The Dreaded Middle:
One Navigation Technique to Guide Your Script out of the Doldrums
In the middle afternoons of my childhood—if I was looking particularly glum or bored my mom would often say, “What’s the matter? Are you in the Doldrums?” I would nod and then she’d either make me a snack or send me outside to clean the garage.
I’m hesitant to admit it, but I don’t think I knew what The Doldrums actually were until a high school science teacher told our class. They are also known as the Intertropical Convergence Zone, the area near the equator where winds from the northern and southern hemisphere converge. This area of the world is not a favorite with sail-powered vessels because of the erratic weather patterns, namely either destructive thunderstorms or no wind at all.
It’s no coincidence that the Doldrums appear in the middle surface of the earth, that my childhood Doldrum mood occurred during the middle of the day, and that perhaps you find your story to be in the Narrative Doldrums in the middle of your screenplay. No movement, no wind, no forward motion.
Okay, so what can we do to get our story out of the Doldrums? Tell you what: I don’t have the only solution, but I have one solution that has worked for me. And it is…
Activate and Insert a New Character.
And yes, I mean, a brand new character. One you hadn’t planned on or even thought up until now.
I want to give you a concrete example from a famous film.
We’ve all seen The Shawshank Redemption, right? If you haven’t seen it, then honestly, I’m a bit jealous; I wish I could see it for the first time again. It’s a fantastic film, so definitely do watch it soon. To make a long story short, 30-year-old Andy (Tim Robbins) gets sent to prison on a life sentence for a murder he didn’t commit. While there he meets Red (Morgan Freeman), a “fixer” who can supply his fellow inmates with just about anything from the outside world. Anything that is, except for hope. But lucky for Red (as film critic Roger Ebert observed), “hope” is something that Andy has in great quantities.
So, Andy and Red spend about 20 years in prison together. They meet and get to know each other in an interesting way, and later they part company in an even more shocking and intriguing way. The problem is: what do they do for the other 18 years?
Screenwriter/director Frank Darabont very wisely activates and inserts “Tommy” a young smart-mouth punk who appears in Shawshank at about the dead-center of the film. Please note: I’m talking about a brand-new character, one that has not been mentioned or foreshadowed in any way earlier in the film. Tommy stays for about ten minutes of the film, and during that time he shakes up the old-time prisoners, he gives Andy a new project (to help Tommy earn his high school diploma), he brings important news from the outside world (proof that Andy is innocent of his crime), and finally creates a turning point from which the characters (especially the Warden) cannot return.
What I’m talking about here is Position Change. Tommy appears and the positions of the main characters—Andy, Red, and the Warden—change significantly and irrevocably. Andy is knocked out of his complacency, Red’s concern for Andy grows exponentially, and the Warden commits a crime that deepens the peril for all of the prisoners.
I’ve heard this next anecdote many times, though I’ve never been able to verify it. Whether it’s true or not, I think it still reveals the truth about writers and storytelling:
The crime fiction writer Dashiell Hammett (The Maltese Falcon) was asked how he kept his stories so compelling. He replied: “Whenever I get stuck I simply have a guy kick in the door and come in with two guns blazing.”
And that’s what you need to do when you’re in the Doldrums of your screenplay. Get some new person in through that door. And… think of the kick of the door and the guns blazing in a metaphorical way. Your new character doesn’t have to be armed with a shotgun, or any gun for that matter. He or she may come armed with anything from news to cupcakes to sex to solutions to problems to the keys to the car that will get your character out of one predicament and into the next predicament. The point is: the new character can change the positions of your main characters.
When stuck in the doldrums, shake things up. When the recipe becomes bland, add another ingredient.
Tom Kealey teaches creative writing at Stanford University. He is the author of the Creative Writing MFA Handbook, and his stories have appeared in Best American Nonrequired Reading, Glimmer Train, Story Quarterly, and Poets and Writers. When he is not distracted he is spending this spring and summer completing the novel The Winged Girl.