Messy Middles and Mystery Boxes


Ciao, SEers! Back in 2018, I gave a brief overview of story middles, touching on scenes and sequels and covering the falling and rising actions before the end of the novel. Today, we’re going to get a little more in depth and talk about what makes those middles so messy and what makes those boxes so mysterious.

The middle of your novel is where fifty percent of the activity takes place. It’s bound to get messy in there, especially if you don’t have a plan or if you deviate from it. Here are some things you need to make sure you take care of that will make your character’s life messy but, if you’re careful, will keep your novel tight and tidy:

  • Stakes: external (physical), internal (emotional), and philosophical (beliefs and conflicts of values).
    Each of these need to continue to escalate.
  • Make characters (especially the protagonists) suffer.
    This goes hand-in-hand with the stakes. As the situation gets more dire, your heroes should feel more angst.
  • Open boxes as you close others.
    Every puzzle solved must present another. Every goal attained must come at a cost. Make it so the hero can’t turn back, propelling the story forward.
  • Never make it so there’s only one option. That’s easy.
    Give your hero two choices—especially two conflicting, impossible-to-make choices—and he can’t have both.

As for your mystery boxes, here are a few questions to deny your readers immediate answers to:

  • What does character want?
  • What will it cost to get it?
  • How will they react to the cost?
  • How do their reactions confirm their beliefs?
  • Who else will be impacted?
  • How will they be impacted?
  • How will they react?
  • How will their reactions impact the rest of the party?

Of course there’s always the W’s (who, what, where, when, why, and hoW) with respect to a crime. Those questions always need answers, so those mystery boxes should be open, too.

Personally, I have a love-hate relationship with mystery boxes. I love opening mystery boxes in my stories and throwing a few more open right when I let my characters and readers close one. But I hate it when authors do it to me. Just kidding. 🤣 I love it then, too. Because it’s so much fun trying to close them before the characters do.

What about you? How do you feel about messy middles and mystery boxes? Let’s talk about it.

And for those of you in the US, we all wish you a happy Thanksgiving tomorrow!

Staci Troilo bio box

52 thoughts on “Messy Middles and Mystery Boxes

  1. Pingback: #ReblogAlert This Week on #StoryEmpire and Sally Cronin’s #Smorgasbord Weekly RoundUp | The Write Stuff

  2. Great post, Staci. I’ve got my protagonists traveling in the past and now on the Titanic. They know what’s going to happen and can’t do anything to disrupt the time continuum. They are feeling very uncomfortable especially as they meet more people on the ship. I hope I’m making them uncomfortable enough. It doesn’t look like anyway out of this mess either.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I know exactly what you mean, Staci. As a writer, I love mystery boxes, the more the better. But as a reader, they drive me crazy, strangle-holding me while I flip page after page after page to find out what happens next.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you all!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Middles can definitely get messy. It’s where I try to make sure the story doesn’t slow down. I love all of your suggestions to avoid letting that happen. And I love the mystery boxes; especially when another one opens as soon as one closes. This is such a great post! Thank you for sharing your expertise, Staci!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I hate messy middles, but you’re correct in that they are an important part of the story. I really need to do a better job at outlining, especially the middle of a book. I like the term mystery boxes. You know I love to throw breadcrumbs here and there to keep readers guessing.

    Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Before I start writing, I have a plot point for every chapter in my book. So, in theory, I shouldn’t have a messy middle. But it never works out that way. Some things sag that I thought would have more punch. A character changes slightly while I’m writing him, and then he wouldn’t do what I thought he’d do. Ugh. But I’ve come to expect the messy parts, so I don’t panic as much, but they’re still more work than the beginning and the end. And maybe that’s good. It means the book’s grown in ways I didn’t predict. At least, that’s what I tell myself:)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. All parts of writing a story are equal effort for me, Staci. I am a planner though and historical stories follow a pattern of the underlying history to a large extent. I’ve not heard the term mystery boxes before so I shall have to research it further. Thanks for this great article and Happy Thanksgiving for tomorrow.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I often get lost in the middle, Staci which results in rewrites. I try to make the best of it and use it as exploration and a time for my characters to surprise me. In the end, when I focus on my premise, I make it to the other side, but not without a lot of sweat. Great post! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Ugh. The messy middle. How I dread that part. Maybe because I’m at that point in my current WIP, I’m struggling with some of those boxes. I have a lot open, and connecting dots between them is sorta/kinda/quasi eluding me right now. Especially because I’m in 100% pantsing mode right now which makes for a lot of mud and a lot of mess. I’ll work it out eventually. As an author can be frustrating toggling which mystery boxes to open/close and when, but as a reader I enjoy getting tangled up in than.
    Great post, Staci!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Very thoughtful and helpful post, Staci. By identifying the questions, you’ve helped me see the Great Middle more clearly. That’s an achievement since I can get lost in the process. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Great post, Staci! It’s so important for the biggest chunk of the book to keep us on our toes and rooting for the protagonist. Your suggestions are really useful. Thanks! xx

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Pingback: Messy Middles and Mystery Boxes | Legends of Windemere

  13. I am up to my armpits in a very messy middle at the moment. Yesterday, after wrestling with several conflicting chapters, I think I saw a little light at the end of the tunnel! No one ever said that writing was easy, but it can be fun…

    Liked by 3 people

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