“The worst thing you write is better than the best thing you didn’t write.”
—Unknown

What Is Liminality And Why Does Your Story Need It?

Chuck Wendig says writing the middle of a novel is the hardest part. He calls it the Mushy Middle. Others call it the Sagging Middle. Or even the Middle-of-the-Novel Mud.

Many writers know how to begin their story and how it will end, but what’s supposed to happen in the middle?

Liminal Space

Photo by anurag agnihotri (creative commons)

What Is Liminal Space?

Liminality is the in-between moments, the space between an inciting incident in a story and the protagonist’s resolution. It is often a period of discomfort, of waiting, and of transformation. Your characters’ old habits, beliefs, and even personal identity disintegrates. He or she has the chance to become someone completely new.

This is the middle of every great story. Liminal space is the period between Raskolnikov’s crime and his confession to detective Porfiry. It is the space between the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents and his becoming Batman in order to protect others. Liminal space is Luke Skywalker’s apprenticeship in the swamps of Dagobah. It is Frodo’s long, slow journey to Mordor. Liminal space is the period between Elizabeth Bennet’s realization she likes Mr. Darcy and the moment she agrees to marry him.

Every story must have a protagonist who changes, and change happens through liminal space, this middle time of transformation. The word liminal means “threshold,” the door between one season of life and the next, the time between the wound and healing, the period between childhood and adulthood.

That’s why the middle of every story must be a period of liminality. Here are three key characteristics of liminality:

1. Liminality Is Destructive

In ancient coming of age ceremonies, the child being initiated into adulthood is often ritually wounded (e.g. circumcision, piercing, tattoos).

Liminality always requires a violent inciting incident. Bruce Wayne’s parents must be killed for him to become Batman. Elizabeth must realize she may never see Darcy again to discover she loves him. Raskolnikov must become a murderer to be redeemed.

Transformation always requires death, death of the old person so they can become something new.

2. Liminality Is Chaotic

The middle of your novel will be full of your character’s failed attempts to resolve the tension created by the inciting incident. This is because when a person enters liminal space, their old value system is destroyed, causing them to become disoriented. They need a new value system to live by, and the experimentation they undertake to discover that value system is always uncomfortable and full of failure.

Bruce seeks revenge on the murderer of his parents. Raskolnikov tries to evade detective Porfiry. Luke goes into the cave to face the phantom Darth Vader.

But there is also something exciting about all of this. In this space, as Nietzsche says, “God is dead,” at least the old god, and the restraints that once held your characters back are no longer in force. In other words, they can do anything they want.

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the young lovers traipse wild through the forest and the fairy queen seduces a donkey. Frodo’s gardner, Sam, becomes his guide and savior. And famously, Elizabeth Bennet gets to tell off Lady Catherine de Burgh!

As the prophet Isaiah says, in liminal space…

Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.

The status quo will be destroyed to make room for something new.

3. Liminality is the Place of Transformation

I love the subtitle for Jeff Goins’ new book, The In-Between:

Embracing the tension between now and the next big thing.

This is what liminality is all about, learning to live with tension and pain and even the boredom of waiting.

The middle of every great novel is about developing character, it’s where your protagonist decides what kind of person he or she is going to be.

Liminal places teach us to let go, relax, and be changed.

Finding Contentment In Tension

And the question implicit in this, for our characters and for you, is can you be content in the midst of tension? Can you find your equilibrium in a chaotic world?

The in-between moments, as Jeff’s The In-Between illustrates, are full of waiting. Can you persevere through pain and boredom and be changed? Jeff says:

Life is waiting. Not just waiting in line at the grocery store or waiting to renew your driver’s license, but waiting to renew your driver’s license, but waiting to love and commit and find the work you were meant to do. Our lives are full of inconvenient setbacks, not due to some great cosmic mistake but because of some divine purpose we don’t comprehend.

In the waiting, we become.

The In Between by Jeff Goins, book

(By the way, Jeff Goins’ book The In-Between, just came out. I highly recommend picking up a copy now. Find out more at inbetweenbook.com.)

The middle of your book (and the middle-moments of our lives) are about becoming. Who is your protagonist becoming? What experiments (and failures) is your character undertaking to become that person?

PRACTICE

Write about a character experimenting with a new identity.

Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.

Happy writing.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

  • Couldn’t resist! Following part 1 at http://thewritepractice.com/all-around/ and part 2 at http://thewritepractice.com/money/ , here is the third and, hopefully, final part of Thomas’s story.

    Thomas’ head dropped. There was no way he was going to manage the journey twice in one day, but he couldn’t argue. He put the paper down on the counter, and shuffled back to the door. No paper today, then.

    A fit young man might have managed the journey back to his house in five or ten minutes. For Thomas, it took thirty, and by the time he reached his front door he was exhausted and hurting. Even his aches had pains of their own.

    He fumbled in his pocket for the key – not lost, fortunately – and let himself in. Once inside the familiar surroundings of his hallway, he was able to relax for a moment. He rested his hands on the console table, and felt the strength return. It flowed from the very fabric of the house, through the stout solid oak of the table, and along his arms.

    Wrinkles smoothed. Pains disappeared. Muscles, long since withered, were reborn. His stooping posture was replaced by an upright position, his chest thrust outward and his biceps rippled.

    He was no longer Thomas, the old man at number 72.

    He was ElderMan.

    The newborn hero reached into the coat cupboard, retrieved his cape and mask, and put them on. He retreated to the small garden at the back of his house, where he could not be overlooked by nosey neighbours, and soared high into the sky, seeking justice and vengeance on behalf of old people everywhere.

    First stop was the paper shop.

    When Thomas pushed the door open this time, it didn’t so much tinkle as chime with the power of Big Ben. The door smashed into the lottery stand behind it, and two small boys ran for cover. Thomas marched up to the counter, where the man who just a few minutes earlier had refused him 55 pence of credit was cowering, wondering whether it was worth his while reaching for the baseball bat that he kept for emergencies like this one.

    “Don’t even think about it,” boomed Thomas. “I can see that bat with my X-Ray vision and it wouldn’t even put a crease in my cape.”

    “W-w-what can I do for you, sir?”

    “You can stop being so damned rude to your older customers, that’s what you can do. Show them some respect. Next time a regular customer has left his cash at home, you let him take the paper and pay you the next day. Is that clear?”

    “Yes, sir, of course, sir, sorry, sir…”

    His first mission for the day complete, Thomas returned to the door with a single bound. He listened, carefully, for any signs of distress in the vicinity. What was that? Mrs Tobbs having trouble crossing the road? He flew over the row of shops opposite the newsagent’s, and landed in the next street, where the exceedingly frail Mrs Tobbs was indeed stuck.

    Thomas was having none of this. He picked her up and, in less than a flash, had her on the other side of the road. “Oh, thank you, thank you,” she said.

    Pausing only to rescue Mrs Johnson’s cat from one tree and to retrieve Mr Wall’s hat from the next one along, Thomas zoomed back to the wood behind his house where he could safely remove his costume without being identified.

    Just another day for ElderMan.

    • Elise White

      I like the twist the story took!

      • Katie Hamer

        Me too!

  • Elise White

    Ainsley felt naked. Every time she had to explain to someone new how her mother had died, dredging up the painful details, she felt like she was laying bare a part of herself. Before in her life at Lennox the family kept their darkest secrets and fears neatly hidden away, but since their move to Horseshoe Ainsley felt that everyone knew everything about her.

    “How is your father?” the neighbor lady, Mrs. Horton, asked at the grocery store.

    Ainsley shifted the weight of her bags onto her hip in order to chat for a moment with her inquisitive neighbor. “He’s in shock, but he’s managing.”

    “You know, honey, you can call me any time that you need to talk. I’m a good listener.”

    Ainsley thought she’d heard that a million times. She appreciated the offer but knew she wasn’t likely to take anyone up on it. She didn’t want to expose herself, her feelings, and the problems that her family had been dealing with. She wanted to press rewind and go back to life when she was comfortably out of the public eye.

    What a time this was for her to be changing how she felt about Trent Randall. She wasn’t sure she could trust her own emotions. She wasn’t the same person anymore, not without her mother.

    She had barely made her way from where Mrs. Horton stopped her before another aquaintance, Martha Stroodle, came running through the automatic doors with outstretched arms.

    “Honey!” She said. “How are you?”

    Ainsley’s face was smashed into Martha’s large bosom and she felt her grip on her paper grocery bags loosen. A few apples toppled out and Ainsley was forced to tell another stranger the story of her life.

    • Katie Hamer

      Very moving!

    • Loved it. The narrative hooked me to the point of visualizing the shop.

  • Aha! A most important topic indeed! Permit me, Joe, to point out one point of confusion, however: You say that transformation requires the “death of the old person so they can become something new.” Agreed. Then you say that the “protagonist decides what kind of person he or she is going to be.” My point is this: a dead belief system can’t decide anything; it simply vanishes, clearing the way for “seeing”. This is basic to the mystic tradition, out of which have come all the great religions. And which I would argue is relevant to the art of fiction, about which you and I are so obsessed. This liminal zone you speak of — I love it! — because it frees the protagonist — if only momentarily — from the prison of his/her small mind. Decisions…that`s more mind stuff. Decisions have done nothing but get the protagonist into trouble. No more decisions! = transformation. (what do you think of that?)

    • Interesting point, PJ. I think I agree with you and disagree with you. There’s certainly an extent to which the protagonist (or the initiate, in the case of liminal initiation rights) has no choices. There is an extent to which it is about revelation, certainly. However, I think you choose how to act upon the revelation given to you.

      • Joe…yes, I realized after posting my comment that, of course, one takes one’s epiphany and then runs with it or not. Thanks for that. I wanted to highlight “seeing the truth” because it is overlooked as an element of fiction. In fact, I see this critical moment in stories as the reason we read fiction. It’s a flash of freedom. I would argue that we all have a subconscious drive to be free of the limitations of our paltry belief systems. It`s like finding yourself doing the will of God… not the will of our everyday minds. I see this as a kind of Holy Grail of human life on earth.

  • Katie Hamer

    I read this post with great interest. I’m looking at writing longer passages of fiction, and found it very inspirational and potentially very helpful. Reading the advice on liminality I began to think of the five stages of grief and loss which are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance, and how these could unfold in response to a major life changing event. I guess if you throw in a couple of twists or complications along the way, you potentially have a very compelling story.

    • The 5 stages would make a fascinating structure for a story. Of course, the inciting incident would be the thing that made the person mad.

      Have you ever read or seen High Fidelity? I just realized he goes through all five stages. Great story.

      • Katie Hamer

        Funny you should mention that, Joe. Nick Hornby hails from the same part of England that I also grew up in, although I’ve never met the guy! I saw the film and loved it, especially the role played by Jack Black. The film reminded me of my misspent youth in second hand record shops!

        I haven’t read the book. I’ll add it to my reading list. So thanks for the suggestion!

  • Curtis

    Joe. If you’re free on weekends you should give preaching a go. Unless you object I plan to swip that one. Couple, maybe three sermons there.

    • Ha! Thanks Curtis. 🙂 And yes, you should absolutely use this concept. Check out Victor Turner and the liminality wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liminality

      • Curtis

        Thanks Joe.

        Back in the day we called liminality Living Life in the Mean Time. While we wait for our ship to come in. Nurture our inner entrepreneur. Locate the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Get traction. Reach escape velocity. Become King or Queen of the next disruptive, you pick the cliche- What? What will I do with my moments in the mean time?

        “All the gold in California is locked in a bank in Beverly Hills in somebody else’s name.” An aggravating refrain that interrupts one of my in-the-mean-time fantasies.

        • I don’t think liminality is about wishful thinking (although I enjoyed your list of cliches!). It’s more Jesus in the wilderness (or better, three days dead), Siddhartha under the tree, St. John of the Cross’s dark night of the soul. The lesson is you can embrace them and be changed or flee from them (mostly, these days, by distracting yourself) and miss it.

          • Curtis

            Woe! It has been a long time since I have encountered anyone who could or would put that list of three together. In the last twenty years I have heard the dark night of the soul mentioned once. The valley of the shadow is the valley of the shadow. Distractions or medication it wont go away. Thankfully, the brother said “through” the valley. Something tells me you didn’t just get bored and decide to Google Siddhartha one cold rainy day in January. grace and peace.

          • Ha. I have indeed googled Siddhartha, but I studied religious history a bit in college. I’m not an expert by any means, though.

  • I saw my first impression is that the illustrations article. The choice of refinement.

  • Kristen Pham

    I enjoyed this post because it gave me a new way to look at the tension that exists in the middle of a book. I’m currently editing my novel, and I’m going to think about making sure that I’ve included these moments of tension, failure and discomfort into the story. It makes intuitive sense that a character shouldn’t get to be comfortable until the conclusion of the story, but I never explicitly thought of it this way.

  • I love this blog and community! That said, let me “perpetrate” some more writing. Here goes my practice for this post:
    ———————————————

    I see the break of dawn through the curtains. How long it was since awaken ? One hour, two ? My eyes are a bit sticky from crying till sleep again. Funny how I didn’t realize how many time passed by since the last time my mornings where immersed in reflection. By the Source, how I hate this stinking ball of mud we call planet Earth. My mouth tastes bad, I’m feeling such a coward for not being strong enough to finish my own life.
    – Plain stupidity. – Azrael’s voice chimes in clear as crystal, startling me to the point my muscles hurt.
    – Where have you been?!
    – Not far. But you did poorly on hearing me.
    – Oh c’mon! Don’t give me that! The whole hell broke loose upon my head and you are blaming me?

    Great. Talking to the air again. I wonder what could cross my neighbour’s mind if he was peeping me from his window. Looks like I’ll have to do way better to avoid getting defensive.

    – Hmmm… who else is to blame ? – his voice brings me back to the issue.
    – You, for starts? Where the great Azrael was while his protegee was tumbling downhill?
    – Oh, by the way, I believe you’re ready for this: my name is Peter, not Azrael.
    – WHAT? You lied to me? Great! Job gone, wife gone, bankrupt, coachsurfing and now my only spot of sanity – a voice in my head – isn’t what I thought it was… I really need a bullet between the eyes.
    – I told you, it’s plain stupidity. Calm down, try to bring back your feelings from half an hour ago. We’ve lots to talk about.
    – Fine. I’m short from drolling inside a strait jacket. What’s next? Bring’em on!
    – Calm down. Rage chemically shortens your reach to memory. If the biological explaining isn’t enough for you, try to paint the picture of me whispering “don’t worry, I’m here” in a crowded room where everybody is screaming. Including you.
    – Are you telling me that I’ve been in a screaming madhouse for the last dozen of weeks ?
    – In a certain way, yes. Self imposed, I may say.
    – And what’s that with the name? I thought you were an angel. The only way to accept your voice in my head was to think about it as something from above.
    – And that’s correct. Grossly simplified, but still correct. I’ve picked up the name from your memory. You studied hagiology, theology and religion for seventeen years.
    – That was a long, loooooong time go.
    – And yet it worked. Good. Now that you’ve calmed down, let’s put you back on tracks.
    – Wait! Why this change now? After all we’ve been through together, why you’ve been silent? Was all that a big lie?
    – It was just a way to make you accept the first impressions. It worked, huh?! All your training and our conversations are truthfull. And it’s all connected with your dumbness. When I first “met” you, you were so full of yourself that would be nearly impossible grab your attention without some aid; next, you’ve been boiling so hard in your own rage that no voice could reach your conscience.

    Suddenly I feel ages worn out. My body feels like weighting thousands of pounds. It feels like I’m about to burst in tears, but there’s no energy for that at the same time. Peter “Azrael” soften the tone:

    – You will see me very soon, but some more preparation is needed. We have dealt with your pride, now with your rage, and the next step is your lack of focus.
    – Focus?
    – Yes. Tired of being the bouncing ball toy of your very mind?

    My tiredness begins to turn into clarity.

    – Yes, I am. But can you promise me, by the Source, that there will not be more meat mincing like that.
    – No.
    – Oh crap.