Saturday, May 18, 2024

THOUGHTS ON THE MURKY MIDDLE: Guest Post by Baron Birtcher

While attending a recent writers conference, I had the opportunity sit in the audience while a panel of respected writers and colleagues were asked to opine about their approach to the craft. As often happens during Q&A, the conversation shifts to either (a) “Plotter vs. Pantser” or (b) “The Murky Middle” of a manuscript. 
For those of you who have attended a writers conference, you know what I’m talking about. 
Personally, having long ago lost interest in conversing about item (a), I do feel compelled to weigh-in on item (b). Here’s why:  When the question came up at the conference panel, the author who replied first gave a lengthy and world-weary reply about slogging through “the Murky Middle” and how painful that process can be. I happened to be seated in the audience beside an award-winning female colleague whom I respect greatly, and upon hearing this world-weary reply, we both shared a look that included raised eyebrows and shrugs of puzzlement. 
“I like the Middle,” my to-remain-anonymous colleague whispered to me. 
“I do, too,” I responded. “That’s where all the good stuff happens.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but here’s where I come down on the subject: If the Middle is ‘Murky’ it’s yourfault as the author. So, fix it. 

Because, in a Three-Act story structure, the second act is where the action happens. Here’s a brief review:
                        Act 1: Setup, exposition, inciting incident
                        Act 2: Confrontation, rising action, character development
                        Act 3: Resolution: lead-up, climax, conclusion
Therefore, if your second act is murky, you’re missing an opportunity to more fully develop your cast of characters, your setting, and—particularly in the case of a series—an opportunity to deepen your reader’s engagement with the breadth and scope of the narrative as a whole. Ask yourself ‘Why?’ Were you in a hurry to get to that next scene (which is not uncommon)? We all know how easy it can be to get lost in the weeds of our own stories, we’ve all done it. It’s equally easy to get lost in the weeds of the fabulous amount of research that we want to regurgitate and show off to our readers. We need to resist those temptations, and instead, focus on calibrating the pace of the narrative to the tone of the story we’ve actually set out to tell.
I often equate the process to what it is like to listen to a great piece of music. At least that’s a perspective that works for me. Each of us has our own methodology or metaphor; But if you find yourself slogging through your own work, this is clearly a sign that you might need to step outside, take a walk and clear your head. Which is usually all it takes. Or maybe just a good night’s sleep. Come back and reevaluate your work with a fresh perspective.
Now, just to be clear: I’m not anybody’s advocate for formulaic writing. In fact, I despise it. I like exploring the boundaries of literary convention as much as the next writer… But when our work is aimed at keeping our reader engaged within a linear narrative, and the story seems to bog down in that proverbial “Murky Middle,” I suggest that you take a good hard look at the overall pace of your narrative, and determine whether you may be missing out on an opportunity to actually slow down, dig a little deeper and consider a slightly different manner of engagement among your characters, your readers (and yourself). You might discover that if you take your foot off the gas pedal and listen to your characters more closely, they might teach you a little something you didn’t expect from them. 
Long and the short of it is this, IMO: Embrace the deep water in your story, the complicated, beautiful, Mysterious Middle, and don’t dread the density. It’s exactly where the heart of your story may reside.
Baron Birtcher is the winner of the Silver Falchion Award (Hard Latitudes); Winner of Killer Nashville Readers Choice Award (South California Purples); and Best Book of the Year Award for Fistful Of Rain.
He has also been nominated for the Nero Award, the Lefty, the Foreword Indie, the Claymore, and the Pacific Northwest's Spotted Owl Awards. 
I invite you to join me on the ride with Sheriff Ty Dawson, and to (re)visit those heady, turbulent, beautiful and terrifying times of the 1970s; and to join me on Facebook and Instagram at: 
            Instagram: www.instagram/BaronBirtcher_author
 Books in the Ty Dawson series
            South California Purples
            Fistful Of Rain
            Knife River



Anonymous said...

The middle makes or breaks a book. Nice essay.

Kim Hays said...

Good food for thought when I hit my upcoming middle! Thanks.