The Middle – Neglected Filling or Main Course?

I was on an interesting panel at Readercon last month discussing the merits of The Middle – that oft neglected part of the novel that falls between The Opening Hook and The Climactic Ending. I must admit that when I first started writing I too subscribed to the view that The Middle was the bit that would come to you when you started writing. As long as I had the beginning and the end sorted, I was ready to go. Now, I look at the process differently.

Years ago when I first started I thought that the ending was the most important part of the book. It was the climax, the denouement, if I didn’t come up with something really unusual and memorable, the book wouldn’t be worth writing. Then I discovered The Beginning. It’s the most scrutinized part of any novel. First readers, agents, editors – everyone has to be convinced by that first page that the book’s worth reading. Fail, and it doesn’t matter how good the ending is – no one’ll get that far.

Now, years later, I’ve come round to the view that, as important as the beginning and the ending are, it’s the middle that makes a book. Giving a food analogy, I see the beginning as the appetizer. It’s salty, it’s tangy, it whets the appetite then explodes on the palate. The ending is the dessert. It’s rich, there’s chocolate, there’s cream, and, if it’s a thriller, everyone gets bruléd.

But the middle is the entrée. That’s where the meat is – or, if you’re a vegetarian, the nut cutlet surprise. It has substance. It has sub plots of vegetables, it’s seasoned and occasionally saucy. And, without it, you leave the table unsatisfied. It’s like Hercule Poirot discovering the body and immediately moving to the denouement. You don’t want to be told who done it. You want to be taken on the journey of discovering who done it. And it’s that journey that differentiates between the Poirots, the Lord Peter Wimseys, the Sam Spades and the Stephanie Plums. They all do it differently and the reader delights in the twists, the idiosyncrasies, the tragedies and trials. Because that’s where the heart of the book is.

What do you think? Am I biased because I write plot-heavy SF mysteries and feel the need to outline? Should you just start with a collection of interesting characters and set them free to wander wherever they wish? Or, perhaps, is the middle really nothing more than a series of beginnings? Each hook leading to another twist until the end comes into sight?

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There are 4 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Sarah Prineas

    First of all, I’m glad I’m not a vegetarian.

    Also, yeah, middles. I like to think of middles as weaving. Bringing various plot threads together, tightening them, letting the tension rise toward the cascading action scenes of the climax. I don’t outline any of this, no. The threads just sort-of become evident as I go along. After it’s all done I can go back and knit in the ones I left hanging.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    You mean I’m not the only one who thinks of writing in endless metaphors of textiles? Huzzah!

    The middle is indeed like weaving. And it’s better if it’s nice, thick cloth, instead of a few pathetic threads trying to keep the beginning and the ending from falling apart.

  3. 3. S.C. Butler

    Me, I love neglecting the middle. That way it’s much more exciting when I finally find it lurking evilly in the back of mind, waiting to take over.

  4. 4. Diana Pharaoh Francis

    It’s odd, but when I write any more, I don’t think of a middle. It’s like there’s no real middle. There’s a turning point at which everything starts to come together, but it’s a point for me, rather than a actual lengthy bit. I know on a meta-level that certainly, I have a beginning, a middle and an end, but when I’m writing, I talk myself out of that thought for some reason. It must help me get there. See, now we need a discussion about odd ways that writer psyche themselves into getting over humps and such.


Author Information

Chris Dolley

Chris Dolley is an English author of SF mysteries and fun urban fantasies, a pioneer computer games designer, and the man who convinced the UK media that Cornwall had risen up and declared independence. His novel Resonance (2005, Baen) was the first book to be plucked from Baen’s electronic slush pile. He now lives in France with his wife, a dolmen, and a frightening collection of animals. His memoir French Fried (2010, BVC) has just been released. Visit site.



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