The Middle is Where Story Happens
The middle is where you deliver on the story promise you made in the beginning. Part 1 addresses the need to expand your story, giving your reader more details about the character, expanding the problem, and leading to the Midpoint.
For the sake of clarity, I’ll use the four-act structure: beginning, before the midpoint, after the midpoint, and climax/resolution, so we all understand where we are in the story’s progress.
In Act 3, you switch directions. While the first part focused on expansion, this next section, after the midpoint, narrows the focus.
The Midpoint raises the stakes and creates greater opposition to achieving the story goal. As a result, you inject new energy into the story and sometimes drastically changes the direction for the story.
Your reader has been following along with your detective, gathering new information with evidence, clues, and background information from suspects. Somehow, it all doesn’t add up. Now you start the next phase of the mystery by making your detective’s quest hard.
—Make it Hard
As the story changes direction after the midpoint, your protagonist may feel frustrated and discouraged. All that work they did in the first half is not getting results. As the story continues, your sleuth has to rethink everything and approach the solution to the puzzle in a new way. First, they need to identify the new method.
Now, in converse to the first half, the story begins to narrow down options. Your reader has explored the world, the victim and their associations, in Act 3, your sleuth begins a process of elimination, getting closer to the villain.
The problem grows in significance. It’s still there, the big question of who did it, but all the regular methods your sleuth uses, have led to an impasse.
Now your sleuth re-examines the way he looked at the problem, the murder victim. As he sorts through evidence, clues, and previous conversations with suspects, your sleuth notices overlooked items from the first half of your story. Some clues turn into red herrings, allowing your sleuth to take a closer look at the remaining clues.
Now that your reader knows your sleuth, begin to show his skills and traits in a new light. How does a strength lead her into trouble? How does a weakness get them closer to the villain? Every obstacle, like a suspect’s reluctance to talk, challenges your protagonist. They may need to combine their skills in new ways. And those new ways, which seem the right way to approach a problem at the time, lead to new frustrations.
Make your sleuth work hard for any scrap of information. Lead her into trouble—emotional, physical, psychological—pile on the obstacles. Lead your sleuth down wrong paths.
Now that you’ve introduced your reader to your protagonist, keep them turning pages by piling on the trouble. Show your reader how your sleuth handles trouble.
Act 3 is where supporting characters show their true colors. Friends become enemies and enemies become friends. Surprise reversals keep readers turning pages. Pull out the stops. Just when your protagonist needs a hand, that reliable friend has something more important to do. It could be something from a subplot.
Opponents become more difficult. A love interest has second thoughts. A talkative suspect clams up. Your supporting characters only add to your investigator’s troubles.
The villain may be working behind the scenes to thwart your protagonist. The protagonist and the reader may not know now, but keep your villain present by including them with other suspects who don’t behave well.
In Act 2, you set up your subplots. Now, in Act 3, pile on the complications in the subplots. Your sleuth’s internal demons may drive her away from finding the villain. Now is the time to get into the subplots. Make them complicate the main story.
Drive the subplots toward your sleuth.
You may wind down a minor subplot during Act 3, leaving space to concentrate on the main story developments in Act 4.
Fueled by insight, your sleuth’s road is different now. Now your sleuth must do something. Near the middle of Act 3, your sleuth makes a choice that heads them toward the villain. He may divert from the new path he took after the midpoint. As your sleuth begins eliminating suspects, she may overlook the villain, and start down another false trail that seems like the right decision.
The new direction she chose after the midpoint will not get her the results she wants. The undiscovered villain may set a trap that confuses your sleuth. Your detective realizes he’s in over his head.
Now your sleuth must gather forces. She may find new support, discover new evidence, and somehow get closer to discovering the murderer. Your sleuth examines all the old evidence with further information and a fresh approach. He’s looking for the evidence or suspect statement he overlooked before.
Now on a new discovery path, your sleuth feels she’s closer to the killer.
The Second Part of the Middle Contracts the Story
In the beginning, you promised a good story. In the first part of the middle, you expanded the universe of the story: the problem, the protagonist, supporting characters, and subplots. Your character made a choice that drove them toward the middle where nothing works.
The second part of the middle compounds your protagonist’s goal with reversals, major conflicts, and surprises that escalate the story’s movement. The protagonist makes another choice that results in a story direction change and drives the protagonist toward the final act.
In a mystery, this act pares down the choices, getting your sleuth closer to identifying the villain. Think of your sleuth on a path, clearing the overgrowth, cutting out dead branches, and smoothing the trail to the puzzle’s solution. As he clears the path, he is on his way to the discovery that leads to the villain in the final act.