Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Do You Have a Sagging Middle?


by Sybil Johnson

We’ve talked about endings of stories on this blog. How about those sagging middles? Even if a writer has a clear picture of the beginning and the end of a story, we sometimes get lost in the middle. How do we get to the end in a way that makes sense and keeps a reader’s interest?

When I first started writing, I read a lot of how-to books on writing in general and mysteries in particular. Most, if not all, of them talk about how hard it is to write the middle of a story. It’s the point where a lot of writers run out of gas and have a hard time figuring out where the story goes next. Or a writer has a middle, but it’s a bit slow, bringing up the possibility that a reader will give up and move onto something else. Not something you want to have happen. 

Before we can talk about writing the middle, we should define just what the middle is. Is it the exact middle of the story? Or something else?

Nancy Kress, in her book “Beginnings, Middles, and Ends”, defines the middle as “everything after the introduction of the main characters/conflict and before the climax."

For my cozies, I define it as the point after the body is found and the investigation begins to where a major revelation occurs that sets the sleuth on the right path. Or, at least, she thinks it’s the right path. That encompasses almost half of my story. Maybe that’s a bit too broad, but it works for me.

No matter how you define it, middles can be hard. So what do we do about them? Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years.

My books have 3 plot lines, one that focuses on the main story (usually the murder or other crime), one subplot that focuses on something that’s going on around the fictional town of Vista Beach where the story takes place and one subplot that focuses on something personal that’s going on in a recurring character’s life (doesn’t have to be the main character). They generally all revolve around what I call a theme. For my first book, it was all about responsibility and who does and doesn’t take responsibility for their actions. In another book, it was about betrayal. You get the drift. I have no idea if other people do something similar, but it works for me.

Anytime, I’m not sure where to go I: 

  • think about the theme of the story and see if there’s something I can figure out from that
  • look at the different plot lines and ask myself which one I haven’t focused on recently. The majority of the scenes deal with the crime, but I do try to weave in the other subplots throughout the book and have them all come together at the end. I hope that by doing it this way, the book will keep a reader’s interest. 

A tip I found in one book I read on writing, don’t know which one, said if you get stuck, ask yourself what the bad guys are doing behind the scenes. They’re probably trying to make the sleuth’s life difficult in some way so she stops investigating. I have found that useful on a number of occasions.

I also do sort of a mini-outline. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a plantser. I know who did it and why, have the characters and have major points in my story figured out before I start writing. Somewhere in the middle, there’s something that happens that either raises the stakes or sheds a whole different light on the situation. When I’m writing, I figure out how to get from each of the points in the story in the most interesting way possible. If I don’t know where to go, I’ll review these points and think about them in more detail. I think having some sort of outline helps me to not get bogged down as often as I would if I were a pantser.

That’s all I have to say. Here are a couple interesting blog posts I came across that you might find interesting:

I’m not an expert on writing. I came to the game later in life. I don’t teach writing classes. But I’ve learned a few things over the course of writing books and short stories. I hope this post has been useful to some of you and sparks some ideas on how to deal with your own sagging middles.

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