Avoid the Sagging Middle in Your Mystery
Mystery writers have an advantage over many other genres when it comes to keeping the middle from sagging. Up to the middle the detective has delved into the evidence and suspects in the victim’s world
The essence of keeping a reader turning pages is heightened tension. Rather than episodic scenes where this happens and then that happens and then something else happens, you create tension by throwing up increasingly baffling obstacles for your detective.
In the chapters after the crisis in the middle, your detective gets glimpses of the killer’s world. These glimpses into the killer’s world are the mystery writer’s advantage, because the detective enters a world within a world. The killer’s world is inside the victim’s world.
In these chapters, the detective gets glimpses of the intersection between the two worlds.
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After The Middle
Using the Four-Act structure your detective recovers from the crisis in the middle, gets his bearings, and digs deeper.
21 He might feel foolish for not seeing things clearly until now, but your protagonist makes a new plan. Unfortunately, now that he’s past the meltdown, he fails to recognize that temporarily abandoning his misbelief was a healthy thing, and he grabs onto it more tightly.
Your detective, stumped by recent events, tries going back to old interpretations. She reviews what suspects said, considers the victim’s world and pokes around in it, completely missing key elements. She’s regrouping, but sees nothing new.
Story structure label: aftermath of the midpoint.
22 Executing the new plan while gathering allies and resources as he goes, your protagonist hits a snag and it becomes apparent that his epiphany might’ve made him a wee bit overconfident. (Subplot B)
The opponent throws up a roadblock as your detective goes out to find new resources – histories of the victim and new knowledge of the victim’s world. His great idea is not getting him closer to finding the antagonist.
If you are holding tight to structure labels, this is the fourth complication.
23 He must improvise once again in the face of a dilemma: his misbelief wants him to choose option 1, but his epiphany suggests option 2 is the way to go. (Subplot A)
Out in the victim’s world, your detective makes a stab at connecting with suspects she’s met, but an inspiration suggests he get background on the suspects and how they operate in the victim’s world. Things get intense with the love interest and they may say or do something that gives your detective new insight.
In plot world that fourth complication threw your detective for a loop. This is the aftermath.
24 Whether he makes the wrong choice or fumbles after making the right choice, he’s now on a collision course with the antagonist. He might be walking into an ambush, or he might be deliberately seeking the confrontation without realizing how seriously he’s out-gunned.
Although he doesn’t know it, your detective’s new vision of the victim’s world sets him in direct opposition to the killer. Feeling pinched, the killer may strike another victim. The detective thinks the two murders are related, but doesn’t see how.
In story structure this is the setup for the second pinch point.
25 The antagonist has the upper hand, and your protagonist feels his enemy’s true power—the antagonist is even stronger than before. Your protagonist might get a glimpse into the enemy’s end game, but he definitely realizes how deeply he’s in over his head. (Another place where you might add a twist!)
Your detective’s world turns topsy-turvy. Perhaps a seeming ally suddenly becomes antagonistic. Or a reluctant suspect shares new information. Without knowing it, the detective is getting close to the killer. The killer knows it and now plans ways to stop your detective. Make the complications complicated.
This is the second pinch point in plot structure. Make it hurt.
Frustrations, Complications, and Weakness
Plant new clues to the killer’s identity. Get suspects to misdirect your detective. Allow your detective to look in the wrong places while the killer starts to feel the threat. Make your detective work hard for every piece of information.
The aim in this section of your story is to make things as difficult for your detective as possible. The closer he gets to the killer, the more things get in his way. The detective finds the killer’s world, but he hasn’t found the killer.
Zara Altair writes mysteries set in ancient Italy. Her course for beginning writersWrite A Killer Mystery is coming soon. Get on the notification list.