I found this shop tucked away somewhere along the narrow main street of Kamakura in Japan. It's a little hard to read, but that sign says "Middles".
The writer in me instantly wanted to start hunting for the shops that sold "Beginnings" and "Endings" - those are always touted as being important, hook the reader with a good beginning, leave them remembering you fondly with a good ending, you know how it goes - but no, here's a shop peddling middles, the meat of a story, the central part of what I consider to be the story arc of a beginning, a muddle, and an end (and no, that was NOT a typo).
The shop doesn't sell the heart of a story, of course. (Wouldn't it be nice to find one that does? It would also put paid to all those endless "Where do you get your ideas from" questions that writers get pelted with at odd times - all you'd have to do is say, "well, there is this tiny shop in Kamakura...") But it did set me thinking about stories in general. How they are constructed. What makes them sing. What makes them crash, for that matter. What *makes* them, period.
It's easy to define a good beginning, and many writers' workshops and courses and crit groups have done it or made a damn good stab at it - it's the thing that makes you want to read more, read further, read deeper. But let's assume that you've hooked your reader, and you've made him wade into the story shallows, and now all of a sudden the reader takes another step forward, finds that there is no longer that solid "beginning" ground under his or her feet, and is faced with a choice - turn back, or start swimming.
What makes your readers start swimming?
What makes YOU start swimming, when you read someone else's story?
The art of the middle is a very different thing from that bright and enticing opening salvo of story. For me - well, first, as a *reader*, I have been known to willingly follow a cunnigly contrived path because of the mystery in which it is wrapped - for me, as a reader, I need to be curious about the next twist of story, I have to have a layer of complexity over it all, I have to be surprised by the turn of events, I have to have my heart beating faster when a character I care about steps into a situation that I can see does not bode well. It's an emotional response, mostly - if the writer can make me cry, or can make me laugh out loud, the better part of the battle for my attention is won already. But what gives that story, that... middle... the power to do this to me?
As a writer, I have to know about this. I do not deal with it as consciously as some, because I do not plot or plan or otherwise presciently construct my stories in any way shape or form, and often I find out what happens next together with the reader - as Charles de Lint was once heard to say of his own work, I write so that I can read the next few pages of my own novel. My middles have to pass my own "sensawunda" test before they ever reach a reader's eye. And what are some of the things that I find myself using to achieve this?
In many ways I am a very visual writer - it will often feel like what I am doing is describing this movie that I see flickering on the screen of my mind's eye. This will show in descriptions that are sometimes alarmingly vivid, attacking all the senses, writing in what the movie industry once dubbed "Sensurround" technology, hoping to wrap the reader inside the experience as deeply as I myself was wrapped inside it when I was creating it. But there is a measure of triage involved here because I do not, I CANNOT, describe everything I see or hear or sense in these scenes. It would be complete sensory overload if I did. No, I have to pick and choose, pick just the RIGHT detail, just the right AMOUNT of detail, for the scene to ring true without overwhelming the reader completely. I need to pull inside, but not smother. That can be a fine line, especially when I reluctantly abandon some particularly fine jewel of worldbuilding because it cannot be allowed to clutter up the story that I am telling. It's like holding up a mirror to the scene, and then choosing what does and does not get reflected - I have to create what is a semblance of truth, not the truth itself - something as close to the truth as to be accepted as COMPLETE truth while yet keeping back a deluge of other details, just as potentially pertinent, for another time... or simply as depth unseen by the reader, things known to the writer and to the character as innately as the reader knows their own world but never actually mentioned out loud in the story because it does not need to be, it's deep background. It's this that adds depth and verisimilitude to an invented world.
No story takes place without something or somebody reacting to another something or somebody. Where the beginning is all about the setting up of such relationships (all potential) and the ending is about the relationships having reached a certain culmination (all - or mostly - conclusion), the middle is the meat of the relationship, it is the thing that explores the potential fun and drama of it, that milks it for action and for introspection, that drives the plot and makes the story. And no, I don't mean human-to-human relationships only (although by definition those are the closest to our understanding simply because we as readers cannot but be human ourselves and we respond to that which is most like us). A relationship can be between a boy and his dog, a spaceman and the AI that runs his ship out amongst the emptiness of the stars, a flower and a bee, a woman and an idea that she should have the vote, God and a blade of grass. But making that relationship believable, real, important, something that it becomes essential to understand because you NEED to know more about it... that's a middle. That's a middle that will keep the reader swimming. The ending of that story might be a shore that is unconscionably far away, but the reader will keep swimming because the prize on that far shore is an immensely valuable one, especially if the relationship that you are writing about is a broken one - because part of that prize might be a glimmer of understanding about how a broken relationship may be fixed or if not that then survived, and that is a valuable lesson about our own lives and relationships, no matter how different they seem to be in the beginning from the one described in the story in which we are immersed.
There are some novels that are all character. There are some novels that are all situation. There are some novels that are all action and explosion. There are some novels where there is nothing but talk.
Middles have to be all of those things. To be sure there are certain genres where one thing or another becomes prevalent - some literary novels never leave an angst-ridden mind, there are some novels that are so much milieu that they become glorified travelogue, there are some where the author appears to have written the thing in order to be able to pontificate with impunity about some particular bee buzzing insistently in his or her bonnet, and is unable to stop either him/herself or their characters from yapping endlessly on some topic until the horse is well and truly flogged into the ground. SOme novels are praised to the skies for being one or the other of these things almost to the exclusion of all others (which only goes to show that every rule exists to be broken, really, as soon as you know how). But many critically acclaimed wonders go on to achieve their own sense of oblivion, while "lesser" works, with a greater balance, become popular favourites and never leave a comfortable level of being wanted by the reading public. As a writer, it's these pesky middles that decide the status of the novel at the last. Did the reader, once hooked, once swimming, stay with you? Or did they leave the book, half-read, in the back-of-the-seat pocket of the last airplane they were on, without a thought as to how the whole story ended?
"Balance" is one of those iffy words which may well mean different things to different people, and any given writer - as well as any given reader - may find their optimal balance at different spots. But it's there, somewhere, and it's just as well that we have as many writers and readers that we do, because we all cater to different tastes and there are many different tastes indeed. But the next time you find yourself not taken with a book or a story - look at the balance, look at where the writer thinks the fulcrum of the story should be, and whether you agree. It may just be that the story is weighted in the wrong way for you as a particular reader. How much of any given ingredient is optimal for you in any recipe that can be said to produce a story?
I could go on and on and on. But maybe that's enough to go on with.
And perhaps some day I should go back to that "Middles" shop in Kamakura, and rummage through their wares until I find... that perfect story.