve done this one, building up to the most impossible one. They don’t fail a lot. They succeed a lot in small ways, but they are in other ways making it grow more and more tense as you’re waiting for something big to happen.
[Mary] Again, that’s…
[Howard] Well, in Oceans 11, in particular, we think they have failed.
[Dan] Well, yeah, but that’s in the remake, but not in the original. The original is success built on success. Again, going back to Princess Bride, that’s the same thing. I will one-by-one defeat all of these people, which looks like a success, but the Princess still isn’t saved yet.
[Mary] I have just realized that actually what all of these try-fail cycles are about and the end and all of this… What we’re actually talking about is delayed satisfaction. That this is the treat, this is the thing that we know the reader wants, and we are delaying it.
[Brandon] That’s really good. You’re right. Even something that’s like a thriller that is success after success, what they do is I’ve saved this person. Now I’m going to save the city. Now I’m going to save the world. Each one… If you read something like Battlefield Earth, which is just success after success, they get bigger and bigger and bigger, and the character can’t rest until the last one is defeated.
[Dan] I think one of the reasons we get this question a lot is because in their head, they’re just thinking, “Well, I need to delay success.” No, you need to be teasing success. You need to be showing that it’s just out of reach, rather than saying, “Yeah, you know it’s coming, but I can’t give it to you yet.”
[Howard] You can smell dessert. But it hasn’t been served yet.
[Brandon] I’m still worried about this feeling a little artificial. Maybe that’s because we as writers can see through to the process. But what is it that we do that makes it for the reader not say, “Oh, they’re obviously going to fail this time because we haven’t reached the end of the book yet?”
[Mary] Well… I mean, you can’t… Unfortunately, you can’t get around the [garbled]
[Mary] One of the things that I do is that I look at it and say, “Okay. What is the absolutely smartest thing my character can do in this situation to achieve the goal that they’re going for? Then what are the unexpected ways that it can fail? What are the ways that it can fail that they can anticipate?” Then I find something that I’m like, “Okay, they probably can’t anticipate this.” That’s the thing that I throw in there. But if it looks like they are planning all of those things and the thing that goes wrong is environmentally related… Something that is plausible, but out of their control…
[Brandon] This is where I think the yes-but comes in. When I tell people about this thing… You first told it to me, I’d never heard it before. Yes… Do they succeed? No, and it gets worse. I… My first thought was, “Well, books are just a sequence of no-and until you hit a yes.” But it’s not really.
[Mary] It’s not.
[Brandon] If you throw in the yes, they succeeded, but something unforeseen happened or something has grown worse because of it, that keeps us twisting. We’re not expecting the yes-but. We’re always… If we’re the writers, we’re expecting the no-and.
[Dan] We need those successes.
[Howard] My nine-year-old… When he was nine. I can’t remember the name of the film we were watching, but there’s a moment in which the hero has a plan and he goes and executes the plan. I turned to my son and said, “So you think it’s going to work?” He said, “It looks like it’s going to work. If it works, we’re not going to have a movie.” Nine years old. Here’s the thing… So he can see through the form. The form, to him, is transparent and he’s nine. But we still enjoyed the film. So in spite of the fact that there is artifice, in spite of the fact that the form is telegraphing to us where we are in the story and some of the things that are happening, the ride is still enjoyable. I think that where a lot of writers may run into trouble is that if you want to skip straight to the end, you’re not enjoying the ride.
[Brandon] Yeah. You need to make that ride enjoyable. In fact, our writing exercise this week is one that I often use when I’m in the middle. As I said, the middle is very often hard for me. It sometimes because I’m getting a little bored with my setting. Or I’m getting a little bored with the viewpoints I’ve used. I just need to shake it up a little bit for me in order to reignite that excitement. So what I do is, I look at a scene I’m planning to write coming up and I say, “Can I put this in a different location? Something new?” Something I’ve introduced. It’s not like I’m moving to a new city, but the… One I often use, I’m like, “We’ve had a lot of scenes in this room, let’s go into the garden.” Now Mary, when I was talking about this, pointed out in a short fiction, particularly the shorter you get, the fewer scenes you want to use. So the choice for short fiction may be to take it back to a location you’ve already used so that you can explore that one a little bit more, so you can keep it fresh. But look to something you’re going to write, and change up the setting from what you were planning to do. Just see if it makes it a little more exciting for you.
[Mary] I’m going to just say that sometimes changing the setting actually means just changing the time of day.
[Brandon] Yeah, changing the time of day. Or we’ve always been sitting in this room. Now are going to be sitting in this room while dinner is being made and brought in. There’s a new set of scents, and it changes your view on this room that was, in past, a stuffy conference room. Now they’re using it for dinner and setting out all of these trays.
[Howard] And I can smell dessert.
[Brandon] You can smell dessert, and suddenly you’ve refreshed the entire thing by changing something small. That’s your writing exercise. You are out of excuses. Now go write.