There was an old TV commercial for a breath mint–"It's two, two, two mints in one." Some submissions read like "two stories in one." In Part I of this series I talked about bad endings. Here I'll talk about bad middles, which are just as, if not more, common.
Many times I'm reading the first several paragraphs of a story where the first sentence grabbed me, I love the voice and the characters, or maybe the setting. Then, suddenly, the story takes a sharp turn and everything changes. Turns out it isn't about the protagonist's rural past, but her current life in the city. Or that fascinating couple who met and fell in love during WWII––the ones I've been reading about for two and a half pages––are the parents of the real protagonist, whose life story dominates from that point on.
Will the Real Story Please Stand Up?
This problem of two stories isn't the same as finding the real beginning, which is often as simple as jumping down a few paragraphs to find a beginning with more punch. This is a matter of two or more distinct stories in one piece, connected by only the thinnest thread. Sometimes the stories are so clearly delineated that an editor can almost draw a line saying this is where the first story ends and the second begins. Other times different characters and their stories appear here and there throughout the piece, sometimes being developed, sometimes not.
How Can the Writer Tell?
One clue is characters who play a big role in the beginning and then, once a new main character is introduced, say or do little or nothing. Like "Chekov's Rifle" author's should think long and hard before introducing characters who will not play a significant roll later on. If those characters have several paragraphs devoted to them, it's a red flag that you may be trying to tell more than one story at a time.
Another clue is when the voice changes. In the example in my introduction, the writer might use a lyrical tone to write about the rural past, a more snarky tone when writing about the urbane present.
Still another clue is stories that are overly long. While many publications accept submissions up to 10,0000 words, I find that anything over 4,000 words by an inexperienced writer is suspect. Sometimes it's just a matter of too many superfluous words that can easily be trimmed, but more often it's a matter of trying to cover too much at once.
How Can You Fix It?
The obvious answer is to separate the stories and decide which one to tell, but it isn't always that easy. Often the background or the insights provided by one story are extremely important to the other. A protagonist's past, being raised by her grandparents on a farm, may play a significant role in her current life in the city. So you need to keep elements from the first story and weave them into the second. That can require a lot of thought and several re-writes.
Another issue, especially if you want your story published, is deciding which one to tell. In both of my examples above, I'm going to bet the prologues–-the rural past or the WWII lovers––are more interesting than yet another semi-autobiographical piece about a gal looking for love in all the wrong places or a guy dealing with the death of his parents. But that's just me.
Whatever you do, learning to identify when you're trying to tell too many stories and learning how to fix it will make the difference between work that appears polished and work that screams amateur.