If the middle of my cake is soft, I know I should have left it in the oven longer. If the clothes come out of the dryer damp around the seams, I know I pulled them out too soon. In other words, if I don’t finish my task, I have more to do. It’s easier to understand than nuclear fission.
Life is too short to waste on mediocre anything, and I apply this mantra to my own writing. How can I expect others to overlook a half-baked center in what I serve?
Recently I started reading a second novel in a series that attracted me with the dynamics between the main characters. Whoops! Something happened before the main conflict that changed the focus of the lady detective. She gave her dinner time with teenage kids more value than her murder investigation. I quit reading because the characters were boring. The first chapter promised intrigue that was too long in coming. I was bogged down in mundane details that felt like quicksand.
I am willing to spend time with the thick intricate tales told by Elizabeth George when the complexity of a character is revealed slowly one layer at a time, like real neighbors. But I don’t want a minute description of activities or relationships like those I have endured in my daily routine. There is no tension. There is a reason for the popular saying, “Skip to the chase.”
In other words, a writer risks losing readers when a cooking segment is too long and with no purpose. Or when an inclusion of a parent-teacher meeting has no vital information for the plot, or a long rant on clothing or music reads like a Wikipedia entry. The characters seem to be searching for a plot. That’s when a reader’s eyes glaze over. She does not turn the page. As a writer, I don’t want that fate for my stories.
Some pros advise putting a conflict on every page, like a collection of scenes showing cause and effect, a string of dominoes falling one by one. I think that each scene should move a reader toward a goal, an obstacle, or the stakes.
Literary agent Donald Maass suggests in The Fire in Fiction that the middle of a good story has an outer turning point and an inner turning point. The main character’s acceptance of the challenge and the stakes of pursuing a goal is an outer turning point. An inner goal of a major or minor character can change and become a turning point that sets up a larger conflict. An inner goal keeps the story moving on a secondary level.
For example, in my short story “Dead Man Hanging,” a gentlemen farmer is discussing with the sheriff the possibility of a scam on his houseguest when a body is found at a hotel. In the first scene, the farmer has no intention of getting involved in law enforcement, but the circumstances yield to the great flood of 1916. The sheriff needs deputies. As the investigation proceeds, their philosophies tangle, and the farmer’s perspective changes. (This story was published in January in the anthology History and Mystery, Oh, My!)
Screenwriter Blake Snyder gave excellent advice in Save the Cat. He insisted the turning point in the middle is preceded by fun and games. He considered this a back door to the premise of the story, a related tangent. Snyder pointed out that often the subplot carries the theme, which is a debate on the pros and cons of a particular issue. In the movie, Miss Congeniality, the premise asks and answers the question: Can a tomboy win a beauty pageant? (See the Buddhapuss Ink March 4 blog post about format by writer Selaine Henriksen.)
I nurture the growth of my characters on the theory that their changes will influence the direction of the story. I imagine a writer making choices like Goldilocks. Too much change and the reader is lost in a flurry of hot events (like bar hopping). Too little and a reader is lost to cold boredom. We can’t please all of the readers all of the time, but we can make an effort for a happy compromise. A comfort zone is an elusive target, isn’t it!
I try not to be engrossed in details that are superfluous, embroidering my sentences with fancy words and phrases like a literary art project. A verbal Renoir. When the heat is turned down, the center of the story becomes mushy.
Beware! When we promise chocolate, we can’t serve mud. Yuk! How rude!
© 2015 Georgia Ruth
Georgia Ruth lives in the foothills of North Carolina. Now retired, she managed a family restaurant for ten years and worked in sales for fifteen years. Both experiences produced rich soil for her fertile imagination. Georgia is a member of Sisters in Crime and Short Mystery Fiction Society. She has stories published online for Stupefying Stories and Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, and in print, Mystery Times Ten 2013 by Buddhapuss Ink. Her story “The Mountain Top” will be published in a Sisters in Crime anthology in 2014. Her website is http://georgiaruthwrites.us
Thanks, Georgia, for a great piece! Avoid the “squishy middle,” no one wants to read something that's half-baked. We're looking forward to seeing more from you soon!
READERS: We hope you enjoyed this week's edition of our #WW Writer Wednesday Series. We will be taking a short hiatus for a few weeks. Until we return, Butt in chair, WRITE!
~ The Black Cat
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