Stories: Great Beginnings and Endings – but what about the bit in the Middle?!

This week I am back to our Round Robin blog post with themes explored by a series of different writers. We have been given the following challenge:

How do you ensure a story has a good beginning, a satisfying ending, and good continuity in between?

I realize that this could be the shortest Round Robin in history, because the truthful answer is: I haven’t a clue!!!

My problem, as I have written about before, is that my books all tend to start with themes rather than stories. So, for instance, I might want to explore how someone copes with the loss of a baby, or with a long-term progressive illness and having to accept carers in their life, or how some who must – in Quaker speak – have ‘that of God’ in them can come to a point where they can kill people. I may know the ‘journey’ a character will take emotionally from ‘a’ to ‘b’, but the bit in the middle starts off as a mystery.

These themes obviously need characters and a storyline in order to explore them fully and to hold readers’ interest, but I find it really difficult to create enough ‘narrative drive’ – the peaks and troughs of what is happening, the key goal that takes you to the end. So, there I am with some ideas and relationships between characters in my head but how on earth do these become a proper ‘story’?

With my first (learning-curve) book I plotted the whole thing carefully in advance. There was a beginning (a trigger point where my main character lost her job due to her depression), a middle of sorts (where she travelled around Scotland with a complete stranger) and an ending (where she returns home changed and has to make a decision about the key relationship in her life). As you can see, it is not especially action-packed – definitely more of a reflective book with the landscape as an influencing and descriptive factor.

In the next book that I wrote I tried to ‘cure’ the lack of drama by having a lot more actually happening with the plot. The result was that I had to completely rewrite the book at a later stage because it set off like a steam train, then eventually ran out of puff! Around this time I went to some workshops about ‘pitching’ books and this really helped me, because it taught me to look at the emotional and psychological happenings in a different light – as things that provide their own stories and goals for the characters.

A common criticism of my work when I share my writing with my local critique group is that there are a lot of dramatic things happening but it doesn’t feel dramatic to read. My agent describes the current novel that she is sending out on my behalf as a ‘quiet book’, and I totally get that this is how my writing feels, however busy the plotlines. I like exploring people’s psychology, and how different events shape them as a human being. I like description, and a sense of the underlying current that moves things along.

Having said that, this current novel is the one that I am really proud of and that I feels ‘works’. I think it is successful because I really got under the characters’ skin – or they got under mine. It became important what happened to them, and although their stories are explored in a gentle way, they nevertheless have impact. The landscape, too, became a character, and the sequential plotting of the story to mirror the fall in the Garden of Eden seemed to work. My problem now is how do I follow this? I am currently in the middle of editing the first draft of the next book and although the characters are speaking to me I just can’t seem to get the middle section right.

I have just got to watch out that I don’t end up with a filling-less sandwich – all front and back and nothing in the middle at all!!

See how other writers sort out their beginnings, endings and the stuff inbetween at:

Skye Taylor http://www.skye-writer.com/blogging_by_the_sea
Marci Baun http://www.marcibaun.com/blog/
Judith Copek http://lynx-sis.blogspot.com/
Margaret Fieland http://margaretfieland.wordpress.com
A.J. Maguire http://ajmaguire.wordpress.com/
Beverley Bateman http://beverleybateman.blogspot.ca/
Rhobin L Courtright http://www.rhobinleecourtright.com
Bob Rich https://wp.me/p3Xihq-1fk

© Anne de Gruchy

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8 thoughts on “Stories: Great Beginnings and Endings – but what about the bit in the Middle?!

  1. Anne, I think no matter what starts a writer’s journey, the middle is always hard. You said you start with themes and most seem to be about very emotional issues. Issues such as these often resonate in very dramatic ways with readers as any misstep can change the character’s life.

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    • You are right, Rhobin, that my themes tend to be emotional! I have noted the trend for fiction aimed at teenagers taking similar emotional themes. I think I just see so much good in people that I find it hard to have ‘villains of the piece’ who of course are needed to added depth and drama!

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  2. Middles are the hardest part and as you say, even harder for a reflective type of book. But I have friends who write suspense who like to repeat the quote that when there’s a sagging middle, they need to kill someone off, so clearly action plots aren’t immune to the slog through the middle. My first book (re-released in 2016 at The Candidate) started out as one man’s personal journey into the dark parts of his soul and an acquiring editor at St Martin’s Press loved the premise, but on reading my manuscript felt there wasn’t enough “tension” I ended up moving to multiple points of view and showing some of his adversaries to add that tension and I had to admit, it was a far more interesting read when I finished. But I like your idea of having a theme. If someone asked me my themes I’d be hard pressed to come up with one for some of them. Maybe I should spend more time with that aspect?

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    • I think this is a very interesting point. I was discussing how many points of view I could get away with in my current book with my agent and she was very much in favour of fewer is best! I agree that different viewpoints can really help add tension, and you can help a reader see if a character is being naive or misled or heading for disaster. However my critique group looked at the middle section of my current book and felt it didn’t work so well for the extra viewpoint characters I had introduced and I am in the process of taking them out again… Ooops!

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      • My original was written entirely from my protagonists point of view so the readers couldn’t see anything he didn’t know. I didn’t add new characters, I just peeked into their brains and hearts so the reader knew what they were up to and that created the tension.

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  3. I’m a pantser as well. I’m more into action, but I find that in order for that to happen, I have to be inside their head seeing it through their eyes. This means description and visceral reactions. It makes for challenging writing at times, but it has certainly improved my writing. (Or so I like to think.)

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    • I agree. I really have to work into the viewpoint character’s head in each scene. It’s easy to do ‘lazy’ writing and it tells in the quality.

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