I was floundering in the Murky Middle of my novel. You know that place—the one that happens after you’ve sent your hero off to find her heart’s desire, but before she actually gets it. Right, that place—the big, awful middle part where she’s trying to get her heart’s desire. What the hell happens there?
Blake Snyder’s well-known book on screenwriting, Save the Cat, throws a life jacket to the drowning novelist stuck in the Murky Middle. Some people love this book. Others criticize it as too formulaic. But feeling desperate, I followed Snyder’s famous Beat Sheet, his fifteen plot points to move drowning writers from the beginning of their books to the end. It really helped.
Go here to see all 15 beats, and here for great examples of popular movies analyzed beat by beat. But for the purposes of this blog, I’m focusing only on the beats (or plot points) in Act II, the Murky Middle.
The B Story:
Act I ends with a catalyst that propels our hero toward her desire and into Act II. The first beat of Act II, what Snyder calls the B story, introduces the new and upside down world our hero enters when she takes action toward her desire. Think Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games when she leaves her rural, poverty-stricken home to enter the glitzy, wealthy world of the Capital City. Or Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality who exits the male-dominated FBI to go undercover in the uber-feminine world of beauty contests. New characters are introduced here who are upside down versions of the characters we’ve met in the first act. Snyder also says the B story is the place to openly discuss the book’s theme.
Fun and Games:
Once our hero arrives in her new world, the Fun and Games can begin. Snyder describes this beat as the heart of the movie and the place from which most trailer clips are drawn. Miss Congeniality’s Fun and Games are all those scenes where tomboy Sandra Bullock is trying to fit in with the beauty pageant contestants. In The Martian, Fun and Games include all the cool scenes where Matt Damon has to “science the sh-t” out of Mars, doing things like growing potatoes, making water, and all the other things no one else could do on that planet.
Happening right smack in the middle of the book, the Midpoint acts like a big center tent pole in the Murky Middle. This beat signals that the Fun and Games are over and the stakes are ramping up. According to Snyder, the midpoint should be either “an 'up' where the hero seemingly peaks (though it is a false peak) or a 'down' when the world collapses all around the hero (although it is a false collapse).”
The Martian’s Midpoint (a false peak) happens when Matt Damon makes contact with Earth and we learn that NASA is sending a supply probe full of food. We think our hero is saved, except we’ll learn in the next beat that he’s really still screwed. The Hunger Games’ Midpoint (a false collapse) happens when Katniss is stung by the vicious Tracker Jacks. She blacks out, starts hallucinating, and looks like she’ll soon become the Games’ next victim.
The Bad Guys Close in:
The Midpoint ends with the bad guys doubling down on our hero. The stakes are raised again and things get a lot worse. In The Martian, major pieces of equipment malfunction, lots of things blow up, and all those beautiful, green potato plants die. In The Hunger Games, with a false collapse Midpoint, Katniss recovers from the tracker jack venom and makes an important alliance with another tribute named Rue. But the Bad Guys are after them. They close in and kill Rue.
All is Lost:
Now it’s looking more and more like the Bad Guys are going to win. Everything is a mess, including our hero. Nothing has worked out like it’s supposed to. Remember that supply probe full of food in The Martian? It explodes on lift off, insuring that Matt Damon will die of starvation before the rescue ship can arrive. In Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock gets fired from the case right when she has the hottest lead on a suspect. All her efforts have come to nothing.
The Dark Night of the Soul:
This beat illuminates our hero’s inner despair. It’s the darkness before the dawn, only our hero doesn’t know the dawn is coming. Matt Damon sends a goodbye message to his family, clearly believing he’s going to die. In Miss Congeniality, we witness Sandra Bullock feeling utterly humiliated.
Break into Act III:
This beat finally brings relief. Here the hero, or some other helpful soul, digs deep and hits upon an idea that will save the day. In The Martian, an unknown scientist at Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab comes up with another way to save Matt. Phew! In Miss Congeniality, the beauty contestants put Sandra Bullock back together again and help her find the real killer.
Act III signals the end of the Murky Middle. Our hero is primed to solve her problems and achieve her heart’s desire. We’ve finally made it to the other side. It should be an easy swim to the end. Good luck!