Five Authors, Five Questions: Middles

My conversation with writers continues. Today, we look at slumping middles and how you might avoid such–or…how you might have to write them anyhow! Participating writers include: Luc ReidKrista Hoeppner Leahy, Don Mead,  Justin Howe, and Vylar Kaftan.

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How do you keep a story from slumping in the middle?

LR: I usually feel propelled in writing a story from beginning to end, and that often seems to correspond to the story continuing to have interest for readers through the middle. There’s something I need to see happen or want to depict or want to figure out completely, so I write to get there. If I falter writing it in the middle, that’s a red flag for me that I may be losing interest in my own story. Maybe I took a wrong turn–made a character do something that either they wouldn’t do or that makes that character less worth reading about, resolved a problem instead of making it bigger, or set the protagonist on a course that doesn’t really make any interesting progress toward the main goal. Middles of stories are sometimes described as being a series of failed attempts to solve the central problem, but they need to build, too. Unlike life, most short stories need meaningful progression.

In terms of direct tools to recharge a story that seems to be losing steam, I usually try one of two things: either starting elsewhere in the story, for instance backtracking, or skipping ahead and writing the end; or else letting something go horribly wrong. Making things worse for the characters often seems to make things better for the writer and readers, as long as it continues to bring the characters in conflict with the key story problems.

KHL: Oh, I let the story slump and sag and slouch as much as it longs to in the first draft. Then I cut mercilessly as I revise. And hard as it may be to hear, I ask my wise readers to be brutally honest if they felt the urge to skim anywhere.

DM: Don’t know; I’m bedeviled by stories that slump in the middle. Maybe enforcing an artificial word count. After a story’s finished, decide to edit out a thousand words no matter what. If a publication has a maximum word-count, you might be forced to do this anyway. You’d be surprised how brutal you can be when it comes to making a sale (and you can preserve your story too).

JH: You write a slumpy middle then delete it when revising because the delete key is the sexiest key on your keyboard. Or delete your beginning and tighten the slumpy middle into a tight beginning. Deleting what you’ve written can be a joyous, liberating experience. “Wait. I don’t need you after all Slumpy Middle. I can just sum you up in a sentence or three. DELETE.” Ursula K. LeGuin mentions Chekhov’s Razor (it might have been in her collection THE WILD GIRLS) and once you accept that as truth, that you can delete the first three pages of most drafts and lose nothing, the rest is easy.

VK: Spiked clothespins to hold it on the line. Less metaphorically–add intense, dangerous, and hurtful experiences to your protagonist which make his/her goals harder to get. Kidnap her child, break his leg, send an evil spirit to possess him. Any sort of outside force which interferes with the protagonist’s ability to get what s/he wants. (But my protag doesn’t want anything, you say?  Well then, you have a different problem that you need to solve first…)

Next time: point of view!

2 thoughts on “Five Authors, Five Questions: Middles”

  1. The Kaftan approach is my personal favourite, though setting up those spiked clothespins early in the game so they don’t seem completely diabolus ex machina can be a challenge. (And my god but the remark about the protag not wanting anything is spot on…)

    Also Chekov’s Razor <3

  2. I find middles won’t snag if you set up enough conflict within and for your characters — exterior goal issues, internal issues. If the middle is sagging, look back at the characters — particularly the antagonist. If there’s lots of conflict for the antagonist, that person’s going to be making plenty of trouble for everyone in the middle of the book.

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