Mystery and Reversal: The Art of a Story’s Middle

I’m thinking today particularly about those of us who write short stories. I know from my own experience, as well as from that of my students, that we often begin a story with a good deal of enthusiasm only to find it faltering in the middle. We spend so much time talking and thinking about the beginnings and endings of stories that we neglect strategies for what to do between the two. This is a post, then, about what to do in the middle of a short story.

We first have to think about what the middles of our stories should be interested in attempting. Let me suggest the following four objectives:

(1)       to dramatize the development of tensions made apparent in the story’s opening

(2)       to increase the pressure that the main character feels

(3)       to let the plot reveal more about the main character than is evident in the beginning

(4)       to carry the story to its crisis point—or its tipping point, if you will—that moment beyond which the premise of the story will have its end.

We might think, then, about complicating the opening through a progression of scenes meant to accomplish these four objectives. We might also think about the art of mystery and the art of reversal.

Sometimes I wonder whether the art of mystery is close to being lost when it comes to contemporary short stories. So many stories lack the momentum that narratives can achieve merely by presenting the unknown as the story opens. This isn’t to say that all stories need rely on an external question for its dramatic progression—no whodunit. Often an internal curiosity can achieve the same end. A question of why your main character did or said something in the opening can be enough to propel a story along its arc while arousing a reader’s curiosity. A question of who left the footprints in the snow around a house, for example, isn’t really interesting at all without a character to whom the mystery matters. I’m suggesting, then, that it’s the interior of a character that really matters. Whatever external mysteries there may be, they’re always there to take us deeper inside the character who’s experiencing them. However you look at it, though, questions are what drive narratives.

The art of the reversal is a matter of anticipating what your main character, and your readers, will expect, and then letting the plot moves in the middle of the story, reverse those expectations. We think the home of a murderer, for example, will be dirty, disorderly, frightening, but when the main character of the story arrives to kidnap the murderer for the purpose of exacting revenge (Andre Dubus’s “Killings”) he’s surprised to find everything neat, clean, in order. That sort of reversal—finding the opposite of what we expect—deepens the story’s premise as well as the main character’s response to it. Each reversal complicates the tensions set forth in the opening while also increasing the pressure on the main character.

I’ll add one thing more. Sometimes a second story line that vibrates against the main story line can give additional momentum to a story’s middle. Whatever strategy one decides to use, the objective should be to deepen, to press, to dramatize, to take the story to the decisive moment in a way that surprises us but at the same time seems inevitable. So much of writing a story is seeing what’s just beneath the surface of the plot. The middle of a narrative is where what’s submerged in the opening begins to work its way to the top.

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