OK, I admit that I chose that title purely for effect. I was going to call this posting "Don't Forget the Middle," but if I saw that in my IN box, I'd delete it without even looking at it. I mean, how boring can you get?
So here's my (strained) metaphor. The essence of a donut is the hole in the middle...it cannot exist without that void at the center. The same is not true of a good mystery novel. I am inspired to write this because I have seen a number of manuscripts (and read a number of books) that start off with a bang. The books have then taken one of two paths: a steady downhill slant toward a boring ending, or a middle third in which nothing much happens, followed by a climax that seems to come out of nowhere, where all Truth is revealed (and not necessarily by detection). Both undesirable scenarios share a problem: a boring, uneventful, middle 100 pages of the book.
I think this is really a must to avoid. Agents of course put a lot of stock in your opening chapters, as do editors. But we need to see the story carried through with panache, and that means pacing your plot and delivering the goods consistently, not just at the beginning and the end.
From the writer's end, the challenge is of course how to keep things moving during the course of the "investigation," which usually finds our sleuth driving hither and thither, meeting a lot of people and asking a lot of questions. That scenario does get sort of tiresome when there's no variety or nothing to shake it up. Herewith some suggestions for not losing your reader in the middle:
1. Kill someone. The oldest trick in the book, and 99 times out of 100, it works. I mean, it shouldn't, because it's probably the most hackneyed and overused plot device of all time (serial killer books--I'm talking to you), but it does snap the reader back into attention, especially if it reveals a tiny bit more about the killer and/or gives the reader some additional clues or information. An endless series of corspes, however, can get boring.
2. Kidnap someone. This is another useful technique; take a main character off the page and let us wonder what's become of him or her. Is s/he "missing" on purpose? What could s/he be doing, and why is s/he out of touch? Frankly, with all the kidnappings in the news, I'm surprised this isn't used more often.
3. Change narrator. More and more writers are using multiple narrators, a technique that I quite enjoy. You can take the story to a certain point, end it with a surprising revelation, then shift to a new narrator, who can continue the story and provide more surprises. I like multiple narrators because I think they offer the opportunity for more interesting character studies.
4. Change point of view. Some writers (Patterson comes to mind) will alternate between first-person and third-person narrative. Detective tells the story as "I," crazed psychopath is followed in third-person limited. (Come to think of it, I don't think I've seen the opposite done, with Killer doing 1st person and sleuth in third.) In the older days, I think we publishers were a bit crazed ourselves in thinking we had to distinguish different points of view typographically, perhaps putting one in roman face, the other in italic, but now everything just goes roman, for the most point, and we let the reader figure it out. (Though, to be honest, we usually do use a new chapter to signal a change in POV.) And I don't have a problem with that--these are mysteries, after all, and the reader should have to work a little bit.
5. Provide a false ending, and take off in a new direction. I love stories where the investigator thinks all has been solved and wrapped up in a neat little ball by page 150. Killer is identified, brought to justice (for example)...and then we find out--We have the wrong man. Or a good character (i.e., one we believed to be good) is exposed as quite bad--and we go on from there to the true ending.
6. Put the protag in some jeopardy. Another device that's old as the hills, but it works and is one of the best suspense techniques. Have the protag followed, shot at, his car wired with a bomb, brakes tampered with, etc. Try not to rely too much on coincidence, or the sleuth just happen to having three highly uncommon items in her purse that will be enough to defuse a bomb. There's an old term, fem jep, that refers to the old Gothics where women got placed in jeopardy and were rescued by a man, or (later on) managed to save themselves. The term is often used pejoratively in our feminist era, but I would argue that the early books were able to muster up so much suspense precisely because they put an innocent or naive type into a situation way out of their control. My point is that putting your protag, whether male or female, into jeopardy mid-way through the book is a completely valid thing to do and even makes your book more readable and sellable.
Here's to full middles, and the end of donut manuscripts!