Monday, August 18, 2014

The Middle (the part between Beginning and Ending)

Critics and writers talk often about the three-act play, or division of a story into beginning, middle and end. We recite this division as though all three parts were equal in length and purpose. But they are anything but.

The beginning must be intriguing and do its work in a matter of one or two sentences, and after that perhaps in a matter of paragraphs or a few pages. Writers learn to craft strong openings in order to get the reader into the story, and it is not unusual for the opening to be the most polished part of the book. Writers think hard about the perfect opening, the perfect first sentence, the perfect early revelation to capture the reader's imagination. First lines are studied and replicated, practiced and fretted over. No writer gets far with weak openings.

The writer often knows the ending before any other part of the book, except perhaps for who will be the protagonist. The ending has a promise and a shape that may be malleable, fluid, but it exists as a gravitational pull as soon as the writer has the idea for a story. The ending tells the writer where she is going and if she's on the right road, on a detour, stuck going round in a rotary, or going over the wrong bridge. The ending is the target, the reward, and the most fun to write. I sometimes find myself speeding up as I see it approaching because I'm excited to be there, to have the fun of finishing it off and letting all the secrets fall out. Of course, the ending may change as I slog my way through the writing, but it retains its promise of a safe harbor after a storm.

The problem is the middle. The middle is the story. If the beginning is the promise, and the ending is the reward, the middle is the reality, the reason a reader picks up the book and sees it through to the end. The beginning has the pleasure of anticipation, the ending has the excitement of the reward, but the middle is work. The middle is also the biggest challenge to the writer.

I'm in the middle of my current work-in-progress, and at every scene I check myself to make sure I'm moving forward, that I'm playing out the threads introduced in the first few pages and chapters. I can introduce complications, new characters, deepen earlier discoveries with new interpretations, but I can't change direction without such a change being first promised in the beginning.

To make sure I keep moving forward in a manner true to the opening I keep a list of items that have been alluded to or referred to explicitly that the protagonist must deal with by the end. If she encounters a character who suggests that someone is not telling the truth, she must follow up on that, and determine which one is lying, or concealing something, and then why. If she thinks in the beginning that someone is hiding something from her, she has to spell that out and then follow up. What is being hidden? Where is it? Why is it being hidden? Who hid it?

The protagonist of my current WIP is Lissie, a nickname for Felicity, and the story opens with the observation that she has never known fear. I don't mean the fear of being late for a train or missing a flight, or the fear of being caught in a lie, but the bone-melting fear and terror that may come only once in a lifetime. There is a reason for this, and even Lissie doesn't know why this hasn't happened to her because it has happened to all the other women in her family, and it's one of the reasons they are able to do the kind of work they do. Intrigued? So am I.

Lissie has reached middle age without experiencing certain crucial passages that her female ancestors went through, and she knows it is preventing her from achieving something important. She is a healer, and her life is circumscribed by tradition, but she has long been committed to this life. When she discovers a dead body where she had gone to search for something else, she is pushed off the track of her life as a healer. This is the content of the middle of my WIP.

The middle plays out the promises of the beginning, and links those with the ending. Lissie finds a dead body instead of what she was searching for. She must first solve the murder before she can recover the real goal when she broke into an empty house to dig up a cellar in the middle of the night.

Her personal journey is tied to this discovery of a body and her search for a solution for the crime. When the crime is solved, she'll be that much closer to understanding her own journey. This is the middle, and this is the real work of the writer.

I've reached 39,000 words. Wish me luck for the rest of the journey.


  1. Good luck! Am on the other end of the middle myself, but still not in the ending pages. Sounds like a new project for you and I look forward to reading it. Because luck or not, Susan, you always find your way to telling a really good story.

    1. Thanks, Edith. I love the process of discovery but getting that middle into shape is a challenge. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Timely post for me, Susan. I'm also in the middle--31,000 words. I find the beginning fairly easy, the middle often slows me down and is the hardest, and the ending speeds up, but is still difficult. I never know who the murderer is until at least sometime in the middle, and frequently not until the last few chapters need to be written. I like to do it this way so that I can at that time pick who turns out to have the most interesting motive and is hopefully hiding in plain site. I figure if it's a surprise to me who did it, then hopefully it will also surprise the reader. This means I usually have to go back and plant a few clues and red herrings when done with the first draft, but really, it's not that difficult. I love how we're all different, and enjoyed reading you post. Good luck with current and all your projects!

  3. Jan, I love the idea of writing without knowing who the murderer is. I sometimes find myself at the end of a story discovering that the murderer isn't who I thought it was. I let the ending be "fluid," as I said, because I think the story has its own internal logic and I want to stay true to that. Good luck with the story you're working on--it sounds like we're at the same point. Thanks for commenting.

  4. The common complaint is that middle sections of novels often drags or sags. It's one of the things we're warned about. Good luck keeping the story moving dynamically, Susan.

  5. That's the biggest challenge--keeping the story moving through the middle. Thanks for commenting, Jacquie.

  6. Good luck. Good article. Thanks for sharing. When is your next event?