For most of us writing the middle of the story is the most difficult part.
The middle is where insecurity tends to rear its ugly head. Is this story going anywhere? Are these characters going to hold anyone’s attention? Is it believable what I’ve got them doing?
Regardless of whether you’ve planned things out meticulously or are winging it, these insecurities usually boil down to one of two concerns:
1) Is it too short?
2) Is it too long?
It may appear that feeling the bulk of the story is rushed or that it is too drawn out are completely separate and opposite problems, but in fact they stem from the same root cause: what you’re writing isn’t holding your interest.
This is a good thing. It’s not easy to identify why the middle isn’t working, and any indication (even if it’s a vague uneasy sensation in your gut) is helpful.
The start of the story tends to be concise and clear. You know you have to introduce certain elements and set up the premise. It may not be that easy to execute, but at least you have an idea of what you’re shooting for.
At the end of the story there will be some sort of resolution. You might have a clear idea of what it will be or you might not, but even if you don’t, chances are you’ll know it when you see it.
Both the start and the end of a story have particular functions and although you may not use all of them, or you might subvert them, knowing what the general expectation is helps guide you in terms of form and content.
But the middle, what exactly is it? How would you sum it up? This is the bit where we get from A to B? Not exactly something you can print out and stick on the wall for inspiration.
Sure, you want the protagonist to encounter obstacles, for new problems to arise and for the stakes to get higher, but how much is enough? And how much is too much? It can be hard to tell, especially if you’re up to your neck in storylines and subplots and characters and twists and turns.
Which is why that feeling that the middle section is too long or too short is worth paying attention to. It’s your subconscious’ way of letting you know that whatever the middle is supposed to be, this isn’t quite it.
This isn’t to be confused with the idea that certain types of books have to be a certain length and yours might not fit the industry standard. You won’t find many agents or publishers who’ll say they loved the story and would love to sign you up, only you were 5,000 words short of what’s they’re allowed to sell. That’s more to do with avoiding having to read so many manuscripts.
A story can be whatever length it needs to be, but the middle is going to be where most of it happens. And the middle is going to be the hardest to evaluate because there’s just so much of it, doing so many different things.
What you have, once you’ve got the start of the story out of the way, is a character with a goal. You know you can’t just give him what he wants because that would be very short and very dull. So he’s going to face a bunch of problems.
A detective who needs answers can’t just call people and say, “Do you know who the murderer is? Oh really? I’d never have guessed it was him. Do you know where he is now? And how do I get there? Hold on, let me just get a pen.”
So you create obstacles, which lead to conflict, which leads to drama. But having the witness refuse to cooperate until the detective threatens her with deportation isn’t much better.
What has getting what he wanted cost him? How much effort? Did things go as expected? Were they well within his field of expertise? Did he have the tools conveniently within arm’s reach?
These sorts of things that enable a character to overcome a problem five seconds after the problem arises will make scenes feel too quick and easy, even though the basic structure (a goal, an obstacle, a solution) would appear to be in place. No matter how big the stakes or how immediate the danger, if the solution is reached with little to no fuss, all you’re doing is kidding yourself that a dramatic incident has occurred. It has not.
What actually occurred is that the main character has intersected with a secondary character, and that secondary character has simply fulfilled a function (giving the main character something they require in order to move on to the next stage of the story). And as the hero unlocks one door after another in rapid succession, it doesn’t provide a satisfying narrative experience.
Bu that doesn’t mean you have to come up with ridiculously intricate plotting. The issue tends to be with the people in the story.
Drama is about people interacting with other people. The kind of secondary characters that simply provide the main character with what he needs tend to be very bland. The less resistance they offer, the blander they are. They offer very little in the way of interest, but they do keep things moving along.
On the other hand, if the secondary character is being unreasonable for no good reason, if the clerk at the DMV is insistent all forms are filled in triplicate, if the gate steward refuses to let anyone on the plane no matter how urgent, if the baby won’t stop crying because it’s a baby, the reason scenes like this can feel long and dull is because they are clichéd.
They may make sense and be based on reality, but they are also the most common and familiar character types for those sorts of character. They play out their roles in a standard way. Even with some adjustments to flesh them out they still feel like listening to an old relative tell that same story about the time they went to blah, blah, blah. In fact the more you flesh them out, the longer and duller the story gets.
Bland characters make stories feel too short, clichéd characters make stories feel too long.
The fix for both is to consider each scene from the secondary character’s perspective. That’s not to say you have to write a full bio for every minor character, but if you go beyond them just serving a function and think of them as an individual then they will contribute both content and pacing to the scene. What is their view of situation? How do they see the protagonist? What do they hope to achieve by acting how they’re acting? What do they want?
Once you think it through from their POV it will be much easier to tell if a scene is living up to its potential. And it will also be much easier to rewrite scenes to make them feel more dramatic and more entertaining.If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.