Authors and writing instructors often refer to the middle of a manuscript as the “muddy middle.” Details can get messy here and scenes start to resemble your grandmother’s knitting basket with loose tails of yarn hanging out from skeins jumbled up together until it all looks like a great big knot. I prefer to think of the middle of a manuscript, however, as the “marvelous middle.” Remember back to your childhood of fingerpaints and playdough and imaginative play and marvelous, wonderful sunshiny days of carefree fun. The middle of our manuscript is the place we get to explore and create and investigate and build the world of our characters and ideas. You can learn the skills it takes to write a successful middle, having fun during this process instead of being overwhelmed with it all.
When you write a manuscript built on the Three-Act Structure, it will have a distinct beginning, separate middle (with two parts), and definitive end. The middle is the place where you include details, descriptions, and anecdotes that support and develop your main story problem (as in most fiction) or main idea (as in most nonfiction).
Just a note however, if you are writing a manuscript such as a picture book that uses a predictable plot rather than the Three-Act Structure. In a picture book that has a predictable plot such as an alphabet book or counting book, your middle should follow the pattern you established in the beginning. (For more information about predictable plots, read page 238 in my how-to book for children’s writers, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Beginning Readers and Chapter Books.)
The approach to take to develop a strong middle when your book is built on the Three-Act Structure is similar to the way we keep our own middles trim and firm: avoid the extra carbs. If we’re trying to tone our tummies, we avoid or cut out empty calories from our diet such as potato chips or soda pop. We do tummy trimming exercises that firm our abs.
It’s the same with writing. We want to avoid or cut out any details, descriptions, or anecdotes that don’t support our main idea or develop our main story problem.
In a chapter book or novel, this helps keep our story from wandering off down aimless bunny trails. In a picture book, this task is even more critical. That’s because with an 800-word count that many editors prefer in today’s market, we simply do not have the luxury of wasting a single word.
When we’re dieting, we want to shop and choose healthy foods such as whole grains, lots of leafy green vegetables, and fresh fruits. Likewise, as we’re writing the middle in our manuscript, we want to brainstorm and choose details, descriptions, and anecdotes that strongly support our main idea or work in a meaningful way to develop our main story problem.
In a chapter book, middle grade novel, or young adult novel, we have the luxury of crafting anecdotes and scenes fleshed out with pages of dialogue, description, emotion, and action. Some scenes even progress through one or more entire chapters! In a picture book, however, each word we choose and each scene we create in our middle will be deep in meaning and short on word count. Picture book writers have to learn to create anecdotes or scenes sometimes in a single sentence or single paragraph because the art fleshes out the rest of the scene. Or course, there are longer anecdotes and scenes in picture books, but many times these are created with a minimum of words.
To help you learn how to write details, descriptions, and anecdotes in your manuscript’s middle for the genre and market you’re writing in, study how your mentor text handles these. Following is an example, however, for you to see the difference between writing an anecdote or scene in a chapter book or novel versus creating the same anecdote or scene in just one sentence in a picture book:
Chapter Book or Children’s Novel
(Scene in a story about William Penn and his father)
The Delaware chief Tamanend sat in the center of the wilderness clearing at the river’s edge. The leaders of his tribe sat behind him in a half circle like that of a waning crescent moon. Behind them stood too many natives for William Penn to count.
William Penn stepped forward to the side of Chief Tamanend. Penn’s small group of Quaker friends gathered behind him. The chief held in his hand what William Penn thought looked like a wide belt decorated with sea shells.
“This is wampum,” an interpreter explained who was sitting among the tribal leaders. “It is highly prized and worth much value to our people.”
Tamanend held out the wampum in a gesture of trust and friendship.
Bowing slightly, William Penn reached out to take the wampum. “I am highly honored,” he said. “I accept this payment in the name of King Charles II of England.”
Penn gestured with his hand in a wide circle that included the clearing, the trees, the river behind them, and the sky. “I will start my new colony here,” he said, pausing for the interpreter to share his words with the chief. “Pennsylvania will be a settlement where personal liberties and religious freedoms of all men will be honored.”
William Penn saw the shadow of a smile flicker across the stern face of Chief Tamanend as the interpreter finished speaking. That shadow reminded Penn of the last time he had talked with his father before the aging gentleman had died.
With an unexpected ache he couldn’t quite describe, Penn wondered what his father would have thought if he had been here to witness this scene.
(Same scene in a story about William Penn and his father)
As he took the wampum belt from the Delaware chief Tamanend in exchange for the land where he planned to establish his new colony, William Penn wondered what his father would have thought had he been here to see this.
Of course, in the nonfiction picture books we’re writing, we keep everything true to facts. But as you’re going through the self-editing process now and following the Nonfiction Picture Book Self-Editing Checklist, evaluate the content of your manuscript and focus on your middle to be sure you included interesting details, descriptions, and anecdotes that support your main idea or story problem.