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The Messy Middle by Don Hartshorn

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
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Don Hartshorn

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If you’re a writer – published or unpublished – you have been approached by someone with ‘a great idea for a story.’ You’re usually polite, and let the person know you’ll give their idea all the consideration it’s due. The experience is common to all of us. But the lesson is not that patience is a virtue, the lesson is that ideas are a dime a dozen. Ideas are as plentiful as grains of sand on a beach, or stars in the heavens. Your mouth-breathing brother-in-law has ideas.

But an idea doesn’t make a story. A story must have three elements: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Everyone, and I mean everyone on the planet, has at least one idea for the beginning of a story. They have a really great hook, or a really great setting, or a really great main character, or a really great theme. Of those people who have a great beginning, a teeny-tiny fraction have an ending. And of those people who have an ending, a teeny-tiny fraction have a middle. That teeny-tiny fraction of people whose stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end are writers.

Most writers have no trouble at all with a beginning, and scarcely more trouble with an ending. The middle comes with more effort. The middle is where even the best writer falters. But the middle is where the best part lies, the meat of the sandwich that is story. All the bits that people remember about a story come from the middle, all the great conflict, all the great reveals. The middle of a story is where a writer earns their paycheck.

But sometimes, maybe most of the time, the middle is a struggle. The middle is the part you have to deal with rather than celebrate. I know exactly why this happens, trust me, I’ve been there. Some of you are going to agree with my next statement immediately, and some aren’t going to like this at all.

You don’t know what your story is.

I’ll try to soften this by saying again: I’ve been there. The problem with the messy middle is you haven’t done the very basic work you need to do in order to write a book: Understand thoroughly the story you’re trying to tell.

‘I’m not a plotter,’ you protest, ‘and I don’t work the way you do. I let my story sing through my fingers on the keyboard. Don’t shackle me with your notecards and plot points and character arc notes. I do things my way.’ Fair enough, but I’m not talking about how you do your work, I’m talking about the story you want to tell. You need the ‘and then…’ part.

When you tell a story to a child, you both get excited about the ‘and then…’ This happens, and then this happens, and then another thing happens, and then… and then… and then…

If you don’t have an and then… all the way to the end, you don’t have a story.

When you’re stuck in the middle, you’re trying to connect the thing that excites you – the hook, the character, the theme, or the setting – with a finished book. You’re getting ahead of yourself. The middle is the actual story, and that’s where you need to put in the work.

What can you do when the middle just refuses to cooperate with you?

  1. You’re not the first writer this has happened to, you won’t be the last. And you won’t make it better by beating yourself up about it, or obsessing about it.
  2. Revisit your beginning versus your end and how things change in between. Yes, this is establishing an arc, but if you forget the jargon, you’ll realize you’re developing the middle.
  3. Think about the story, then think about interruptions in the flow. Yes, these are ‘complications,’ but forget the jargon. The path your characters walk shouldn’t be a gentle country lane leading them easily from beginning to end. It should be a dark forest path that winds back on itself and leads them along a dangerous precipice past hungry mountain lions.
  4. Forget word count goals. If you set yourself a target – ‘I must write 1,000 words a day, every day’ – you’re setting yourself up for failure. I set myself scene goals- I have to finish this scene right here. Or start a new one. Those are story elements, word count is just achievement for achievement’s sake, not to accomplish your goal, which is to tell a great story.
  5. Take time to work out the story in your head. This is the ‘and then…’ part. Forget paper, forget your computer. Talk the story out to yourself, as if some kind soul said ‘tell me everything about your story, I want to hear it all.’
  6. Don’t be afraid to junk entire sections of your draft. Sometimes what you’ve written is wrong for the tone of your book. Or it strays from the theme or the story. Get rid of it. Pretend it’s your drunk cousin at a wedding, and it’s just got to go. This doesn’t mean you should delete the section entirely, though. Every section I’ve ever cut out of a book I have saved in a file. I go back through them from time to time, to reminisce, but also to mine them for new story ideas. Just because it’s not right for that book doesn’t mean it’s all bad.

Thanks for listening to my input. I hope I made you think about the way you work, and I hope I helped you get past your messy middle.

(c) Don Hartshorn

About The Guilty Die Twice:

Two attorney brothers. Two bullet-riddled corpses. Two sides to the story.

Ten years ago, a capital murder case in the heart of Texas split the Lynch family in two. Now, estranged lawyer brothers Travis and Jake Lynch find themselves on opposing sides of the courtroom in a high-profile, grisly double murder case—with another accused criminal’s life on the line. Conscience-stricken Travis left his high-powered law firm to become a public defender, while bullish Jake rose to become District Attorney. The case pits brother against brother in a contest of wits, wills, and legal savvy that will shake the justice system to its core: both Lynches are convinced they’re in the right, but the truth turns out to be more complicated—and deadly—than either could have possibly imagined.

A drug deal double-cross turns lethal, leaving two corpses and one victim paralyzed for life. The victim never saw the gunman, but he knows one name: Sam Park. Travis defended Sam’s brother years before, and his heart won’t let him turn down the case, even knowing it’ll bring him face-to-face with Jake after ten years of cold silence. Jake, meanwhile, runs afoul of the Austin political machine and needs a high-profile conviction to win a tough upcoming election. And Sam, the star witness and prime suspect, won’t talk—not to Travis, and certainly not to the high-and-mighty DA—and time is running out.

Can these feuding brothers put aside a decade of enmity in the name of true justice? Or will the truth of what really happened that bloody night go to the grave with Sam Park?

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Don Hartshorn is an author, freelance editor, volunteer mediator, and globetrotter. He draws inspiration for his stories both from man’s highest aspirations and from his petty, grimy motivations. After traveling the world for the US government and doing time as a prisoner of Corporate America’s well-oiled machine, this Texas native son has come home to roost in San Antonio. And there he’ll stay—until the next big adventure comes calling.
Don is the author of the legal thriller The Guilty Die Twice published by TCK Publishing.

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