Parts of a Story – the Middle

As I mentioned in a previous post, for me, the middle of the story is the most time-consuming, if not difficult to write. Each chapter needs to move the reader along on a journey, and each chapter needs to connect to the whole. That is difficult because as I write, I don’t normally have an end in sight. Yet. It grows as I write.

Think of the middle chapters as links strung together to make a chain. If one of those links is weak, so the euphemism goes, the chain is weak. If one chapter doesn’t fulfill its promise to the reader, the reader can lose trust or interest in finishing the story.

There are two types of writers. One type is organized, who outlines the story from beginning to end. The other type is what I call the pantser. One who writes from the seat of their pants. There is a nugget of a story the writer wants to tell, but the writer might not see the entire story until it is being written. I am a pantser through and through. I feel an outline constrains me and limits my imagination.

I’ll give you an example. The genesis of my book Caught in a Web came about by me reading the newspaper. On one page was a story of the rise in addiction and death of youth across the country who were combining fentanyl and heroin. Fentanyl is a narcotic used on large animals when surgery or sedation needs to be done. I don’t need to explain to you what heroin is, but in combination, it is deadly. On another page in that same newspaper was a story about MS-13, a savage gang that started in El Salvador. The story was how this gang is growing in our area, reaching into not only high schools, but middle schools. Those two ideas came together to form the story idea for Caught in a Web. Could I have written the story by outlining the action from beginning to end? Maybe. But I am a pantser. I began with action and moved from there.

The genesis of my book, Spiral Into Darkness was a conversation with my psychology teacher (I was a high school principal at that time, and Sheri is a phenomenal psychology teacher). My background is in psychology and counseling, and we had a discussion about nature vs nurture. That evening, I watched an episode of Criminal Minds where a serial killer was on the loose. An idea or rather a question occurred to me: Is a serial killer born or is there a trigger that causes someone to become a serial killer? Could I have written Spiral Into Darkness by outlining it from beginning to end? Probably, but I feel the outline takes away the freedom of imagination that I enjoy using.

When I wrote these stories, I had to have a strong kick-butt beginning to bring the reader in. The beginning, as I wrote in the previous post, is essential to getting the reader started on the journey. But just as essential as the beginning is the middle of the story.

I picked a chapter or two randomly. This first example is Chapter Seven from Betrayed. To set this chapter up for you, Rebecca’s brother is missing. He was to have been tending to the sheep on the Navajo Nation Reservation. This was his job. However, when Rebecca showed up for her shift, Charles was missing. Several sheep were shot and killed, and the sheep were scattered. She wants to help find her brother, but her father has other ideas.

CHAPTER SEVEN

            Rebecca Morning Star wanted to ride out and search for her brother, but her father would not let her.

“Take care of the sheep.”

            “But Father, I know Charles. I know where he hunts, and where he camps.”

            With his jaw set, he packed his saddlebags with a meager amount of food. He snatched his dirty and sweat-stained tan Stetson off the peg by the door and jammed it onto his head. He grabbed the double-barrel shotgun off the rack on the wall, pocketed a dozen shells, and walked out of their five-room hogan. He stopped at the pump and filled his canteen with water from the outdoor well.

Like his wife Rosetta, Franklin Morning Star was small. His two children towered over him, though at five-foot-six, it did not take much. His dark brown face resembled well-worn leather. His thick hands and fingers showed the calluses of a man who worked for a living. Real work that had begun in his preteens. His back was bent and his legs bowed from working horses and sheep. At night, when it was cold, his back did not speak nicely to him.

He was a stubborn man. He told Rebecca what she needed to do and where she needed to be, and he expected her to obey. Rebecca came by her own stubbornness honestly.

            Her mother, Rose, as her father called her, watched the little scene in silence as she wiped away tears. She had spent the night sitting in a chair on the porch wrapped in a blanket, hoping her son would ride into their yard.

            Rebecca packed what she needed. She grabbed a Winchester 30-30 Lever Action and threw her saddlebag over her shoulder. She pushed her black Stetson on her head of long silky black hair worn in a traditional Navajo style like George and stormed out the front door just in time to see her father leave the corral on the pinto.

            “He hunts in the high country. Check the western slope of the Chuska Mountains,” she yelled. When she was sure her father would not hear, she muttered, “That’s where I would look. If I was allowed to.” When George arrived, the two of them would ride out and find her brother.

            Rebecca and Charles had known George since early elementary school. Their families were from different clans. Rebecca came from the To’ahani or the Near The Water Clan, while George was from the ‘Azee’tsoh dine’e which translated to The Big Medicine People Clan. Their ranches were within three miles of each other, and they had gone to the same school until George moved the summer his family was murdered.

Charles was one year older but the three of them, along with George’s younger brother, William, had hunted together, rode together, camped together, and when possible and if there was a need, helped each other with their chores. All of that changed when George moved to Wisconsin.

            Rebecca was a female mirror image of George. Bronze skin that turned dark brown in the desert sun. Both bore a near noble look, he handsome, she pretty. Both were nearly the same height and on the skinny side. Both were athletic, although Rebecca had never played on any team, nor had she found time for organized sports.

            Lost in thought, she was started to skirt past the dirt track that led to the burned down hogan that had been the Tokay home when she noticed it.

            “Whoa,” she said as she pulled on the reins.

            Strung from two metal stakes across the road was a “No Trespassing”sign.

            Rebecca frowned. It was not there yesterday that she remembered, so it had to have been hung sometime before sunrise. In any case, this land had belonged to George’s mother and grandparents, so now it belonged to him.

            Rebecca got down from her horse, took her rope from the saddle, tied it over the chain, and then looped the other end of the rope around her saddle horn. She hopped up onto her paint and used the heel of her boots to prod her horse forward. As the rope grew tight, the chain was ripped down.

            “Whoa,” she said as she pulled up on the reins.

            She repeated the process with the two pipes. Once they were pulled up from the ground, she took the two pipes, the chain, and the “No Trespassing” sign, got on her horse, and rode down the dirt drive until she reached the burned down structures that had once been George’s ranch. The barn, fence, outhouse, and hogan were nothing but blackened ruins. Time and the desert sun further weakened the charred remains.

She swung down from her horse, and carried her little bundle to what was left of the outhouse, and dropped them into the stinking hole.

Rebecca took her time walking the perimeter of the property. Ignoring the traditional Navajo belief to stay away from the hogan where people had died, she stood where the small living area had been. She could still make out the stone hearth, though much of it had fallen in on itself. Even though the early morning temperature tiptoed into the mid-seventies, she shivered, and as a response, hugged her thin, narrow self.

She backed out of the ruin, turned around, and walked quickly to her horse, mounted, and rode off.

It was not until she was in her own pasture, and among her own sheep, did she consider the chain, and the “No Trespassing” sign, and wonder who might have placed it there.

This chapter gives some insight into Navajo culture, but more importantly, it gives the reader insight into who Rebecca is. She has an integral part to play in this story on several levels. Remember, the title to this story is Betrayed. I chose that title on purpose.

Here is a middle chapter from Caught in a Web. It gives the reader insight not only into one of the main characters, Detective Jamie Graff, but also insight into the story as a whole.

CHAPTER 4

            Graff drove around to the back of the strip mall, spotted flashing blues mixed with flashing reds and a small huddle of cops with little clouds of breath coming out of their mouths as they spoke to one another. They stood around stamping their feet to keep them from freezing and turning into cement blocks.

            He rolled to a stop just outside the yellow tape and decided to leave his squad car running to keep it warm. He grabbed his traveler cup of hot coffee and got out, shutting the door behind him with a metallic clunk that didn’t echo in the dark night. It was that cold.

            He spotted the ME, turned up his collar with his free hand and hunched his shoulders as he walked in that direction.

            “Ike,” he said with a nod.

            Mike Eisenhower, whom everyone called, Ike, was in his sixties and bald except for a fringe of snow white hair that ran around the sides and back of his head like a misplaced halo. He was short and a little stooped, but his mind was clear and sharp.

            “I will never understand the attraction, Jamie. I don’t get it.”

            “What do we have?”

            The older man shook his head and said, “A middle school kid, maybe eleven or twelve. On his back, head to the side in a puddle of frozen puke with snot frozen to his face. That’s what we have. What the hell is the attraction of drugs when it ends like this?”

            “Cause of death?” Graff caught the old man’s frown and corrected himself. “Tentative cause of death?”

            “OD. Some sort. Not sure what, though.”

            “Time of death?”

            The old man shrugged and said, “The kid is frozen stiff. I’d say four or five hours ago at least, but because of this damn cold, I can’t pinpoint it for you until I get him back to the office.”

“Do you have a guess as to what drug it was?”

He shook his head and said, “I’ll do a tox screen and be able to tell you for sure.”

            Eisenhower’s office was in the basement of Waukesha Memorial Hospital, a five or ten minute drive away.

            Graff squatted down next to the boy. Blond. Skinny. Wearing only a red hooded sweatshirt. No hat, no gloves, no boots. A pair of Jordan’s on his feet. His upper lip and cheek coated in icy snot. The pavement under his head was frosted in yellowish or brownish puke, depending upon how the light hit it. The boy’s eyes and mouth were partially open. A lovely picture of another dead kid added to the collection of dead kid pictures Jamie had stored away in his head. Not that he had wanted to hold onto any of them. Ever. No fucking way!

“Thanks, Ike. You have my number,” Graff said as he strolled toward the huddle of cops.

            He recognized most of them and said, “Guys, anyone catch any radio chatter on missing kids? Kids who didn’t show up after dinner or who might have snuck out at night?”

            They stamped their feet and shook their heads and muttered, “No.”

            “Okay. I need all the dumpsters checked for anything that might fit the crime. Look for anything out of the ordinary, anything that doesn’t quite fit. I’ll need pictures of boot or shoe marks and any tire treads. Again, look on the ground for anything that might fit with the crime, anything out of the ordinary. Later this morning, I’ll need some of you to canvas the neighborhoods in a three or four block radius from here. Ike said the kid might be a middle school kid, eleven or twelve-years-old. I’m guessing unless this is a dump site, he’d live close by because he isn’t exactly dressed for a long hike. Not in this weather, anyway.”

            As he walked away, he said, “Whoever decides to canvas the neighborhood can go home. Start about eight in the morning. That will give you a couple of hours sleep.”

Jamie poured the coffee out of his traveler cup onto the frozen pavement, no longer thirsty and sure as hell not hungry.

In both of these examples, my intention was to not only move the story along, but also to guide the reader on this journey. I believe a writer is a travel guide. The writer points out this or that, and the reader takes it in, finds it of interest- or not- and together they move along on that journey to the story’s end. The middle is crucial to this process. It binds the story beginning to the story ending. Without a strong middle, a strong beginning fizzles, and a strong ending is lacking. In fact, the reader might never get there.

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