The Keys to Writing a Gripping Middle

I’m mostly a plotter. Part of the reason for that is that I have a mentality that thinks ahead, and the other part is that I have kids. I have to maximize my writing time when I get a chance to sit down to it. Having an outline already worked out saves me time.

When I had to write a 5,000 word short story in two weeks, I saved an enormous amount of time when I had a pretty good grasp of my beginning and absolute certainty about my ending. Knowing my start and my destination, I could explore various paths to connect the two.

I thought I’d need a different technique for writing a novel. But I’m finding that a strong beginning and a definite ending are the keys to writing a gripping middle of any story. This technique may not work if you’re a pantser, but if you’re a plotter and having trouble with your middle, try it out.

A stellar beginning sets up a stellar middle.

After typing 60,000 words for the second draft of my YA mystery, I stopped to review the chapters. I edited, looking for ways to tighten my writing. I discovered that my beginning takes about 70 pages. I introduce the mystery–my main character (MC) receives a nasty anonymous note because of her mother’s notorious past– as well as my main characters, suspects, and their relationships to my MC and each other.

Once I had the beginning in good shape, I had a better focus on the middle, deciding which characters were important and which ones I could ditch. I had a better grasp of how to develop the mystery through clues and red herrings and to flesh out the characters and how their behavior could make them appear guilty or innocent.

The middle supports, hints, and/or foreshadows the ending.

How many times have you watched a movie or read a book and found the ending blindside you? A successful ending may seem like it comes out of nowhere, but when I reflect on the story, I can detect the bread crumbs of plot points and character development that lead to the stunning conclusion. The endings that truly blindside me are the ones where the writer didn’t establish enough supports or hints or clues in the middle to create a satisfying ending.

Hero, sneering at villain: You didn’t know I’ve studied underwater basketweaving for the last five years, so you never suspected I could make a trap when I dove underwater.

Sidekick: Wow! I’ve known you for ten years and had no clue.

Neither does anyone in the audience as they groan through this frustrating ending.

If the fact that the little brother of the MC likes to invent things is critical to the ending, then I have to introduce this quirk early and repeat it enough so it seems natural to the character without underlining it. The the reader, hopefully, is surprised but not stunned.

I’d love to learn to read your opinions. Plotters, do you have other keys to writing a gripping middle? Pantsters, I’d love to know how you tackle the middle.

WIP Progress

I thought I’d take time today to update you on my WIP progress, a YA Christian mystery with the working title A Shadow on the Snow. It’s the sequel to my short story “A Rose from the Ashes.”

Since I haven’t written a novel in years, I’m discovering what writing habits work best for me. So far, I’ve discovered that I write best when I handwrite five to ten chapters, type them into a second draft, go over them again, then press on with the first draft of the next five to ten chapters.

As of August 2020. I have 57,000 words in very good shape. I need to get another 20,000 to 30,000 down on paper and polished. I believe I’d be further along if I hadn’t spent nine weeks teaching my kids their online lessons. That put our computer time at a premium.

But the story is taking shape nicely. I really enjoy the polishing process, taking out tangents, enlarging minor characters necessary to the story, and making all the elements sync up. For a mystery, syncing up clues and red herrings are critical. Such as if it’s important for my main character to use her self-defense skills in the last chapters, I’d better mention that she has those skills somewhere earlier in the story. Or if the fact that Mr. Delaney is left-handed is a clue, I have to introduce it to readers in a way that they notice it but not too much.

One obstacle I’ve encountered is writing a story set in January, February, and March at the height of summer. If I’m having trouble describing the setting, I can’t go outside and get first-hand inspiration.

I’d love to hear about your WIP progress and your creative process!

Favorite Speculative Fiction Short Stories

After mysteries, speculative fiction is my favorite genre to read. Two of my favorite novels, regardless of genre, are speculative fiction, the fantasy Watership Down by Richard Adams and The Time Machine by H. G. Wells. Click on the titles to read my reviews.

I also love reading short stories. The anthology Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers contains four of my favorite speculative fiction short stories. If you love science fiction or fantasy, try to get your hands on a copy of the anthology or see if the short stories below are reprinted online.

The Tryouts by Barry B. Longyear

On the planet of Momus, reporting the news isn’t a right or a job. It’s an art, which people pay for like any other art. That makes it very difficult when an ambassador from the Ninth Federation needs to tell the people of Momus about an imminent invasion from the Tenth Federation. As a newsteller, an artist who performs the news, put it, this story has “great heroes and high comedy.”

This story is original and fun, especially for a writer. As the newsteller performs his news, his audience of three critiques it like an agent or editor. They remark on whether the opening has a good enough hook, if the hero is described well enough, or if he has sufficient motivation. It also has a great twist ending.

The Homesick Chicken by Edward D. Hoch

Edward D. Hoch was known for his mysteries, so it’s no surprise that this science fiction story is also a mystery. Barnabus Rex, a detective of scientific riddles, is called to a research farm to figure out why one of the farms genetically modified chickens pecked its way out of the farm, crossed a belt highway, and was found pecking in an empty field. Yes, it’s a futuristic version of why did the chicken cross the road with the added element of crime.

The Band from the Planet Zoom by Andrew Weiner

A rock band of three young men and a young women approach a British rock critic to be their manager. They claim to be from America. They cover songs from the 60’s in any style you can name. He becomes their manager, and the music business goes wild over these clever copyists. The manager learns they aren’t really from America but from a planet where the citizens loves this kind of music. When he falls for the young woman, he learns the Band from the Planet Zoom copies more than just hit songs.

The Hob by Judith Moffett

While on a vacation in Yorkshire, Jenny Shepherd meets Elphi, a member of an alien race who assumed the role of hobs in the countryside. Hobs are like fairies or brownies, who do good deeds, but if humans break certain rules, they will leave or turn against them.

Elphi explains how his people arrived on earth and how they’re dying off. He also tells Jenny she’ll forget this whole story in twenty-four hours. Elphi is right, but Jenny is always curious about the twenty-four hours she lost on her vacation and is always drawn to Yorkshire.

I love this story because I enjoy stories that try to explain the reality behind superstitions or legends. This story also has one of the best endings of any short story I’ve read.

What speculative fiction short stories do you recommend?

Time for Change

That’s what we need more of, right? In an effort to get more done on my novel, I will not be posting a writing tip on Tuesdays for April and May. I will still have ones on Thursdays based on my monthly theme. By June, I hope to return to my regularly scheduled posts. And I hope to make serious progress on A Shadow on the Snow.

Favorite Books — Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

This book changed my life. I can’t say that about a lot of books, but Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis did. No book, outside of the Bible, has had more impact on me. Through logic, Mr. Lewis reasons his way into why Christianity is true. He addresses many objections he had when he was an atheist.

My dad gave me a copy of Mere Christianity in college, but I didn’t read it until just after I was married. I’m sorry I didn’t read it earlier, since it was a gift, but I’m not sure if I could have handled the weight of the subject at a younger age.

I had never read such an intellectually challenging book. I loved it. My brain couldn’t get enough of it. Apart from the way it changed my life, this book also influenced how I write my fiction.

Creating Precise Images

Mr. Lewis writes about some extremely difficult theological concepts but makes them accessible through his use of precise analogies.

One of my favorites is comparing human society to a convoy of ships. The convoy is only a success if it reaches its destination. It can’t do that if the ships don’t watch each other to prevent collisions or if the crew of each ship doesn’t maintain its internal mechanisms.

Humans operate the same way. We can collide when we don’t care about other people or when we have so many internal problems that we can’t help but create conflict with others.

Such well-constructed, clear images inspire me to create metaphors and similes like that for my fiction. I want to describe people or settings or even explanations of a mystery so well that readers see it like a sharp-focused photo.

Building Better Villains

Mr. Lewis has many sections on the nature of evil. Although I know when I’ve done sinful things, it was helpful to learn the reasons why. Not only does this give me insight into my spiritual life, it also helped me build better villains.

In a passage, the author explains that one huge difference between good and evil is that people will do good even when they don’t feel like it, or when it won’t benefit them. They do good because they know they ought to.

No one ever did bad because they thought they ought to, when they didn’t feel like it. Every evil action benefits the person somehow. Even cruelty, which seems like evil for evil’s sake, provides satisfaction or pleasure to the person or else he wouldn’t bother.

Those explanations about evil have helped me climb into the skins of my villains and understand their motivations, helping me create believable characters.

What books have changed your life?

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