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This Writing Life: Finding the Middle of Your Story

28 February, 2011

I think I’ve written before about how I usually know the ending of a story before I start writing it. There are exceptions (there are ALWAYS exceptions in this game), but that’s my general rule. Usually, I come up with the ending, come up with the beginning (or vice versa), and then start writing, always heading as much towards that planned ending as I can. For my last couple of novels, it’s worked remarkably well. Having something to write towards is a great motivator. It also means that you don’t keep writing indefinitely, because you know when you’ve reached THE END.

For the last couple of weeks though, I’ve been dealing with a slightly different problem. I’ve been working on a short story, set in a world that I’d like to write a novel in this year. I wrote the beginning. The next scene, which followed on chronologically, was the end. In the middle, I wanted to show what was effectively in the past, and what led up to that beginning and end. ‘Wanted to’, is the key phrase here. I just couldn’t do it.

I frequently struggle with short story plots, more so than with novels. It can take me days, or even weeks, to work out what’s going to happen. I think part of the problem is that short stories are constrained to just a few thousand words. Every scene, every line, every word has to be doing something useful. And, of course, I always feel the need to get the structure of my stories right first time. I spend hours working out what’s going to happen, right down to details of what’s going to be revealed in each scene (which is something I approach much more organically when I’m writing a novel; things turn up in scenes, at least in the first draft, because it feels appropriate at the time and not down to prior planning).

I have, finally, worked out what’s going on in this current story. My initial scenes were of a man fleeing across the countryside and finally being caught. I needed to answer all sorts of questions: most crucially, why was he fleeing in the first place? How did I answer these questions and come up with the much-needed plot? Trial and error, mostly. Once I’d worked out what I needed to be asking myself (and I realise I’ve talked a lot about questions lately, but once again I’ve proved just how useful they are), I simply made list after list of potential answers. Then I picked the answer I liked best… and went on to the next question.

Middles are tricky things. In novels it’s often ploughing through them that’s the issue. In short stories, for me at least, it’s simply working out what happens next. And, as usual, this time I’ve found that middle through questions, trial and error, and sheer, bloody-minded hard work. One day I may find an easier way… but where’s the fun in that?!

  1. 28 February, 2011 10:57 pm

    Thank you for this blog post, and I’m SO glad I’m not the only one who goes through this.

    Last year I began a story, and I thought I had everything all worked out, and I even “knew” the ending, but that wasn’t true at all. It turns out that I knew nothing, except for the beginning. I’m almost finished writing this story, what will hopefully be my first book, and I’m just now finding out what is going to happen at the end.

    I suggest that taking it step at a time, day by day, and not worrying about knowing what is going to happen, because a writer’s mood, characters and events can happen, some I’m sure that will influence your story.

    Good luck! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • 1 March, 2011 9:27 am

      Hi Isabella! I’m glad you found this post useful – I’ve found that, despite writing being a fairly solitary activity, most writers go through the same problems at some point, which is why I started writing these posts.

      Taking things day by day really is crucial. Eventually, all those little snippets add up to a novel, and sometimes it happens faster than you think. And you’re right: sometimes not worrying is even more important!

      Good luck with your own writing, and I hope you enjoy that ending you’re coming up to. Bringing everything together in a story can be hard work, but it’s always rewarding!

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