Critique Technique, Part 58 — Magic Middles

Woman reading a book

Image courtesy of Marin /

By Ross B. Lampert

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 or chapter has to keep holding the reader’s interest. She has to want to keep reading.

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 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 last time, 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 (Scene and Structure), James Scott Bell (Plot and Structure), K. M. (Katie) Weiland (a series of blog posts about a year ago on “scene and sequel”)—to name just three. Even if an old obstacle is overcome, a new one has to be revealed.

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

So what should a reviewer celebrate in a writer’s work? 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.

  • When a writer, after lots of struggling, finally understands the scene and sequel concept and starts building conflict and tension through the course of a scene or chapter.
  • When a writer stops being too nice to his characters and starts putting them in difficult situations.
  • When a writer stops tidying up each scene, chapter, or situation with a happy ending. Maybe she doesn’t even give the situation an ending for the moment, but leaves the reader and the characters hanging.
  • When he raises the stakes in a new, interest-catching way.
  • When she surprises the reader with something that’s unexpected yet completely consistent with what’s happened in the story so far.
  • When whatever he does reveals a step forward in his ability to manage his middles and keep his readers engaged.

Whenever and however that happens, be sure to give it the positive critique it has earned: point it 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 piece that will cause you to congratulate the author for their good work? Please add your suggestions in the comments below.

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