Crafting the perfect story – Part 2: The middle

This is part 2 of a series of articles about the different elements of a short story. If you followed Part 1, you’ve now got a strong opening and the reader is in the palm of your hand. The middle can be difficult to get right because it’s the meat of the story. The start and end are exciting – you can begin and close with a bang – but if the middle fails to engage the reader, a strong beginning and ending are useless.

If the middle of your story is weak, here are three options to consider that could spice it up and ensure your reader remains engaged:

1. Play with the structure

"A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order."
– Jean-Luc Godard

We talked about structure in Part 1 because dropping the reader right into the action can be a good way to start with a bang. But playing with the structure also applies to the rest of the story. A linear narrative (where the events happen chronologically) works for a lot of stories and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing like this. However, you should at least consider the possibility of rearranging or deconstructing the order of events.

This can come in many forms, such as parallel plotlines, flashbacks or simply jumping between the past and present (and even the future!). The beauty of these kinds of techniques is that you can really control your reader’s journey and how they experience the plot. For example, some characters are on the run. That’s how the story starts and we’re right in the action. Then we go back in time to find out what happened to them and what led to them being on the run. Then the end of the story rejoins the correct chronology and we find out the conclusion. Do our characters escape or do they get caught? Movies do this all the time because it’s a surefire way of keeping the viewer engaged.

2. Up the pace

If the middle of your story is missing something, the problem may be the pace. There are many ways to increase the speed of a story, and this topic probably needs an article of its own to fully explore it, but here are a few of them to get you started:

  • Adverbs have their place, but a strong verb can have much more impact. Eg. ‘He laughed heartily’ to ‘He guffawed’.
  • Writing in active voice rather than passive voice keeps your writing fresh and immediate (we wrote a separate article about this here).
  • Vary sentence and paragraph length. Having all your sentences the same length and structure can really slow a piece down.
  • Avoid unnecessary detail, description or exposition unless they progress the plot or are vital to characterisation.

3. Add deep structure

This means adding depth to your story by going beyond the obvious. As an editor, this is something I have always looked for in a story when choosing what to publish, but until recently I had no name for it. John Yeoman called it ‘deep structure’ in an excellent article about writing a prize-winning story and I think it fits perfectly.

It’s important in a short story to include this because you have less chance to have an impact than in a longer novel. Adding deep structure means you can resonate with the reader in a short amount of time and in a small number of words.

Deep structure needs to be subtle, but when it’s there it makes a story compelling to read. This experience for the reader is often a subconscious one and is difficult to describe: there are many ways to weave depth into a story, from repeating a theme to tying the story up in a unified way. Something inconsequential mentioned at the start of the story could gain meaning at the end.

A good example of this was mentioned in our last article, Make your reader feel something. The title of the story from Issue 7, 'Like Art', is something that the characters mention throughout. It reflects different beauty in the story, from the weather to the woman, but when used in the title it gives deeper meaning to symbolise, perhaps, the beauty of the imperfect life the protagonists share.