The Mushy Middle

Once upon a time, mystery author Kathleen Delaney took a writing class led by romance writers, not that she ever intended to write romances.  What did she get out of that class?

The first time I heard that phrase was during a class on writing I took at UCLA that was given by three fairly prominent romance writers. I’m still not sure why I took it, romance wasn’t what I wanted to write, but I’m glad I did. It was the first class I’d taken that actually got down to the nuts and bolts of how a writer got from point A, the awesome beginning, to point Z, the zinger that wraps the book up in such a way that the reader snaps it shut and becomes a fan for life.

Eliminating the mushy middle is not easy. Someplace around there you need to take a break from all that dead body finding and slow the pace. This is where everything can fall apart if you’re not careful. Or, even if you are.

The one thing every one of those very kind and wise writers said was, everything that happens in your story should lead to something else. Even in the middle. Especially in the middle. Your heroine may be at home, making a cup of tea, or drinking something a bit more fortifying, but that doesn’t move the story forward. Besides, it’s boring.  Something has to happen. If the phone rings, it has to be something more interesting than a reminder that the PTA meeting is next Thursday. Unless, of course, that reminds her of something, or someone, and that sets off a train of thought that propels her to take the next action. After she finishes her tea, of course. And, in so doing, she misses the killer by minutes or walks right into the middle of something she could have done without, but which leads her one step closer to that zinger ending.

Middles can be filled with all kinds of mundane activities. In real life, most of our days are full of them. Cleaning the bathtub usually has little meaning other than you get a clean tub. In a story, that’s not enough. Her shampoo bottle is not where she always leaves it. The medicine cupboard door is slightly ajar, but she knows she closed it that morning. Or did she? She hears a door close just as she turns off the water but she’s alone in the house, or so she thought. Maybe none of the above happens, it depends on the story, but cleaning the tub needs some meaning if nothing more happens than we follow her thought process while she works on her suspect list as well as the tub.

Stories, especially mysteries, are built on tension. They start out with a bang, getting the attention of the reader while you build that sense of suspense, of danger. We have to let that die a little so everyone, including the author, can take a deep breath before we start tightening things up again, then back off once more before we build to the final crescendo. Only, sometimes the mushy middle traps us with meaningless action, events that do nothing but stop the story cold. So, if you think you are caught in the maze of the middle and can’t find your way out, go back and take a second look at some of the things you have your people doing. Does that conversation she has with the butcher do anything besides provide her with fresh ground round for dinner? If not, maybe you don’t need it. And if she’s not figuring out how to prove her best friend innocent of murder while she’s ironing that shirt, let it stay in the basket. It’s not doing one thing toward solving the murder and it’s not moving the story forward. So, go read it again and see what you can do. Don’t let that middle stay mushy. You can do it and you may surprise yourself at how your story perks up. As for me, I think I’ll go back and re-read the manuscript I’m working on. There’s this place around page one hundred forty—humm.

And coming this May—