Critique Technique, Part 57 — Magic Middles

Woman reading a book
Image courtesy of Marin /

Once a writer has convinced their reader with a great, or at least good, beginning that this is a story she wants to read, his next task is to keep her reading. That means the middle of each scene, chapter, and ultimately the whole story or book, has to keep holding the reader’s interest.

At the Scene or Chapter Level

There are lots of writing books that discuss the techniques for creating rising tension: plot twists, character revelations, obstacles revealed and overcome or worked around (or not), turning points, and so on. The purpose of this article isn’t to repeat them—there isn’t enough space!—but to remind you, the reviewer, that when a writer does this well, especially when they’d been struggling with this, it’s your job to point it out.

As I noted in Part 56, successes need to be celebrated… when they’re earned.

Many authors have discussed how a scene or chapter needs to create a new obstacle for that scene’s or chapter’s protagonist: Jack Bickham in his book Scene and Structure, James Scott Bell in his book Plot and Structure, and K. M. Weiland on her blog, to name just three. Even if an old obstacle is overcome, a new one has to be revealed.

Or, as a late friend of mine often said in our writers’ group meetings, “Things always get worse.” That’s what keeps the reader reading.

At the Story or Book Level

These concepts apply at the level of the story or book too. If the author is following (consciously or not) the Aristotelian three-act structure, the middle of the story or book comprises fully half of it. And this is where things often get bogged down. It’s exciting to be writing the beginning (Act 1)—the story is new and full of promise—and the end (Act 3) when the big finish is finally in sight.

But oh, that middle. The beginning is in the rear-view mirror, or maybe completely out of sight, and the end… well, there’s not just a hill to climb, but a whole mountain range, it seems. This is where many authors, and not just novices, break down.

Plotters may have an advantage over pantsers here, since they at least have a plan for where they want the story to go. But executing that plan can be another matter entirely.

Meanwhile, pantsers may not even know they’re in Act 2. The same is true for the rare breed I call “puzzlers,” authors who write scenes at random, waiting for the structure of the story to reveal itself.

The key to successful book and story middles is really the same as it is for chapters—things have to keep getting worse—just on a larger scale. And those “things” aren’t just plot events, they’re also character developments. What new things does the reader learn about the characters—not just the protagonist, but the antagonist and the important secondary characters—that keeps him (and you) turning the pages, wanting to learn more?

This can be a bit hard to see when you’re reviewing a manuscript just one or a few chapters at a time. It’s easier if you can take a step back from not just the line-by-line, but scene-by-scene review and look at these chapters as a whole, from a broader perspective.

If that’s not practical, you can still try to get a sense of whether the story is maintaining its momentum, if the forward urge is still there.

  • Are things getting worse for all of the characters?
  • Are new and surprising obstacles getting in their way?
  • Are you discovering new things about these characters that you didn’t know before?
  • Are you eager to see the next chapter or set of chapters?

If the answer to these questions is yes, that’s worthy of praise. Sure, it may be possible to “pump up the jam” even more, but progress is progress.

Questions for You

So what should a reviewer celebrate in a writer’s middles? There’s no way to provide a comprehensive list, because every story and every author will be different, but I can identify a few broad categories of things.

  • Has the writer, after lots of struggling, finally understood the scene and sequel concept (see Part 9) and started building conflict and tension through the course of her scenes, chapters, story, or book?
  • Has the writer stopped being too nice to his characters and started putting them in one difficult situation after another, each worse in some way than the one before?
  • Has the writer stopped tidying up each scene, chapter, or situation with a happy ending? Maybe she hasn’t even given the situation an ending at all, but left the reader and the characters hanging.
  • Has he raised the stakes in new, interest-catching ways?
  • Has she surprised the reader with something that was unexpected yet completely consistent with what’s happened in the story so far?
  • Are you disappointed because you have to wait to see more material from him?

In other words, has she revealed a step forward in her ability to manage her middles and keep her readers engaged?

Whenever and however any of these things happen, be sure to give them the positive critique they have earned: point them out, identify what worked or is a significant improvement, and why and how that’s true. Earned praise can be the motivator that keeps a writer—especially a new one—working, producing, and growing.

What do you look for in the middle of a scene, chapter, story, or book that will cause you to congratulate the author for their good work? You’ll have to start at the beginning of the comments box below, but don’t let that stand in the way of you adding your suggestions there.

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