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Middling Beauty

June 28, 2012 1st Draft, Editing, Plot, Revision, Writing 14 Comments

by Kathy Crowley

The middle is that long stretch between your brilliant opening and your deeply moving conclusion, and all it has to do is carry on from the former and justify the latter. That shouldn’t be hard for committed, talented writers like all of us, right?

But it is. And here’s why. The middle of most anything is often the hardest part.  The energy and clarity of the beginning is gone, exhaustion creeps closer while the end is not yet in sight. Labor and birth are the metaphors we often turn to in describing writing: as a medical student on my obstetrics rotation, we learned that the “transition” phase of labor – i.e. the middle – is the most “challenging” part. (Don’t you hate the euphemistic use of the word “challenging?”)

I’m wondering if I can get you (and me) to approach the middle in a more positive way.  There are good things about the middle.  For example:

1. The middle is an opportunity to use your writerly muscle.

Here’s where you get to forge character (and characters).  This is where your characters face their challenges and you discover what kind of stuff your plot is made of.  In many ways, the middle of any fiction project is where the real work takes place.  This is where you, me, all of us get to hone our skills of maintaining suspense and interest, character development and plot structure.  The whole process of writing a novel is an opportunity to learn (there’s another euphemism I hate) but I think the middle is where we learn the most.

2. The middle is a place to try something new.

You are far enough into your novel to have a sense for the major characters and plot challenges. Do you feel that something’s missing? Or is there another element (plot twist/character/subplot) you’d considered but held off from including but now seems like it might work?  There’s lots of room and play in the middle, especially in an early draft, so here’s your chance.  Try something out, see how it goes.  Maybe it will add the lift and tension that your story needs.

3. The middle may be the easiest part to fix.

Of course you can significantly revise any part of a novel, but it’s often the middle that’s most forgiving.  Writers have more emotional attachment to beginnings (the seed, inspiration and life breath of their story) and ends (the emotional heft and the gift you want to leave with the reader).  The middle can be shifted, shoved, remolded and streamlined often without dislodging the pieces of the story that matter most to the writer.

4. The middle has strength.

Here’s an example that might be helpful: middle age. Yep. Speaking squarely from middle age, I can tell you that I’ve come to realize it’s not all bad. A couple of years ago, I rode home in the car with my three children after a visit with my mother, who was suffering from dementia. My mother no longer had the capacity to connect with my children. They in turn were often afraid of or confused by her odd behavior. One of the kids asked a question about something my mother had done or said and I was reminded of the beauty of middle age.  I was close enough to the experience of youth to understand their fears, but had lived enough to have insight into and sympathy for what my mother was experiencing.  In the middle of the story, as in the middle of life, we have strength and resources not always available elsewhere.

There are lots of good blog posts and books on fixing middles.  Here’s my short list of how to get through when you find yourself stuck.

  1. Step back and give your story arc/plot a good hard look.  Is there not enough to carry you to what you set out believing would be the conclusion? Is there too much?  In a recent BTM guest post, Mary Incontro suggested writing a query letter as a way to force yourself to clarify the dynamics of your story.  That might be a good exercise to try here.
  2. Ask yourself what’s providing the drive. If you’re not feeling compelled to write, maybe your characters don’t have enough at stake to propel the story onward. What’s driving them? If you can’t answer that, you may not have a story. More likely, you have some idea but never quite put it into words. Once you do, you may find ways to intensify that drive.
  3. It may be a problem with timing. Are you stuck because you’ve mistimed events in your story? Two relatively straightforward possibilities: you’ve already given away more than you should or you’re holding back too much to keep the plot fueled. Try writing out plot points and identifying sources of tension and drive. By shifting these in one direction or another, you may get back your middle mojo.

What helps you get through the middle?







Currently there are "14 comments" on this Article:

  1. Excellent advice and observations. Thank you, Kathy.

  2. “In the middle of the story, as in the middle of life, we have strength and resources not always available elsewhere.”

    Simply fantastic.

  3. Good timing for this piece, I am approaching the middle of a novel. I like the idea of writing the query, or even a synopsis – it directs you to being clear and concise. I actually love arriving at the middle, it feels as if that’s the weight, or true substance, of the story. (Heard Nicole Bernier speak in Hingham a couple of nights ago – very nice evening)

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      Virginia — Yes, I think Mary’s idea of drafting a query letter before (you think) you’re done is a great one. Glad the post came along at the right moment and glad you got a chance to hear Nichole read. Best of luck with your novel.

  4. Just what I needed, especially this: “Ask yourself what’s providing the drive. If you’re not feeling compelled to write, maybe your characters don’t have enough at stake to propel the story onward.” Exactly.

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      Megan —
      One of my favorite reads on this topic is James Bell Scott’s chapter on the middle in WRITE GREAT FICTION. He really clarifies this idea of making sure that your characters have enough at stake. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Like Nichole, I love the sentence, “In the middle of the story, as in the middle of life, we have strength and resources not always available elsewhere.”

    I’m presently wrestling with the rewrite of the middle of my WIP. I may tape the above sentence to my laptop as a much-needed reminder.

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      Tracy —
      Thanks so much, glad you liked it. I think it’s easy to forget how much control we have. Sometimes the novel seems in charge of the author instead of the other way around…
      Good luck getting through the rewrite.

  6. Hey, Kathy, I was enjoying your post even before I saw that you mentioned mine. Thanks for that! I love your idea that the middle is where you exercise your writerly muscle. As you point out, it’s often easy, by comparison, to craft an engaging beginning and a moving ending. Getting the story from one end to the other is the real challenge. Sometimes we just have to slow down and see where we are. Thanks for your great advice.

    • Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

      Thanks, Mary. Yes, sometimes we just have to slow down and see where we are — well put.

  7. carleen says:

    Thanks for this great post! The middle is definitely my challenge and these are all great tips!

  8. Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

    Carleen — I’m with you on the challenge piece. Glad you found this helpful.

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Kathy Crowley

Kathy Crowley
Kathy Crowley’s short stories and essays have appeared in, among others, Ontario Review, Fish Stories, The Literary Review, New Millenium Writings, Pulse and Cognescenti. Her stories have been short-listed for Best American Short Stories, nominated for a Pushcart Prize and anthologized. In 2012 and 2006 she was awarded Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowships. She recently finished her first novel. When she’s not busy preparing for her future literary fame and fortune, she provides care and feeding to her three children and works as a physician at Boston Medical Center. Kathy can be found on Twitter at @Kathy_Crowley. Read Full