Muddle the Middle of Your Scenes

I went into detail about scene beginnings last week, and I’ll be spending a bit more time on scene structure since it’s so crucial and so often ignored. I talked about how scenes are mini novels and must have a beginning, middle, and end, and how each scene is like a promise to your reader that you are going to deliver something. And what you are going to deliver is revealed in the high moment near the end of the scene.


Just as middle scenes of a novel can slog along and sag, so too middles of a scene can drag or not go anywhere. Knowing your high moment will really help avoid that. One good way to have compelling middles is to work backward from your high moment. If you know, for example, that Mary thinks George has taken her out to dinner to propose, but the high moment reveals he’s breaking up with her, you can picture that instant of her being stunned and think how she is going to feel just before that. You want your character to change in some small way by the end of the scene, and so think how Mary feels ten, twenty, or thirty minutes before this shocking moment. How is she going to be feeling twenty minutes after? So you want to start the scene with her expectations and in the middle of action—either already at the restaurant or pretty close to being there. In your middle, you don’t want to spend a lot of time (or maybe even any time) driving there or getting your character from any one place to another. Don’t drag the middle by stretching time (unless you want to).

Complicate, Exacerbate

Middles of novels are where you up the stakes, complicate and confound your character, make things worse. You might add danger or reveal a surprise twist. A middle is the unveiling of the storyline. So in each scene, as you build to your moment, you want to do the same. Add complications, obstacles, twists. Maybe Mary’s car doesn’t start and she’s late meeting George at the restaurant, which adds to her anxiety. Maybe Mary gets a phone call right before she leaves that complicates the subplot regarding her friend who’s going through a divorce. That can enrich the scene as Mary thinks how lucky she is to have George and how he’s going to propose to her in a few minutes. If you are going to throw a twist into your scene, such as George breaking up with Mary instead of proposing to her, you can use the middle to set up Mary’s expectations of one outcome, only to have a reversal at the high point. Reversals are terrific, and if you put in at least three things leading up to them that indicate the opposite outcome, they will be powerful.

This week, take a look at not just your first scene’s middle but those of random scenes in your novel. Find the high points and see if you have developed the middle so that it is leading to that moment and complicating things. See if you can add in expectations that imply the opposite outcome. If your character expects something bad to happen, have three things in the middle that imply her instincts will prove right. Then when that bad thing doesn’t happen, it will pack a punch.

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  1. Thank you, Ms. Lakin, for this wonderful article. I hadn’t really thought about that before. Another author I was talking to once said that it was about constructing a good paragraph, one after another.
    Although my writing is mostly retelling historical events in the lives of my ancestors, I can see how your advise for a novel can apply to my short stories.
    I guess it’s about telling an interesting story. I’m subscribing so that I can learn more from you.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge with us,keep up the good work,
    David Green

    1. Thanks for the kind words and for subscribing. The whole year is devoted to getting to the heart of your story and we’ll be going into some fun things!

  2. I enjoy your “lessons” very much. They come right to the point in an understandable way. I am currently using them as I edit my completed mss and developing the sequel WIP. Thanks so much.

  3. Love this well-written piece of advice. you added extra clarity to the muddle in the middle crisis that many authors face as we write our novels. reminding us to think around the time frame of the scene was very helpful. Thanks for the great input.

  4. Some great advice there hon, thank you so much 🙂

    I’m just about to start editing my novel and will definitely look at my scenes more closely.


  5. This is a great piece. It’s always so helpful to see things laid out for you, especially when you are in the middle of slogging and making things worse. Thank you!

  6. Thank you for the well thought out advice. I’m closing in on finishing my first draft of my first novel. As I proofread each chapter, I’m going to think of your blog and challenge myself and my writing to deliver, especially in the middle.

  7. The posts this month go over the beginning, middle, and end of a scene. I hope with all that advice you will have some good ideas on how to structure and/or rework scenes to make them much more powerful and effective.

  8. Hi CS, I do like your dissection of a scene and the concept of reversal – well used in playwriting but I haven’t come across it in the context of a scene in a novel. Once I have the key milestones mapped in my own novels, I write the novel scene by scene – not necessarily to a strict timeline. I use the checklist below; here’s my opening scene plan in my work in progress novel ‘IN IT FOR THE MONEY’. NOTE I’ve added ‘reversal’ at end!

    SCENE: McGEADY’S MURDER (VP=Viewpoint MP=Cop Matt Proctor)
    Action: VP MP. Collects bet, shop raided, cash handed over to 2 balacala’d bikers, McGeady shot dead in face.
    Purpose: Grab attention, intro MP (likes a bet), start spine story, introduce problem for MP, set tone,atmosphere.
    Conflict: MP-gang, MP-teller
    Setting: Int. bookies, tvs on, newspapers on wall, tinny spkrs., tawdry
    Senses: So/Ta/To/Sm/Si: red blood, loud gunshot, tv, bike roars, shotgun, salty blood, p/mint, sphincter gone, cold floor, walks thro ciggies,
    Effects: Fast action, intrigue, shock, bookies atmosphere
    Reversal – MP’s good mood shattered, jolted, injured, angry, his snout murdered.
    (I can work this into an extended blog – can I guest it please? Tom)

    1. Thanks for sharing all that. Love the abbrevaitions/key so you can be sure you put elements in. I don’t take guest blogs for this section as the writing craft blogs will be combined into a full-length book I”ll be offering at the end of the year. But I do take guest posts for my Writing for Life section, which is all about how writers can survive and thrive in the new publishing paradigm. Thanks for sharing! You might want to check with Storyfix and The Bookshelf Muse and The Write Practice as this would be perfect for them!

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