The middle of a story is often the most neglected part. We get so focused on an engaging start and a satisfying climax that we rush the part in between. But that’s the part that carries readers through. In the condensed space of a short story, it’s vital to get it right.
Building the Plot
The middle of the story is where you lay down the layers of complication that will lead to the end. Unlike a full-length novel, this is unlikely to involve lots of subplots. In a short story focused on character and atmosphere, you might not even feel like there’s much complication to add.
That would be a mistake.
Think about that character you’re presenting. How are their thoughts and emotions getting tangled? What aspects of their personality are you showing? Those are complications.
If the focus is on atmosphere and setting, what do you want to show the readers that wasn’t obvious at the start? What makes this place more interesting than they could ever have realised? And how is that affecting the protagonist?
These are elements that you’re setting up to pay off at the end. Anything you want to feature in the final act should at least be foreshadowed now, so that it doesn’t seem to come out of nowhere.
Even in a story that’s primarily about action or setting, you should develop your central character through the middle act. They’re the person in the story, the empathic anchor who will keep readers engaged. Show their feelings and how the events affect them.
Reveal more about the character as you go along. Make sure that the situations they’re put in challenge them. And as you build up the story’s central conflict, make it more personal to that character. That way it will be more personal to the readers and so more powerful.
On some level, this is all about maintaining engagement. There are some more general storytelling techniques that will help with this.
You don’t have a lot of words to work with, but you want to tell readers a lot. Use the subtext represented by details to convey information without bluntly saying it. A small habit or phrase might show a lot about a character’s state of mind. Rubbish in the front yard might speak to a house’s years of neglect, what sort of things the owners purchase, their attitude toward their property, and even the state of the neighbourhood. How you describe that detail will show the point of view character’s attitudes to people and places.
Make sure that events have causal connections rather than just following each other. If one doesn’t lead into another, you don’t have a building story, you have a series of disconnected events. If you set your story out in bullet points, each one should be linked by “therefore” or “but”, not just “and then”.
Causal connections show the reader that you’ve thought about how your story fits together. You’re earning their trust, proving that you’re going to meet the promises you made at the start of the story.
You’re keeping them engaged.
Into the Final Act
Finally, think about how you’re going to lead from your middle act into your final one.
The final act is the climax of the story. This connecting moment should show that something important is coming. It could be a major crisis in the character’s life, a big setback in the adventure, or a huge revelation about the place and what’s happening. It’s the moment when the villain almost beats the heroes, when the hero realises that she’s been pursuing the wrong romance, when the last big clue is revealed to the investigator.
By now, you’ve earned the trust and engagement of your readers. This crisis moment takes that trust and uses it to carry you into the final act.
And that’s where we’ll be going in the next article.