The Flight to Australia
All about the middles
The ever-quotable China Miéville once noted that a good story should 'begin, middle, and end'.
A story without a beginning is a pretty obvious mess. A story without an ending is such a glaring rookie error that few of them get published (and those that do get passed off as literary). But what does a story without a middle look like? The middle is where the 'stuff' - and I mean this in the loosest sense - happens. Minor conflicts arise and are settled, team members are introduced, bonded with and occasionally lost, the protagonist develops and grows, and the scope of the overall conflict becomes less abstract and more real. No single part of the middle is essential, but taken as a whole, middling is when we connect with the story. It is the journey; the process. A bad middle is is something to be suffered; a good one is a story's secret strength.
Tolkien, bless him, wrote one heck of a middle. Fellowship of the Ring is a stonking beginning - and there's something equally impressive about the ending and denouement of The Return of the King (I'm talking Crack of Doom & Scouring of the Shire, not the 57 endings of the film). But The Lord of the Rings is very much a book about middling.
Let's take a look at the series through a now-familiar lens:
Get: The good guys
To: Defeat Sauron
By: Dropping his ring in a volcano
You know what achieves this? Eagles. 🦅💍↘️🌋🎇🍻
But... Tolkien isn't stupid. And as much fun as he would've had (posthumously) enraging the internet with fantasy's greatest plot-hole, let's play the authorial-intent game and examine his objectives.
Fellowship's 'beginning' ends when the team is united and the quest is spelled out in Rivendell - which still means there's plenty of middling about with Boromir, betrayal, and the moral redemption of a third stringer (aside: still my favourite character). The Two Towers is dominated entirely by a conflict between characters that don't matter - literally the safety hobbits vs a second-tier big bad. In the background, our two heroes yomp along. Plus, Gollum. So much Gollum. The Return of the King features a massive undertaking by the forces of good that knowingly amounts to little more than egging the gates of Mordor. Meanwhile, more yomping. What's that all mean? Yomping, wrangling with orcs, hostile competition, local politics, multiple stakeholder approvals, internal schisms, recipe-swapping, institutionalised sexism, genealogy, and Tom (shudder) Bombadil. All of which could've been avoided, because, as Gandalf laid out at the very, very start - the only thing that actually matters is dropping the ring.
So how about:
Get: The reader
To: Care about the stakes
By: Involving them in the process
Yes, Tolkien could've thwarted Evil in six emoji rather than a half-million words, but, that would've been a bad story. Even if all of this stuff, this middling, is procedurally meaningless, it is the point of the epic.
Speaking of winged things - and, in fact, middles - Samuel Engels of ICF writes an ode to the dreaded 'middle seat' on airlines. His argues that having to use the middle seat means the plane is full, and a full plane means that more people are travelling - and that, in turn, is because travel is more affordable and accessible than ever. The 'democratization of air travel' means:
We have made air travel more accessible to more people. According to a recent Ipsos survey by the Air Transport Association, almost 90% of Americans have flown in their lifetimes, up from close to 70% in 1990. Approximately half of Americans have taken a plane trip in the last year, up from just 30% in 1990.
In short: stop kvetching about the 'golden days' of luxury travel (which may never have happened anyway), and think more about where that cramped flight is going to take you. Focus on the reward, not the process.
This is a terrific illustration of an axiom that an old boss used to call 'The Flight to Australia'. That is, if you're selling flights to Australia, you talk about Australia, not the flight. Because, the flight, pardon my Australian, is shit. And no matter what you say, people know it is shit. Instead, drag them through the flight 'barrier' by focusing on its reward: koalas and sunshine and, uh, dingo puppies. (It suddenly dawns on me that I know very little about Australia.)
TFTA is goal oriented behaviour change. You can spot it throughout many forms of marketing. Car ads, for example, sell adventure on the open road - not an extensive and miserable research, investigation, and haggling process. Mortgage vendors sell you home and family, not an intrusive and financially-crippling application process. Airlines sell you Vegas memories and Australian sunsets, not middle seats. These are all tesseracts of marketing, magically skipping forward through space and time: one click and, whammo, koala cuddles.
However, TFTA elides the middling. That's not always for the best: sometimes the experience is what matters. It is a bold restaurant that sells you 'being full' instead of 'enjoying your meal' (although Wagamama get very close to it in their perplexing latest). And sometimes middling is, behaviourally, the most compelling message - gyms and personal trainers sell by way of 'chunking'. (No pun intended.) This is how you'll look after trying it for 2 weeks, one month, 15 minutes/day, 30 days, whatever... This is a competitive direct response market that's figured out that small steps are more believable, achievable, and compelling.
There are also the markets that could benefit from more middling. The high street is now forced to compete in the TFTA paradigm. sans middling. Even your biggest stores - John Lewis, M&S, Waterstones, whatever - are stuck in the TFTA framework of 'look at what you could have'. This means they're competing on range, convenience and price: the three strengths of e-commerce. Amazon is all about the ending: clickity click, and eagles Prime a ring to your doorstep. Whereas the high street's real advantage is the experience: the joy of browsing, service, and serendipity. It isn't about what you can buy, it is about the process of shopping. Which is to say: a middling pleasure.
To: Think beyond the outcomes
By: Celebrating middling
This has nothing to do with middles, but I will be joining John Sutherland, Maya Jaggi and Wayne Gooderham at Lutyens & Rubinstein to talk about Literary Landscapes on 23 October.
I totally used to play this game. The Reggies were oddly terrifying.