Short stories often begin at or near the start of what would be, in movie/novel terms, the Middle – ie, after the hero’s normal existence has come to an end. But whether the Middle of your short story constitutes 50% of your word count or 90%, you’re going to have to bridge that yawning space between the excitement and intrigue of the story’s launch and the excitement and emotional punch of the story’s climax.
In my experience of critiquing short stories (and having my own critiqued) something that comes up a lot is “the sag in the middle”. This is where the writer’s grasp over the reader loosens a bit, perhaps because this is where they’re delivering the expositional content that didn’t go into the earlier part of the story, but is necessary to make sense of the ending. Or perhaps because the story’s dramatic tension doesn’t continue to escalate, or escalate fast enough.
The middle of a story is kind of like flying the Death Star trench (because Star Wars analogies are inexhaustible). Navigating it successfully requires focus, urgency and strict attention to the pertinent details. For plot-driven stories, there’s a few things I try to keep in mind:
1. Keep raising the stakes. In a plot-driven story, the tension should continue to rise through the middle of the story. One way to keep raising tension is for the stakes to get bigger as the story progresses. The problem might snowball, or have a domino effect to other, bigger problems. Or the urgency of resolving the problem could increase. The writer may raise the tension steadily or give the reader a couple of nasty shocks that raise the stakes very suddenly.
2. The protagonist’s own actions can exacerbate the problem. The protagonist’s (or another character’s) initial efforts to resolve the problem could actually make it worse – the solution more complicated, the consequences of failure greater or the likelihood of success lower. This initial failure then becomes the impetus that pushes the protagonist to fully engage their hidden strength or confront their critical flaw in order to succeed.
3. Make the protagonist suffer. I heard somewhere once (with apologies, I can’t recall from whom) that your characters are people you invent to live through the crap you would never want to have to endure yourself. It’s a narrow definition, but I think the point it illustrates is valid. The protagonist usually needs to suffer in some way in order for their struggle to be meaningful for the reader. If so, the middle of the story is the place to pile on the suffering. It’s where everything gets worse before it gets better… well, if it is going to get better. But even if it’s not, still pile on the suffering in the middle of the story. You have to be prepared to be nasty to your characters – especially your protagonist – and their struggles should cost them something.
4. Stay on target. The middle is often where the story becomes more complicated, and communicating that complexity can easily come at the expense of tension and forward motion. If you’ve successfully hooked your reader with the beginning of your story, then I think there’s a bit more latitude around delivering exposition than in the opening pages. Inclue where you can, but sometimes I think a concise paragraph of infodump really is the best way to convey complex story information to your reader – as long as it’s pertinent. In Building Better Plots, Robert Kernen says, “Exposition can be one of the most effective ways of creating and increasing the drama in your story. It can also be the quickest way to kill a plot’s momentum and get your story bogged down in detail. Too much exposition, or too much at one time, can seriously derail a story and be frustrating to the reader or viewer eager for a story to either get moving or move on.” Because you (the writer) love your characters and your world, there’s a temptation to digress and show off more of your characters and world to the reader than they actually need to see. In a novel, you can get away with this to some extent; in a short story, you generally can’t. So, if your plot-driven narrative sags in the middle, ask yourself: have you chosen the relevant details, and only the relevant details, to keep your reader invested in the outcome?
This last point also applies, I think, to character-driven stories. A character-driven story may have neither a plot nor rising tension. (It may have both, but not necessarily.) It may be an account of an emotional or intellectual journey, or be a snapshot of the character’s life. But if it sags in the middle, again, the first question to ask is: have you chosen the relevant details, and only the relevant details, to keep your reader invested in the character? For idea-driven stories, whether the idea is political, philosophical or speculative, the question becomes: have you chosen only the relevant details to dramatise your concept, or get your point across?
All of this advice and all of these possibilities for maintaining and raising tension, fit well over the top of a formal ‘Middle’ structure of “fun and games / things get serious / all is lost / darkest hour / false victory or defeat”. And in fact, if you’re looking to raise the stakes, exacerbate the problem and make the protagonist suffer, I think this structure of events can really help to achieve those things.
Giving your plot-driven story a non-saggy middle relies, one way or another, on keeping on turning up the heat. You start with the gun turrets ahead of you, then there’s TIE fighters behind you, in two minutes the Death Star will blow up the rebel base, now your wingman’s just been blasted to pieces, your X-wing’s on fire and then you start taking advice from a dead man.
And whether your story is plot, character or idea driven, it relies on delivering just the right details.
Focus. Your target is less than two metres wide.