The Centre Cannot Hold

When William Butler Yeats wrote those words in his poem, “The Second Coming,” he probably didn’t think about how they would resonate with writers–or at least this writer. The line, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;” neatly describes a dilemma other writers have expressed to me, and certainly one I have struggled with occasionally.

At the moment, I am still working on a British mystery/police procedural that started as a short story and morphed into, at the least, a novella. Except, it has languished on my computer for longer than I like to admit. Why? I had no doubts about the beginning scenes, and knew by page five who the murderer would have to be. I also had a couple of false leads in mind that I thought would work. So, I happily typed away until about page 60. Now, I am in the middle and realize the following:

1) I’ve gone too far, and set up too many leads, for it to be a short story. If I tried, it would have a contrived, truncated ending.

2) I have two subplots going that need to be developed fully, which isn’t a problem if I can develop the main plot at the same time.

3) Something has to happen to avoid a dead stretch of narrative and go-nowhere dialogue.

In other words, the center needs to hold and not fall apart. Have you, as writers, found yourself in the same plight?

I can’t predict it’s going to work, but I’ve thought of some things that could solve my problem. This type of list might solve the problem for others who find themselves stuck in a similar writing void. Here are some of my “what ifs.”

What if my proposed murderer isn’t the one who committed the crime. What if I have to exercise my imagination and come up with an even better suspect?

What if another murder or crime occurs that throws the Detective Inspector totally off the trail and lays to waste all her theories?

What if what seemed to be a red herring really isn’t?

What if I don’t tenaciously hold on to my original plot (like the proverbial dog with a bone)? Separation anxiety aside, film writers have to do it all the time when the director or others insist on major changes.

What if the suspected murderer becomes a murder victim himself?

Any of those what-ifs might take the middle of the narrative out of the doldrums; however, if I feel strongly about the plot and the conclusion I have in mind, then I have to find another way to shore up the center and keep the reader turning pages in anticipation. Some ways I might accomplish this are:

Expand one of the subplots to make it more dramatic, more relevant to the outcome, and tied in with the murder and/or the activities of the murderer.

Complicate the detective’s life, either professionally or personally.

Have illness or injury to the detective (see my previous post) set back her inquiries and lead her to become too self-involved to note a vital clue.

Introduce a random act of nature that throws everyone into a disaster-survival mode for a short time.


If you have solved the problem of how to keep the center exciting and strong in your own stories or novels, I’d welcome your comments and share them with other writers.