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 — Guest Blogger, Tamera Lynn Kraft

2017_ThrivecroppedSo happy to have Tamera Lynn Kraft back as a guest blogger. This time we are discussing how to  plot. When writing. Not when you want to take over a country. Welcome back, Tamera!

Which comes first when creating a story – character, setting, or plot?

Actually, none of them come first. My stories come to me when I read about events in history and wonder what it would have been like for the people living through them. Out of that comes the setting in history, the character living through that time, and what the character went through (plot) almost simultaneously.

Since your write historical fiction, how does history affect your plots?

The history doesn’t affect my plot. It basically is my plot. I’m not the kind of historical author whose stories can be set at any time in the past by changing the costumes and the way they cook. I pretty much immerse myself in the history before I even start writing.

How do you troubleshoot your plot or subplots?

Before I write the story or after? While I’m writing a story, if I can’t figure out what comes next, I consider two questions. What would naturally come next? How can I surprise my reader by blowing that up and still staying believable? After I’ve written my story, if I find there are plot holes I don’t know how to fix, I use Super Structure by James Scott Bell and Troubleshooting Your Novel by Steven James as go to textbooks.

What’s been the most unusual source of inspiration for a plot?

I think my most unusual source would be for the first novel I wrote. It’s not yet published but is coming out in October, 2019. It’s called FORKS IN THE ROAD and is a Young Adult Western about two boys who survive Quantrill’s Raid, end up on their own, and make the wrong choice at every fork in the road until they grow up to become outlaws. It’s a story of redemption. I got the idea from a western in the early 1970s called Alias Smith and Jones.

I’d say it’s unusual because every other novel I’ve written has come from researching history.

I remember that show. You never know what will inspire you.

What advice do you have for writers who want to develop their plotting skills?

My advice is to first learn plot like the back of your hand. James Scott Bell’s Super Structure is a perfect writing book for that. Then when you are reading novels or watching movies, try to identify those plot points. After you know plotting so well you could recite it, read Story Trumps Structure by Steven James and throw everything you’ve learned out the window. That’s what I did. It doesn’t make sense, but if you know structure well, you can write a good story without worrying about it and know the pieces will fall into place.

It sounds like you need to know the rules to know when you can break or bend them. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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Lost in the Storm sm

Lost in the Storm: Ladies of Oberlin Book 2

By Tamera Lynn Kraft

Will war bring them love or will they be Lost in the Storm?

Lavena, a journalist during the Civil War, wants to become a war correspondent. She finally gets her chance, but there’s a catch. She has to get an interview from a war hero who has refused to tell his story to every other journalist, and she has to accomplish this impossible task in a month or she’ll lose her job.

Captain Cage, the war hero, has a secret that will destroy his military career and reputation. Now, a new journalist is trying to get him to tell what he’s been hiding. He wants to ignore her, but from the moment she came into camp, he can’t get her out of his mind.

Leading up to the turbulent Battles for the city of Chattanooga, will Lavena and Cage find the courage to love and forgive, or will they be swept away by their past mistakes that don’t want to stay buried?

Meet the Ladies of Oberlin, the causes they’re willing to fight for, and the men who capture their hearts.

Click here to link to Amazon.

Click here to link to Barnes & Noble.

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Tamera been married for 40 years to the love of her life, Rick, and has two married adult children and three grandchildren. She has been a children’s pastor for over 20 years. She is the leader of a ministry called Revival Fire for Kids where she mentors other children’s leaders, teaches workshops, and is a children’s ministry consultant and children’s evangelist and has written children’s church curriculum. She is a recipient of the 2007 National Children’s Leaders Association Shepherd’s Cup for lifetime achievement in children’s ministry.

You can contact Tamera online at www.tameralynnkraft.net.

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?”

Writing Tip — How to Thicken Your Plot, Part II

If your plot starts to bog down, examine your settings. Are you taking advantage of their full potential?

When I wrote my country noir short story, “Debt to Pay”, I knew I needed a remote location in Ohio. I chose Wayne National Forest. My husband and I went hiking in the Athen Unit on ATV trails. At the trailhead, a sign explained that if someone in your group is injured, you must figure out which helicopter clearing you are closest to. The dirt roads are so rutted that no ambulance can get back into the area. A medical helicopter is the only means of rescue. And all of that depends on whether your phone get reception, which isn’t certain in Wayne National Forest.

Now I had the ingredients for a story. Two friends are riding motorcycles. I’ll set the story in the late fall to cut down on the number of people using the trail. One friend wrecks. They can’t get phone reception. The uninjured friend thinks that if she can get to the top of the steep, wooded hills. she can call for help. Or maybe she should return to the parking lot and walk out to a road.

Darkness is closing in. If she climbs the hills, she’s not sure she can find her friend in the dark. Walking to the parking lot will take longer, but it will be easy to find her friend. The setting give me so many routes to develop a plot.

Questions to Ask about Settings

Work place: Where does your main character (MC) work? Alone or with people? If alone, would a stranger coming into the setting be upsetting? A welcome change? If with people, are they only fellow employees or also members of the public? I love using settings where the general public can be found because I can throw in almost any character I want.

MC’s home: Is it rural, suburban, urban? An apartment or condo? An apartment would allows me to introduce more characters, and therefore, more plots. In the complex where I had my first apartment, I thought my neighbor might be a vampire because I had not seen him during daylight hours.

Homes of family and friends: Same questions as above. How does MC feel about these houses? If MC is uncomfortable or uneasy, why? If he prefers it to his own home, why?

Locations of hobbies and volunteer work: MC hates her job but loves her volunteer work at a stable. Why? She loves horses. Why? Her grandparents had horses when she was growing up. So why doesn’t she give up the job she hates and work with horses for a living?

Vacations or business destinations: Are these places MC is excited to visit or is dreading? If it’s a vacation, why would MC dread it? Because he has to share a house on the beach with his in-laws. Why doesn’t he like his in-laws?

The more why questions I ask, the deeper I dig into plot.

What settings to you favor in your writing? How do settings thicken your plot?

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