Everyone remembers the great song Stuck in the Middle With You by Stealers Wheel. It played prominently in Tarantino’s classic crime move, Reservoir Dogs. But the song is not what I’m talking about here in this post. What I’m referring to is the writer’s journey into the dreaded middle of their story. The Middle is where the tent starts to sag. Where we put on those extra pounds. Where the birth order can go very wrong (only joking).
How many times have you started reading a crime novel and it starts out with a bang, only to have the story start to drag halfway through? It’s disappointing and a reason why many readers skim through this part of a book. Believe me, it’s difficult for us writers, too. The question is: how do we strengthen the dreaded Middle part of the story in order to keep the reader’s attention?
The dreaded Middle. In the worst case scenario, it’s rudderless filler meant to pad the word count. Oftentimes, what constitutes the Middle of a novel is too much exposition, ill-advised detail, excessive dialogue and nefarious subplots that add nothing to the plot. Suffer through these boring plot devices and we finally get to the climax and denouement.
So how do we avoid this problem as writers? How do we keep the arc of the plot rising to its exciting apex? Then to have the story accelerate like a rollercoaster down its steep tracks, and heading toward its shocking ending?
The key to conquering the dreaded Middle is first not think of it as the middle. Break down your novel into smaller components. Think of each chapter as a story arc unto itself. Now not all chapters need to be as thrilling and exciting as your opening and ending sections, but there needs to be tension and some expectation of a payoff. Visually, envision your novel as a hurricane racing across the Oklahoma plain, and within it spins hundreds of smaller tornadoes all churning and driving the larger, more destructive storm that is your killer story.
Dialogue is key to creating this ongoing tension. Every line of it should have meaning and be able to move your plot along. A useful tool is misdirection, meaning that what a character says is not always what they mean. This happens so often in our real lives that we take it for granted. And what a tool it is! Ask someone how it’s going and they invariably respond with, “Fantastic.” But we know from the law of averages that not everything is always fantastic for people. Sometimes they’re lying to save face. They don’t want to tell you about their painful hemorrhoids or the fact that their spouse has a drinking problem. If you really listen to a conversation between two people, the dialogue is merely a device to establish social etiquette and increase status, with varying motivations n between, and not necessarily an honest representation of what’s really happening in their lives.
Your doctor asks how many drinks a week you consume. Your wife asks how she looks in a particular dress. A mother sends out an annual Christmas letter filled with half truths. See what I’m getting at. People often talk past each other to put themselves in a better light. In real life it’s fascinating to observe, but in crime fiction it can really drive the internal forces in your crime story, helping you ratchet up the dreaded Middle.
One visual I use during the writing of my novels is that of a steel bar. If it remains straight while you’re writing, the story remains flat and uninteresting. I repeatedly have remind myself in the Middle to keep “Bending the Bar” as I write. At every step in the novel, I try and Bend the story Bar, meaning that I need to ramp up the tension in every scene. I close my eyes, grip that proverbially steel bar, and use all my strength to bend it for the sake of the plot. I’m very satisfied at the end when my story line resembles the Gateway Arch.
Micromanage your novel. Every sentence should be interesting, tense and packed with meaning. Make these sentences miniature tornados rotating around each other within the paragraph. Then the paragraphs spinning dervishes within the chapter. The chapters violent wind storms within the novel. In this manner, every part of the novel is churning and moving everything toward it’s thrilling denouement. Do this and your story will be the equivalent of an F-5 Tornado blazing across the Kansas landscape.
In some sense, it’s best not even to think of your Middle as a middle. Just as time is not something readily observable in the universe, the Middle can be crushed by breaking down your novel into subatomic structures, protons, electrons and neutrons all buzzing around each other, attracting and repulsing, leading to something resembling the end of the universe. Or an atomic explosion. Thus the Middle becomes not a particle but just another wave undulating through the story ether.
The Middle has plenty of unfortunate connotations. The middle child. Middle age crisis. Middle-of-the-road. The middle that grows around our waist. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing if we don’t view as such. The best writers can make the Middle as exciting and thrilling as the beginning or ending.
So be not afraid of your Middle. Embrace it and view it as an opportunity to make it the best part of your novel. Let it be the literary landscape where you shock and awe, and breathe much-needed life into your plot. Think of it as a way to add all sorts of interesting motivations and action sequences. A place where dialogue shines, ambiguous and unreliable, and in the end reveals true character. The Middle is what gives your story it’s depth, dynamism and dimension. The Middle, when you come right down to it, my dears readers, is the fascinating life we all lead between birth and death.
Great post with excellent suggestions. I couldn’t help thinking of a photo I saw not long ago with some poor guy in the back of a truck, clowns to the left, jokers to the right and a sheep in his lap.
That was GREAT Joe! Thanks so much. Very helpful to think of the arc of each scene and the misdirection reminder was very timely for me. Thanks for gifting us with this memorable post and advice!