Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Stuck in the Middle

By Ray Flynt, @RayFlynt

Part of the How They Do It series

Ray Flynt just finished writing YARD GOAT, #7 in his Brad Frame mystery series (railroad aficionados may recognize the title reference). Publication date will be soon. He has also written KISSES OF AN ENEMY and COLD OATH, standalone suspense novels. A native of Pennsylvania, Ray authored and performs a one-man play based on the life of Ben Franklin. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America, active with their Florida Chapter, and a life member of the Florida Writers Association. Ray retired from a diverse career in criminal justice, education, the arts, and human services.

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Take it away Ray...

What is it about middles? Middle child. Mid-life crisis. Middle age, and its ugly cousin, middle-age-spread. The word is seldom spoken of lovingly. In the middle of a baseball game, we’re given the chance to stretch. In football—halftime. Broadway shows have an intermission. They all suggest that action, except for the line forming at the restroom, has stopped. There’s even the word “middling,” defined as mediocre or second-rate. We can’t have mediocre in the middle of our novel, or we run the risk of the reader putting the book down and (Gasp!) never picking it up again.

Janice previously wrote about 5 Common Problems With Middles. I’ve included the link, because it is a good refresher.

As a mystery/suspense author, I challenge you to think of the middle of your book as the creamy deliciousness sandwiched between two chocolaty wafers in an Oreo cookie. Not just a traditional Oreo, one of those stuffed ones. Mmmm, creamy deliciousness. You’re already thinking differently about your work in progress, right?

While the only “hard and fast” rule in writing is that there are no hard and fast rules (well, maybe except don’t bore the reader), in mystery I find that the opening is usually 30%, the ending about 30%, which leaves 40% in the middle. Look at the edge of a stuffed Oreo for a graphic illustration of those percentages.

Most mystery writers, regardless of whether they outline or venture into the story by the seat of their pants, understand the premise of their story, its inciting incident, and know their protagonist and antagonist. They’ve already begun to visualize the dramatic ending of the story when the police/PI/or amateur sleuth confronts the killer and justice is restored. But then there’s that 125 pages to fill in the middle. Ugh!

Here are a few concrete ideas to convert drudgery to creamy deliciousness:

We’ve all heard the advice to “throw problems at your protagonist” and see how s/he reacts. Easy peasy. How we deal with problems illuminates our character. Hurricane Irma came through Florida earlier this month. People fled, others hunkered down. Sounds simple. But the reasons why people made their choices (don’t own a car, can’t buy gas, live in a concrete block building versus a mobile home, or proximity to the path of the storm) embody the complexity of a situation. Raising questions in the reader’s mind about WHY a character makes a specific choice is an effective way to engross your reader.

The problems you give your protagonist don’t have to be life and death issues. An example: In Chapter 12, your detective wants to talk with a prospective witness to the crime. He calls him on the phone—no answer. Then he decides to go visit. But when he rings the doorbell, no one comes. When the detective returns to his car, he sees a drape pulled back in an upstairs window. Hmmm? Suspicious. The detective sees a paperboy toss the evening paper onto the porch. Your hero drives away, but only circles the block, intending to confront the person when they step out to retrieve their paper. You’ve kept the action moving, but also raised questions in the reader’s mind about why that witness is acting the way they are. Could the witness be the murderer? Yes, but maybe they were threatened to keep quiet. Didn’t want to reveal a friend’s secret. Able to provide an alibi for someone else in the story, but reluctant to get involved. See what I mean? Inquiring minds want to know.

Don’t forget foreshadowing. The great thing about writing is the opportunity to go back and change things. You’re now working on Chapter 18 and a great idea pops into your head. Aunt Harriet, amateur sleuth, is racing to the hospital in a raging rainstorm with an injured man in the back of her car, blood dripping onto the formerly clean floor mats. She takes a shortcut (the injured man suggests using the back road over Dobbin’s Creek) only to discover that a bridge has been washed out. She watches in horror as the car ahead of her tumbles into the creek. All perfectly good action.

Here’s how to make it even better. Go back to the beginning of your story and let the reader hear a radio broadcast about the impending storm and the risk of flash flooding in low-lying creeks and streams. A little later, add in that it is pouring buckets. Well, when the injured man suggests the road over Dobbin’s Creek, savvy readers are going to anticipate what’s coming. Foreshadowing can have your reader shouting at the pages, “No. Go the regular road. Danger ahead Will Robinson!” Now that’s an engaged reader, not likely to put your book down before THE END.

Introduce a subplot, or a secondary plot. I’ve used that device in a couple of my books. I’m a fan of Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason series. When I began to write mysteries, it was always my desire to write a courtroom drama. Because of the conventions/procedures involved in court, I worried about it being dull as a singular story. In FINAL JUROR, I solved the problem by writing about a second case, involving the death of a juror from a murder trial years earlier. While my detective, Brad Frame, is serving on a jury in a sensational murder trial, his associate, Sharon Porter investigates the earlier case. I’d end a scene on a suspenseful note, then in the next chapter switch to the other story line. If your detective is married, perhaps the subplot involves challenges on the home front (a shaky marriage, financial problems, or news of a relative’s illness or death). Your private detective could learn that his son has been arrested on a drug charge by the same cop with whom he is butting heads in trying to solve the main crime of your story. Think that might ratchet up the tension for a scene or two? If your protagonist is single, you can always inject an element of romance in the story. You could even complicate the romance by making the investigation keep him/her from making a long-anticipated date.

I haven’t mentioned exploding bombs or discovering more dead bodies. Both raise the tension and keep your audience reading. If you’ve got a killer loose in your story, more deaths can be anticipated and keep readers turning the page. I’ve certainly used them in my books. But if you are writing a series, beware of resorting to the same devices time and again. Smart readers observe your patterns. Think outside your own familiar box of plot and suspense building.

Time to wrap this up, leaving you with two words to avoid getting stuck in the middle: creamy deliciousness.

About Cold Oath

Turmoil on a college campus in the wake of a search for a new college president. Ryan Caldwell, an enterprising student journalist - the conflict in Afghanistan still fresh in his mind - finds himself embroiled in controversy as he exposes secrets that threaten to shake the ivy covered walls and topple those hungry for power.

Lori DeMarco, the college chaplain, has her own secret. She likes Ryan but is unsure of whether to trust him to help unravel her past.

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  1. Great article! I especially liked the advice about Foreshadowing and Subplot. Gets me thinking. Thanks!

    1. It's the wonderful aspect of writing. You can inject an idea and then go back and do the perfect set up for it. Good luck with your writing.


  2. I like the Oreo image! It makes that middle I am slogging through right now look better already! Thanks.

  3. Good luck with the slogging. Every writer has been there and managed to survive.


  4. Great advice, Ray! Thanks!