Keep the Middle Moving

Every piece of writing advice warns against letting the middle of your story sag. I understand the danger. Deep in the heart of my story, I’m writing page after page of fun character interactions and sparkling dialogue and then it hits me. I’m lost in my story. I don’t know why I’m in this scene or where it’s going. Scenes like that work against the idea of keeping the middle of my story moving.

The Domino Effect

I’ve come across three metaphors that might help you understand how to keep the middle moving. One is the domino effect, an idea found in this excellent post by Denise Hunter on the blog for American Christian Fiction Writers. She writes about how conflict should move the story forward.

I think of the domino effect as every action scene should advance the story. If Rae, my main character in my WIP mystery, visits her great-grandfather, it can’t just be for a pleasant conversation. She learns a clue to the mystery she is trying to unravel. That clue leads to another and another. Or the clue may turn out to be a red herring, but it still has to knock over the next domino and keep the story going.

A Line Graph

Another way to visualize the middle is a line graph. I learned this technique from authors James Rubart and Cara Putnam at the ACFW conference in 2017. They used the line graph to demonstrate how the entire plot unfolds but it still works for analyzing the middle. The dips in the line are obstacles the main character encounters while trying to achieve her goal. The peaks are victories.

For a mystery, a line graph could resemble the image below.

Piloting a Glider

A third way to think of the middle is like the flight of a glider. The glider goes up and down while riding air currents, but it must always move forward. If it stops, it drops. The same is true for the middle of a story.

If I get lost in a scene, I have to discover its purpose. What is the point of this scene beside giving me a lot of enjoyment as I write it? Often I find I can combine several points into one scene giving it multiple purposes.

In the scene with Rae and her great-grandfather, their conversation reveals a clue to who is stalking Rae. It also gives readers another chance to get to know the great-grandfather character and an uncle who doesn’t like Rae’s father. Making my scene have several purposes keeps the middle moving.

How do you keep the middle of your story moving? I’d love to learn from you!

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.

Four Ways to Troubleshoot Your Plot Points

Many times when I’ve sat down to write, I’ve been tempted to tell a plot point instead of show it. It’s so much easier and quicker. Sometimes, a plot point needs to be told so as not to bog down the narrative. This is especially true in mysteries. Often characters are relaying information to each other. It’s perfectly fine to tell it, so I don’t repeat myself.

For example, if Bob has a conversation with Ann and then repeats it to Tom, I don’t to write a detailed conversation between Bob and Tom. I can say, “Bob told Tom what he learned from Ann over lunch.” Or “Bob reported his conversation with Ann, only leaving out the part about her poodle.”

But wanting to tell a plot point instead of show can be a sign of a bigger problem. If your instincts are pulling you that way, here are four ways to troubleshoot your plot points with show don’t tell.

The plot is too complicated.

I started “A Rose from the Ashes” from the point of view of a female character who wants to figure out who is leaving two roses in the fireplace at the abandoned children’s home. This woman drags her nineteen-year-old friend into her amateur sleuthing. At the end of the story, I planned to reveal the teen was behind the roses, then have her explain she was trying to find her father, then have her explain she was also investigating a murderous attack on her mother. It hit me that, while the plot was good, I was presenting it in a needlessly complicated way.

The story belonged to the nineteen-year-old girl. I should let her tell it. Once I changed my main character, the plot complications smoothed out beautifully.

The plot point is unnecessary.

If I can’t think of an interesting way to show a plot point, I’m tempted to tell it. That’s when I should examine it and see if I really need it. Maybe it’s an unnecessary complication. Or I may realize …

The plot point needs a change.

Let’s say my amateur sleuth must find out that Old Man Thompson had an illegitimate child in high school. I was planning to have the gossipy hair stylist tell him. But I can’t get a good handle on the stylist character, so I want to rush through the scene, telling it, instead of showing it.

So I change how my sleuth learns the information. Maybe his grandmother tells him because she graduated with Old Man Thompson. Now that provides my main characters with a personal connection to his investigation.

Or maybe he finds an old diary with the information. Where does he find the diary? Whose diary is it? Those questions and others can inspire me to show and not tell my plot point.

The plot point is unconvincing.

If you’ve watched mystery shows and movies very often, you know what I mean. The detective discovers the true meaning behind a clue and spends minutes convincing a skeptical colleague. I don’t mean the detective is trying to convince his friend that an unlikely suspect did it. What I mean is the screenwriter knows he’s thrown in an outrageous twist and is hoping to get the audience to believe it by having his detective explain the clue to his friend, who is standing in the place of the audience.

For example:

Detective: Yes, those mysterious yellow and green feathers were deliberately left at the murder scene to make us suspect that Miss Prim had trained her parrot to drop the tablet of poison into Mayor Abernathy’s tea cup. But in reality, Mrs. Abernathy mixed the poison in the sugar bowl because she knew her husband always ate cereal on Tuesdays and always put sugar on iit.

Skeptical Friend: I find that hard to believe.

Detective: Would you believe Miss Prim really did train her parrot to drop the tablet of poison into Mayor Abernathy’s tea cup?

Skeptical Friend, edging toward door: Not really.

I ran into this problem when I had to create a reason for why Rae’s father hadn’t looked for her when he thought her mother was pregnant with his child. I came up with a long-winded explanation but realized I was trying to convince myself. So I simplified it.

The entire county thought Rae’s mother had died in a fire. For years, her father did, too. When he thought Rae’s mom might have escaped the fire, he figured she had aborted the baby, which she had threatened to do. Simple and convincing. If I couldn’t convince myself of this plot point, I needed either to get rid of it or change it.

How have you used troubleshooting to improve your plots? Or what plot points have you read that you think needed troubleshooting?

Writing Tip — Idiot Plots and Other Frustrations

girlw-504315_1280I’m sure many of you are familiar with the Idiot Plot. I learned about this plot contrivance while reading a book of film critic Roger Ebert’s film reviews. An idiot plot is a plot that can only advance as long as most or all the characters are idiots.

These are the kinds of plots where I find myself yelling advice to the characters in the pages or on the screen. Horror movies leap to mind.

Dumb teen: Just because every person who has ever entered the old Van Buren place has disappeared doesn’t mean it will happen to me.

Dumber teen: I’ll go with you.

Below are two variations that come under the Idiot Plot.

Glinda the Good Witch Contrivance

My mom can not stand Glinda the Good Witch. In The Wizard of OzDorothy could have avoided all the trouble with the Wicked Witch if Glinda had just told her in Munchkin Land to click the red shoes together to go home. I know Glinda says Dorothy wouldn’t have believed her, but she could have told her. If Dorothy rejected the advice and got into all sorts of difficulties because of it, at least Glinda had done her due diligence and wouldn’t be in danger of getting smacked by my mother.

Stories where a key character withholds information for no good reason are so frustrating. In Prisoner’s Base by Rex Stout, a character is killed because she doesn’t immediately tell the detectives that the man claiming to be her late friend’s husband is an imposter. No convincing reason is given why she withholds that information.

This contrivance seems to happen when the revelation of the information would end the story then and there. But if that’s the case, then there’s something wrong with the plot’s construction.

Rube Goldberg Method of Plotting

Mystery and thriller writers are very susceptible to this problem. In an effort to keep surprising their audience, they string together plot points that don’t feed naturally into each other.

Years ago, my husband watched a season of the show 24 because he’d read that terrorists hack into computers in order to make every nuclear reactor in the U.S. meltdown. As a nuclear engineer, my husband thought the premise was a hoot.

Although there a number of subplots, the main thread concerned the meltdowns. These endanger the president, so he takes off in Air Force One. The terrorists plan for this and have a pilot on their payroll steal a military jet and shoot down Air Force One. When it crashes, the terrorists recover the briefcase with the president’s codes to set off missiles and use it to steal one missile.

They have the ability to meltdown every reactor in the country but that’s only a step to getting what they really want: a missile. I’m still scratching my head over this one.

But, Sometimes, Characters Can Be Convincing Idiots

People do stupid things. People say stupid things. Unfortunately, I know this first hand and wish I could take back some of the things I’ve done and said.

In fiction, I have to make the stupid behavior convincing. That can take a lot of work, but if I want to reflect real life, and if it’s truly important to my story, I have to put in the time to pull it off.

In 1947 film noir Out of the PastKirk Douglas plays a realistic, stupid character. He is a professional gambler, whose girlfriend shoots and wounds him while stealing $40,000. He hires a detective to find her. He seems more interested in her than the money.

The detective finds the girlfriend. They have an affair and try to hide from the gambler. But another detective finds them. The girlfriend shoots him and runs. Our hero discovers years later that the girlfriend pleaded with the gambler to taker her back, and he did.

Why would the gambler do this when she shot him? The character of the gambler makes this stupid behavior believable. He’s arrogant, rich, and ruthless. He gets what he wants, when he wants it. It feeds his ego to take back a woman, who begs him to reconcile with her. But his arrogance blinds him to how clever his girlfriend is. Eventually, he finds out but not in a way he likes.

What are some plots that make you want to scream? Or at least say, “Huh?”

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