And on with part 4 of editing your writing.
All the following are suggestions. You are the author, you are in charge of your words. Feel free to disagree, just make your choices conscious ones.
This time, a few thoughts on beginnings, middles, and ends.
Where do I begin?
Screenwriters are told to get in as late as possible. This means starting close to the action, but not without some context. Sure, we want to see some of the protagonist’s ordinary life. We don’t want a blow by blow account of how she gets up, showers, has breakfast, and goes to work. Writers are also advised to begin ‘in media res’ or in the middle of things. Action is a great opener, but being dropped in the middle of a battle when we don’t know who is fighting or why, is a mistake. We don’t care about the characters yet.
Prologues are sometimes used as a way to get round this problem of where to start. A little explanation, and then we can drop into the fight in chapter one. While prologues can be done well, the usual advice is to avoid them. Try writing the prologue, then seeing if you can cut it later, sprinkling the information through the story.
The first chapter is your chance to sell the reader on investing their time in your story. Literary agents have a number of pet peeves. Some are listed here on Writer Unboxed, which is useful reading. But think of yourself as a reader. Don’t you feel cheated by any of the following?
- ‘it was all a dream’ then the character wakes up
- nothing is really happening, plot is stalling
- description and exposition rather than action
- lots of characters introduced, with no context
- character and place names that are (a) too similar or (b) unpronounceable
Make the first chapter count. Show the reader enough to make them curious, to wonder what happened next. That’s the goal of storytelling. Hook the reader with a flavour of your story, your Big Idea, and get them to turn the page.
Successful novelists may not follow these rules, but remember this. Every trad published author wrote a first novel, that had to interest an agent enough to read on. Every self published author has to get the public to read on. When you’re mega-successful, then you can relax. Until then, polish your opening, get feedback, and make it shine.
The soggy middle
Many writers talk about hitting a wall, five chapters in, 30,000 words in, wherever. The initial shine has worn off and the story is far from its end. Some jump ship at this point and chase the next shiny idea. I wrote about why it is vital to keep going and finish your stuff. Having a strong outline certainly helps, but plotters are not immune from an attack of the blahs.
I don’t like the term writer’s block. I think there are times when writing is easier, and times when we experience resistance. When we hit resistance, it’s time to use some different techniques. They might also help with NaNoWriMo, which is currently ongoing. (I’m not participating this year, but that is for a different post.)
Remember that it’s not necessary to write chronologically. For some writers, writing as a jigsaw puzzle works better, but in that case a clear idea of the story structure is needed – just like the picture on the puzzle box.
What to do when the story comes to a grinding halt? Some things that have worked for me, and some I haven’t tried yet, are listed below. I didn’t invent these.
- Start writing that scene you’re avoiding. Promise yourself a little treat at 500 words.
- Write all the backstory you have on your characters, starting with the protagonist.
- Interview a secondary character about the protagonist.
- Interview the antagonist. What do they think of the protagonist?
- Write the end and work your way back.
- Write a scene you are looking forward to, then write towards it.
- Pantsers – try outlining, no matter how sparse. Think about the bones of the story.
- Plotters – try asking the characters where to go next. Let go a little.
- Write something else – an opinion piece, a poem. Bonus points if it is about a character.
- Different creation- bake a cake, paint, draw, photograph something.
- Get moving. Walk, run, garden, clean.
- Try free-writing, like the morning pages from The Artist’s Way.
- Use the ‘why?’ technique. Ask yourself why you have got stuck, write down the answer. Then ask ‘why?’ with that answer. Keep asking why, until you reach the heart of the matter. This works for life stuff too. About four or five cycles will usually be enough.
- Why am I stuck? because I don’t know how to put Mary in the forest
- why does she need to be there? because she needs to meet a witch
- why does she need to meet the witch? because she needs a spell of invisibility
- why does she need the spell? it will allow her to free her sister (the main story thread)
- why can’t she get the spell from someone else? hmmm… hadn’t thought of that. How about, she has to sell the jewellery her mother left her, and buy the spell from the scary warlock in her village (who I can write as another interesting character). But while sneaking through the forest she is confronted by the witch, who can see her because she taught the original spell to the warlock, so they could meet in secret when they were lovers?? Now, there’s a bigger story to be told.
That’s one way past the resistance, opening up more possibilities by creating your way through.
And that’s a wrap
Endings can be simple, or tricky. You want to leave the reader with a good feeling. You want the reader to miss the characters when they turn the last page, and tell others about the story.
Plot twist is one of the most difficult, but memorable endings if you can pull it off. Misdirection is the key, making the wrong answer plausible, and the correct answer understandable. This can be satisfying and prompt re-readings to spot the clues. You will need to examine your story carefully, to make sure that the clues and red herrings are in order. It’s easy to lose track through re-writing.
Avoid deus ex machina endings. Literally meaning ‘god from a machine’, it dates from the days of Greek tragedy. When there were too many problems to untangle at the end of a play, a god would descend from the sky and solve everything with a flick of his hand. The sudden discovery of a weapon, weakness, or other artefact that magically solves things breaks the contract with the reader, which is that you will repay their time with a properly satisfying story.
Circular endings can work, with the story retracing some element that was introduced at the start. It could be the same environment, the hero arrives back home but changed. For example, Frodo returns to the Shire. In The girl with all the gifts, the story opens and closes with Melanie, a classroom and Miss Justineau. The environment and characters, and their relationship, has changed.
Be sure that your ending follows genre conventions. A romance must end with happy ever after, even if it is qualified. Your story question must be answered. It’s best to tie up plot threads, though you might want to leave one open for the next book. Too many hanging questions breaks your reader contract, again. But it’s reasonable to leave some spaces for the reader to fill in, as long as they are not gaping plot holes.
Have someone else read the story. Ask where they got bored, or excited, or puzzled. It can tell you a lot about what is needed to improve the story.
Enjoyable stories leave you with the sense that characters have moved on and changed, even if they are going on to new adventures. And if you’ve done your job well, the reader is invested enough to follow your characters, and your writing, on into the future. That’s what we all want, isn’t it?