Muddling Through the Middle of Stories

This month’s theme tackles the part of story writing I think is often overlooked–the middle. A great deal of advice is written about how to start a story, but the middle and end don’t seem to be analyzed in as much detail. So muddling through the middle of stories isn’t unusual for writers. The posts this month aim to help you with your middle.

The Middle is Critical.

When I examine my YA mystery, A Shadow on the Snow, the first 48 pages are what I consider the beginning. The last 41 pages make up the end. So that leaves 162 pages, minus a few blank pages, of middle. Since the bulk of my story is the middle, it’s critical that I get it right. A story can’t just be set-up and resolution. The resolution won’t mean anything if the set-up hasn’t been developed. For a mystery, the middle is where the detective conducts most of his investigation. It’s also the part where readers get to know the characters.

If Your Middle Isn’t Working

A number of reasons could lead you to muddle through the middle of stories. Like …

Secondary characters take over. If you are writing in the middle and find you are spending more time with your main character’s (MC) grandmother than with the MC, you’ve got a problem. Maybe you’re writing the story from the wrong POV. Or maybe you need to flesh out your MC better to make her more interesting. If she’s more interesting, it will be easier to write about her.

The stakes aren’t high enough. Are you too nice to your characters? If you don’t let bad things happen to them, then you might find yourself writing pleasant, boring scenes. Think of situations that would really hurt or test your MC. Don’t save all the action and suspense for the end. In A Shadow on the Snow, I have a suspenseful chase through a snowstorm in the middle. It’s sort of like putting the second most thrilling feature of a roller coaster ride in the middle. Just be sure to save the most thrilling one for the end.

No ending, no middle. I may be atypical, but I usually think of a climax before any other part of a story. Knowing where my story will eventually end up helps me construct the middle. It’s like planning a trip. I know where I’m starting from and I know where I need get to. Between those two points are quite a few different routes I could take. But if I only have the starting point, it’s impossible to plan a route. I could end up anywhere. That’s not always bad, but I can waste a lot of time.

So let me hear from you. What problems have you had muddling through the middle of stories? Or what stories have you read that did a great or terrible job in the middle?

Writing Tip — Favorite Author

PoirotThe opening of Murder on the Orient Express in theaters tomorrow reminded me of a time when I inhaled Agatha Christie mysteries. In high school, I read almost all of them. Over the years, when I wanted a comfort food book, I often returned to my favorite novels and short stories. As I’ve grown older, I find more flaws in the storytelling than I did as a teenager, but some of the novels still can’t be beat for plotting in a mystery.

That was Mrs. Christie’s strength, mystery plots. Her characters were often one-dimensional but characters, unless they were the detectives, were not why people made Mrs. Christie the best-selling author after Shakespeare. They loved her plot twists and the opportunity to solve a puzzle along with her detectives.

Of her two main detectives, I like Miss Marple better. I like the idea of this elderly spinster being so good at reading people from her experiences in a small English village that she could apply her knowledge to just about any person she met. Like in Pocket Full Of Rye, she becomes suspicious of woman’s husband when she realizes the woman is the nice kind who always falls for troubled men.

If you want to write cozy mysteries, you must read some of Mrs. Christie’s novels and short stories. If she didn’t invent many of the conventions for cozies, she at least made them popular, such as the nosy amateur detective and gathering all the suspects together so the detective can reveal the identity of the murderer.

Recommended Reading

Breaking with conventions. In the 1930’s, certain rules had been developed about how to write crime fiction. Mrs. Christie “murdered” those in Murder on the Orient ExpressThe Murder of Roger Ackroydand And Then There Were None.

Hercule Poirot. Two of my favorite novels with the Belgian detective, Christie’s busiest creation, are Death on the Nilewhich was turned into a very good movie, and Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, which is my favorite Christmas murder mystery. It has everything you expect: a large country house, a toxic family, and a clever murder with a murderer, who also breaks with conventions.

Miss Marple. Even though I like this character, I think  her novels aren’t as successful as Poirot’s. But try The Body in the Library and The Moving Finger.

Short Stories. If you like short stories, like me, read Thirteen Problems with Miss Marple and The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, who certainly lives up to his adjective.

If you like cozy mysteries, what are your favorites?


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