Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an ending.
That seems like a pretty obvious statement, until you start looking at all the different ways of analyzing stories: the three-act structure, the four-act structure, the five-act structure, the four-acts-plus-teaser structure, linear, nonlinear, parallel running scenes, reverse parallel scenes…the list goes on and on, and people are constantly inventing new ways of telling stories and of looking at and analyzing those stories once they’ve been told.
Nevertheless, that basic beginning, middle, end lies behind even the most complicated story, once you untangle the chronology and the ups and downs of the various ways of presenting or structuring it. And every writer I know has trouble with at least one of those three basic areas. Which area is problematic varies from writer to writer and book to book, but for a whole lot of us, it’s the middle of the story that’s the slog, and it doesn’t seem to matter whether the story is a hundred-thousand-word novel or a two-page short story.
The middle is where things veer off course, and where seemingly minor oversights, missteps, and detours can ruin what should have and could have been a dramatic and moving endgame. Because the middle is where the characters grow and change; it’s where the plot twists; it’s where the characters (and often the writer) struggle to get somewhere, figure something out, make a plan or a decision.
Middles are vitally important to any story. In one sense, they are the story; going straight from setup (beginning) to wrap-up (ending) is rarely satisfying. How interesting would The Lord of the Rings have been if Tolkien had begun with the first few chapters in the Shire and then said “So Frodo left, carrying the ring. Nearly a year later, he and Sam approached Mount Doom…” and went on to the destruction of the ring? Not very; indeed, the ending would hardly make any sense at all without knowing some of the things that have happened along the way, like how he lost track of Merry and Pippin, who Gollum is and what he’s doing there, etc. The best opening hook won’t keep readers reading if the middle of the book bogs down, and the most amazing ending won’t salvage a dreadful middle because the readers won’t ever get to the ending.
Yet middles get short shrift in a lot of how-to-write books. Most of them spend a chapter or two on the standard plot skeleton (problem-complications-crisis-resolution), and then spend most of their time on particular elements like dialog, characterization, description, theme, style, viewpoint, etc. This strikes me as explaining to someone how to make lovely bricks without ever telling them how to put them together to make a sturdy wall.
To my way of thinking, what the middle part of a story needs is the sense that we’re getting somewhere. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s a physical journey involved; “getting somewhere” can just as easily mean slowly whittling down the list of suspects in a murder mystery, or the deepening relationship between the main characters of a Romance novel, or any number of other things that make the reader feel as if something important is coming closer and closer.
(The somewhere the middle is getting to will, eventually, be the end of the story. This ought to go without saying, but it’s amazing the number of writers who find themselves heading in some completely unanticipated direction. When this happens, it is usually best to adjust the ending and pretend that is what you meant to do all along.)
Most often, the sense of progress in the middle of the story is expressed as an increase in tension – as time and the story go on, the situation keeps getting worse despite all the main characters’ efforts – but there are other ways to keep the middle moving. Increasing apprehension (where the actual physical situation is not any worse, but the characters are finding out more and more reasons to be worried) is one; increasing urgency is another (where there’s some sort of time limit: the cure must be found before the patient deteriorates past a certain point, the bomb must be disarmed before the countdown timer reaches zero, the dress must be finished by the afternoon before prom night). The main character’s emotional involvement with the problem, or with some other character, can increase over the middle of the story; his/her self-knowledge can grow; the amount of information the character (and thus the reader) has about the central story problem and/or its solution can grow.
Managing the middle of the story usually means paying attention to several levels at once, because everything affects everything else. The emotional level (how much the main character cares) affects the reader’s perception of the physical level (how dire the physical threat is). If the physical threat or the urgency keeps rising, but the main character cares less and less about whatever is being threatened, the middle will probably bog down. If the main character cares, but doesn’t appear to be learning anything despite repeated encounters, the middle will probably bog down. It’s like adjusting the sliders to balance the speakers on your car sound system; it’s not enough to get the treble perfectly right if the bass is way off.