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.

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