Stuck in the Middle With You*

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.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Daphne du Maurier, Louise Penny, Reginald Hill, Vera Caspary

24 responses to “Stuck in the Middle With You*

  1. And thanks for the shout-out, Margot! Let’s face it: the middle of the mystery is all about the investigation. It might be where, if we were ever in the heads of the suspects, we get a lot less of this and more focus on the detective/police. We sift through clues. We apply and reject theories. We have to deal with the dreaded second-or-third-murder-for-the-sake-of-spicing-things-up! I haven’t written my mystery – YET! – but I have to imagine its easier creating and introducing a group of angry suspects leading up to a murder and having that big climax at the end than it is to create a fact finding mission that is riveting to all readers! This is why people love Minute Mysteries!!!

    It’s also why I always prefer mysteries that let us see into the lives and minds of the suspects throughout. P.D. James was good at creating a troubled group of people, but they tended to disappear once Dalgliesh and Crew started their work. Early Christie was much more sleuth-centered than the 40’s and beyond; no wonder I sometimes prefer 1939 – 1953!

    • It’s always a pleasure to plug your excellent blog, Brad. And you’re right: it is a challenge to create a middle of a story that isn’t either cliché or overburdened with unnecessary detail. I think you have a well-taken point that one key is to explore the suspects’ lives – see who they are as people – and sometimes the sleuth, too (although that can certainly be overdone!). To put it another way, I think it can help a lot to flesh out the characters, so that readers want to know what happens to them, almost independent of who is actually guilty. That’s quite tricky, as you also don’t want to lose sight of the fact that this is a crime novel, and readers want the focus on the crime.

      You make an interesting point about both the James novels and the Christie novels. There’s something about those WWII/Post-war years in Christie’s work, and the Golden-Age type novels that James wrote. There’s a very nice balance there between a focus on the crime and the opportunity to get to know the characters.

  2. Without hesitation, I’ll put the book down. Life’s too short for books that drag.

    As a writer, I believe proper scene structure and the use of MRUs (cause and effect) are the magic bullets of storytelling. And so is structuring the overall story. By hitting key milestones at the correct point in the story, including the middle, we’re able to keep a story from getting bogged down by exposition and/or (gasp!) info. dumps.

    • Thanks for your insights, Sue, both as a reader and as a writer. Life really is too short to allow ourselves to get bogged down, isn’t it? And there are too many great books out there.

      You make a really well-taken point about timing in a story, and about planning the events in it. I think that really is a helpful way to keep the action moving and avoid, as you say, information dumps (!) and too much exposition. I think it also helps prevent the need to throw in more murders or other action that’s there simply for shock value, and not to actually serve the story.

  3. I hardly ever give up on a book, but that may be because I am pretty sure I want to read a book before I start. So unless the middle is REALLY dragging, I just persevere and I am usually rewarded. But I have read my share of books that bog down in the middle.

    But I would also like to note that book reactions are individual and I have read a book where half the reviewers said it was slow in the middle and half said it was fast paced throughout.

    You picked some great books to highlight here.

    • Andre Michael Pietroschek

      Just for the #lol or #rofl: If I trust my critiques, showing you any of my ebooks would still make you give up on all of them…

    • Thanks for the kind words, Tracy. And I think you make a very important point that everyone is different when it comes to what ‘counts’ as fast-paced, and what ‘counts’ as slow. Readers are individuals about everything, really, and that’s no different. I like your idea, too, of being as sure as you can that you’re going to like a book before investing the time and energy into reading it. That way, even if it drags a little, you’re still interested in the outcome.

  4. Oh, the dreaded middle! You know I’m always complaining about flabby middles where nothing happens to move the plot along. I reckon the easiest way would be for authors to simply print out their final draft, then rip out and throw away the middle third of the book… 😉 More seriously, I’ve really noticed the difference between vintage crime and contemporary recently. The vintage stuff averages about 100 pages less than the newer stuff, and mostly what’s missing is all the stuff about the detective’s messed up life and relationships. While obviously some modern writers (like Hill) can make the detectives interesting enough to be worth a storyline of their own, mostly I prefer each chapter to get on with the main plot in some way…

    • I know how you feel about saggy middles, FictionFan! 🙂 – And you have a well-taken point. A book doesn’t have to be 450 pages long to tell a powerful story. I agree with you that some more contemporary authors (Hill is one; Rankin is one; Sansom is one; there are others) who can keep the interest going as they explore the characters and context. In the end, though, for a lot of readers, it’s the plot that matters. Readers want to know whodunit (if it’s that sort of novel), or whydunit (if it’s that sort of novel), or… They don’t want, as you say, 100 pages of exposition. In some way, every part of the story needs to, well, serve the story.

  5. Col

    That tune’s in my head for the day now, visualising Michael Madsen dancing, closer, closer …..

    PS I don’t give up on books no matter how badly I’m struggling – there’s always the hope that things will pick up. If they are really bad, I ration them to a chapter a day and get stuck into something else. I’m normally reading more than one at any given time anyway.

    • Yeah, it’s that sort of tune, isn’t it, Col?
      I like your idea of rationing a book out if it’s slow going. That way, you at least get the chance to see if it’s going to get any better as the story goes on.

  6. Spade & Dagger

    If I’ve enjoyed the first part of a book, I’ll usually struggle (grumpily !) through a ‘flabby’ middle section, in the hope of reaching a good resolution. Just last week I tackled (because it includes references to noir films) the latest best seller – The Woman at the Window by AJ Finn – which turned out to be the perfect example of a good story needing a good editor to tighten up a rambling middle section, which very nearly made me abandon the book & then I would have missed a well written (if predictable) ending.
    Particularly annoying in any mystery book are middle sections that serve only to provide many pages of detailed description of various characters driving endlessly to and fro to buy food &/or sit in diners/restaurants; to get drunk in the hope of gaining clues/ personal redemption/ vital insight; to gaze at ‘scenes’; or to follow highly improbable ‘hunches’.

    • I don’t like those sorts of middles, either, Spade & Dagger. They don’t add anything to the actual story – the plot – and they can drag on. As for The Woman at the Window, I admit I’ve not read it (yet), but I’m glad you’ve mentioned it, as I’d like to read it, saggy middle and all. Some books really do need an editor to tighten them up, even if they do have a strong beginning and a satisfying ending. And I think a lot of people do a similar thing to what you do: if they’re drawn into a story, they’ll keep going with a book, even if it is slow going. If they aren’t particularly enjoying the book in the first place, they don’t finish it.

  7. Kathy D.

    Oh, I liked The Woman in the Window, thought the writer kept up the pace well. I could not put it down. The best psychological suspense book I read last year. It was not insipid or boring or nonsensical.
    The middle? Well, if it drags it is a problem. Also, not only too much detail, but too many descriptions of landscapes. Or if it’s about a financial scheme, you can’t keep writing about that. State the main points and then go back to characters and dialogue. It’s enough to read the newspaper financial pages; reading fiction is supposed to be fun, diverting, entertaining.
    You have to have people doing something and some dialogue to keep up interest. That is unless it’s Guido Brunetti’s introspection; then it’s OK in the middle. We readers like to know everything he’s thinking about. It’s worth the time.
    Also, if there is a weird plot twist that makes no sense whatsoever, that can discourage a reader. Plots have to make sense.
    And also, the middle can’t be boring. I returned a book to the library as it was simply boring. It was not a mystery. Maybe if a dead body had appeared, it would have perked up the story.
    I’m reading Paul Levine’s “Bum Deal” right now and I’m laughing out loud, so as long as the wit keeps up, no matter what happens, I’m here to stay.

    • Paul Levine does write with real wit, doesn’t he, Kathy? I’m glad you’re enjoying that one. And you have an interesting point about the things that can pull a reader out of a story in the middle (improbable events, plot twists that don’t fit, and so on). The middle really does have to make sense and fall out from the story if it’s to be successful.

  8. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this great post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog on the topic of the challenge of the middle of stories.

  9. I can tell by how quickly I fall asleep in the middle of a book whether or not it was well crafted. I find that books that use what I call the ‘Columbo’ approach hold my interest. This is where the bad guy is revealed right at the beginning of the book and the middle of the story is the process that the protagonist goes through to catch the perpetrator. You know he or she will be caught, you just don’t know how. The old Columbo TV show used to use this method and I’ve written a couple of books with this formula and it was fun.

    • That is an interesting way to keep the middle of a story going, Don. With that sort of plot, it’s a bit of a ‘cat and mouse’ game, that keeps the action and interest going, even if we know who the killer is at the beginning of a novel. I like your metric, too, of whether a story has a strong middle or not. 🙂

  10. That middle part is tricky, as you say. I’ve had a spate of books recently that started great and then dragged so I didn’t want to finish them. I’ll check out Brad’s post.

    • I do recommend Brad’s post (and blog), Jacqui. He always offers rich ‘food for thought’ and thoughtful commentaries. And you’re right about the middle part of a story. It can be very tricky, and you’re not the only one who’s stopped writing a story because the middle was too ‘draggy.’

  11. Mudpuddle

    my last post (A Raw Youth) was sort of a mystery, with a perp and a heroic investigator, but it was also a good example of how an author can get carried away with his own theorizing and completely forget about the reader. a couple of hundred pages out of that particular book would have improved it immensely…

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