When I start writing a book, I know exactly how it’s is going to begin. It starts off with a bang. Someone is murdered. A mystery develops. The amateur sleuth is introduced and identifies the suspects. I also know how the book is going to end. There is great peril. It’s intense. The sleuth may lose everything. The murderer may get away. Those two sides of the story are vivid, well thought-out and, best of all, practically write themselves.
It’s the middle that’s challenging.
Middles are like crossing a busy highway. I can clearly see the end point and I know where my characters are headed. Now I’ve got to get them across six lanes with honking trucks, speeding SUVs, clanging firetrucks and rushed Soccer Moms in mini-vans barreling down on them. How do I keep them moving between the oncoming traffic without becoming so much splattered roadkill? Well, first I get them to the safety of the median where they stop and breathe. There, it seems, they often get stuck.
When I was writing Prey of Desire, I got stuck about two-thirds of the way through the book — Kimberly, the heroine, finally learns that her boyfriend Ross is dead. (That’s not a spoiler since the Reader sees him get killed in chapter one — but shhhhh, don’t tell Kim!) At that point, I knew it was time for Kim to confront the killer. I had the scene planned out, I just wasn’t sure how to get there. And, in early drafts she took some crazy, zig-zag detours, but nothing seemed to get her to the other side. There were more murders, and car chases, and an exploding aquarium in downtown Tampa. It seemed I was just throwing things into the story — from characters to plot to pacing — and was hoping something would catch, carry and create the momentum to get Kimberly to that final confrontation with the Big Bad. However nothing quite worked.
So I did what most writers do at some point. I put the manuscript down… for nearly ten years, in fact. And poor Kimberly and dead Ross and all the other characters in that book were left stranded on that median in the middle of a busy highway. But during that time, I read a few books on writing the best seller, took some classes at the University of Florida and attended several writers conferences, like Sleuthfest. It seems that the murky middle of all good thrillers have some common plot points.
The antagonist has the upper hand.It appears the sleuth will fail. An innocent person will take the murder rap. All is on the verge of being lost.In other words, they’re in the middle of a busy highway and don’t know how to get across.
Just like I was.
I think making your way through the murky middle is just a step in the process of writing a novel, as much as the characters have to navigate the murky middle in the story. In fact, as the author, what if I need to get stuck at this point to find the right direction to the end? Maybe getting stuck forces me to think outside the box, to look for new paths? Are the raging semi trucks, screaming ambulances, speeding soccer Moms, and so much roadkill in my way all part of the game? I believe they are. They’re obstacles to avoid, maneuver around, speed bumps along the way, the reasons I need to run for dear life…each step bringing me closer to the opposite curb. From that perspective, they seem less like obstacles and more like challenges.
So bring it on. After all, if writing (and finishing) a novel was easy, everyone would do it, right?