An interesting post by Brad at ahsweetmystery has got me thinking about the middle of a story. Now, before I go any further, let me suggest that your next blog stop should be Brad’s fine blog. It’s a treasure trove of in-depth, informed, thoughtful reviews and commentary.
It’s important, of course, that the author create an interesting beginning – something that will invite the reader to invest in a story. And we’ve all had experiences with endings that left us satisfied (or even awed), and endings that disappointed (or worse). It’s not hard to make a case for a well-written, strong ending. But the middle of a story is at least as important. One of the reasons, for instance, that readers don’t finish a novel is that they get bogged down somewhere in its middle.
There are plenty of reasons that can happen. In some novels, it’s a matter of providing too much detail (e.g. historical fiction where there’s sometimes a lot of emphasis on time and place). In others, it’s a matter of, if I can put it this way, not enough happening. There are other things, too, that can bog down a story in the middle. It’s just as important for authors to plan the middle of the story as it is for them to plan the rest of it.
Some authors keep the interest going by slowly building tension. For example, Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None uses the suspense that’s created when ten people are stranded on an island together – and someone is targeting them. It’s true that there are several deaths in that novel, but the real focus is on the psychological suspense in the surviving characters. As they slowly begin to suspect each other, we see how each interaction is increasingly fraught with tension, and that helps to keep the story going through the middle.
Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn also uses slowly-building tension to keep the story moving. In that novel, Mary Yellan goes to stay with her Aunt Patience and Uncle Joss Merlyn after her mother dies. They run Jamaica Inn, on Dartmoor, and it was Mary’s mother’s last wish that she go to live with them. Right from the start, the place is eerie, and Uncle Joss even eerier. Aunt Patience is obviously afraid of her husband but is powerless to do much about it. As the story continues, the place becomes more and more claustrophobic, and Mary is more and more uneasy. Then, she begins discovering some dark secrets about the inn. Even the day-to-day business of eating, sleeping and so on are tense, and that keeps the story moving to its conclusion.
Some authors use major plot twists to keep the middle of a story interesting. That’s what happens in Vera Caspary’s Laura. As the novel begins, the body of successful advertising executive Laura Hunt is found in her apartment. New York Police Lieutenant Mark McPherson is assigned the case and begins looking into it. He slowly gets to know the people in her life, spends time in her home, and gets to know something about what she was like. Then, in a major plot twist, it turns out that the dead woman is not Laura Hunt. Instead, she is identified as Diane Redfern, an acquaintance of Laura’s who had permission to stay in the apartment while Laura was away on a trip. Now, McPherson has to start all over again with his investigation. As it turns out, even Laura herself now becomes a suspect.
In Colin Dexter’s Death is Now My Neighbour, Inspector Morse and Sergeant Lewis are called in to investigate when physiotherapist Rachel James is shot through the window of her kitchen one morning. The police look into the victim’s finances and relationships, but there isn’t anything untoward – certainly nothing that would suggest murder. Then, a journalist named Geoffrey Owens is shot. He lived near the first victim, so now, there’s a question of whether a killer is stalking all of the residents. There’s a major plot twist, though, when Morse and Lewis discover the real reason that both people were killed. When they change their focus, the whole investigation changes, too.
Many authors choose to use sub-plots in their novels to keep interest going and to keep the middle of the story from getting ‘boggy.’ Reginald Hill, for instance, frequently used sub-plots in his Dalziel and Pascoe stories. As fans of this series can tell you, Superintendent Andy Dalziel supervises a diverse group of police detectives, and they all have their own personalities and lives. Throughout the novels, Hill explored those characters, providing sub-plots and story arcs to maintain the interest in the stories.
Louise Penny has done this as well with her Armand Gamache series. Many of those novels take place in the small Québec town of Three Pines. As the series evolves, we learn more about the various characters who live in the town. We also learn more about Gamache. Penny uses these opportunities to develop the setting and context, and she provides sub-plots and story arcs in which readers learn more. Not only does this serve to keep reader interest going, but it also adds layers of plot and character development.
There are, of course, many other ways to keep a story from getting bogged down in the middle. I haven’t mentioned, for instance, the second murder, the wrong person being arrested, or (with apologies to Raymond Chandler) the man with a gun coming through the door. All of those strategies, if they fall out naturally from the story, can keep reader interest going, too.
What about you? Do you consign a book to the DNF pile if the middle drags on? If you’re an author, how do you keep the middle of a story interesting?
Thanks, Brad, for the inspiration!
*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Stealers Wheel.