In the 1956 doo-wop song “Rubber Biscuit,” the New York group known as The Chips sings about eating a wish sandwich. They tell us all about it when they say, “A wish sandwich is the kind of sandwich where you have two slices of bread and you wish you had some meat.”
Has that ever happened to you? You have two wonderful pieces of bread, and you open the refrigerator only to find out that you have no sandwich meat left. How disappointing that must be.
I’ve read a few stories that were like a wish sandwich. There was a beginning and an ending but nothing in the middle. When it come to writing fiction, I feel that getting the middle right is the hardest things to do. This is especially true if you are writing a novel where the middle is the largest portion of your composition.
Plot Your Tale
The best way to insure that your middle portion is substantial is to plot out your story. While that is certainly true for novels, I also like to outline my short stories. Some writers like to start without an outline or some pre-arranged plot and see where the muse takes them. Maybe that is how you like to write, and maybe you will not change, but in my opinion, plotting the story is the best way to avoid a weak or absent middle.
Some feel as if this takes some of the spontaneity away from your tale. If you decided to go on a road trip, and you knew you were going to start a point A and end up at point B, would you refuse to look at a map all to keep your driving spontaneous? Trust me, planning your story does not kill the spontaneity. Even with a complete outline, things pop out that surprise me. You don’t kill your freedom my planning you novel.
I can sometimes spend as much time outlining as I do writing the first draft. That is not because outlining takes so long, but the better my outline, the faster I can write. Plotting the story also helps prevent writer’s block. The difficulty with this is that it requires patience. I will spend many months plotting an outline and developing the characters. In this initial stage I get very excited about taking this story on. I want to hurry up and start writing, but I shouldn’t until everything is laid out. But my patience is rewarded with a better first draft and ultimately a better novel.
Raise The Tension
The reason you need to plot out your story is not just so you have something to go in between your beginning and your ending, but that what is in between is interesting. Have you ever not finished reading a novel? More than likely it was because the middle was boring. Even if the beginning hooked you, that initial interest could not be sustained through the humdrum middle of the book.
The purpose of the middle portion of your novel is to raise the tension. You begin with conflict and you end with resolution. In between you need to keep the reader interested with meaty material. You can raise the tension with success or failure. In other words, everything in the middle of your novel either brings your protagonist closer to his goal or farther away from it.
Everything between the beginning and the end must raise the stakes somehow. Think of a good mystery. The conflict begins when someone is murdered and the resolution occurs when the detective identifies the killer. What happens in between? Our sleuth looks for clues, chases down leads, often runs into dead ends, and has his life threatened when he gets too close. All of this is the successful and tension-filled middle that bridges the gap between conflict and climax.
Sometimes backstory can be good for raising the tension. Beware of using backstory as an information dump that you as a writer find interesting but for the reader it doesn’t contribute to the telling of the tale. Backstory can fill in some of the psychological gaps in both your hero and your villain and provide deeper motivations for your characters. If you want to use backstory in the middle of your novel, make sure it adds the necessary flavor to the story. Avoid at all costs the literary hamburger helper misuse of backstory. Like with all middle writing, backstory must in some way raise the tension or it is useless.
You don’t want to eat a wish sandwich and nobody wants to read a wish novel. Give your reader a dagwood of a tale and he will be licking his lips in anticipation of your next book.