Starting a story is easy, you've got an idea, and you start to tell it. In the middle, you begin to have some real fun, unveiling new characters, butting up against obstacles, adding twists and turns to your character's journey. Then comes time to finish.
Sccrrrcchhh! Hit the brakes, Alice, we're coming in for a landing.
The end is where the trouble begins.
For the last two weeks, I've been at the end of my current manuscript. I've two chapters and one half to go. I've written less than five hundred words in the last seven days.
Part of me is stalling - How should it end? What will the readers expect? Shall I surprise them?
My daughter recently read (struggled through?) Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. It wasn't until the very last line that she shouted with glee, "I get it! I get it!" You don't want your reader to struggle to the end.
Which brings me to the other 'part of me', the writer who's struggling, who doesn't want it all to end. After all, the main character (MC) and I have been head buddies for months. I'm gonna miss him when he goes. I know, I know, it's time to end it all.
In Blake Snyder's book on the writing craft, Save the Cat, he suggests that the final image match the opening image - as an opposite. If you opened with your MC in a pile of garbage after his girlfriend threw out him and the trash, your final image should showcase him clean and engaging in a scene that reflects he's learned his lesson. Nice and tidy, that's how Blake liked his scripts.
But life isn't a script, so you'll need to uncover other ways to end your story. Blake's is good and plausible, but readers enjoy variety. You don't want every book to end 'happily ever after'.
Here are other ways to close out your MC's tale.
1. Surprise! Life is full of surprises. You scrimp and save for college, study hard, receive several acceptance letters then your grandfather dies and you need to take over the family business. It puts a twist in your original plans, but it might work out for the better. You may save the restaurant that old granddad had run into the ground. Try a surprise ending, but lay out a few breadcrumbs before you draw back the curtain.
2. End Sooner than Later. Readers sometimes appreciate knowing twenty pages before the book finishes exactly why Aunt Betty set fire to the family letters. Now you have several dozen pages to tie up loose ends and explain several of the confusions you carefully plotted along the way. Click here for ideas to create loose ends?
3. Goal! The most logical ending occurs when your MC has solved his initial problem. If the conflict revolved around locating a missing child thought abducted by a crazy relative or the neighbor, once the child's been located, you can bring your story to a close. Catch the bad guy, and all is well.
or is it?
4. Gotcha! Taking #3 and twist it. The kid's home, but it wasn't either the neighbor or whacky Uncle Lew. The kid knows this, but he can only identify a few traits of his napper. This might take another thirty or more pages, or it might be the opening to a sequel.
Don't forget, once you've finished your story, it's time to revise. Let the fun begin again! (Besides, no matter how you end your fabulous story, someone will tell you how you should have ended it. Even if your Stephen King.)
What's your favorite story ending? What do you avoid at all costs? Share your thoughts with us.
Remember the day of the literary classic? Endless pages describing a sunset, a summer breeze, or the touch of silk. At some point, those days disappeared making room for action only. Mostly.
If your novel's not high concept, you're going to run into trouble finding a publisher.
Blame this on our inundation of visual images - television, Internet, you name it. Mix this with short attention spans due to those 140 character stories, instathis and instathat, snapthis and snapthat, and you have an audience of readers who demand you get to the good part immediately. Whether you write for the young adult audience or not, you can't spend a lot of time detailing the folds and curves of the luxurious satin sheet draped across your MC. Mention it. Share a detail or two. Then switch attention to action.
Once you've set up your story and introduced the plot that will drive it, how can a writer sneak in some, uh, writing?
Wrap detail around the action like a satin sheet. Satin has a feel of being there but not. You feel it, but you aren't distracted by it. It covers you, but it doesn't suffocate you. It decorates you, and you feel beautiful.
Your story needs tension. Friction between characters and events adds depth to your story, provides sign posts to where we're headed, and leads to resolutions, You need tension on every page. However, don't forsake the beauty of the written word for pages and pages of action.
Consider moving your story along like a wave. It rises and falls, rolls and tumbles. Gentle crests can precede rogue waves. Tidal waves can emerge out of the blue. Remember that cliche about the 'calm before the storm'. This is natural tension.
Several models exist for constructing scenes and chapters that aim to keep your reader's attention.
Here are a few.
1. Start with action, end with foreshadowing. (Find it in Shakespeare.)
2. Start with the calm, end with the storm. (Find it in Poe.)
3. Ebb and flow throughout the chapter, decreasing distance between each push and pull to create a more climactic ending. (Find it in McCullers.)
4. Create a high tide that puts the reader at the edge of his seat. What lurks beneath the surface? (Find it in King.)
As you work on your manuscript, short story, or poetry, pay attention to how you build tension. Just don't forget to wrap it within some beautiful prose.
How many times have you backed into the front door? It's not a trick question. I will take a wild guess, however, and say - never. Okay, maybe that one time when you carted in grandma's lacquered dining table. Other than that, though, most people walk in the front door faced forward. Eyes forward.
Remember that when penning the opening of your next story.
Expositions set the foundation for what's to come, but they also invite the reader in. So open that door and invite!
This past week, I've been furiously and back-achingly editing and revising my latest manuscript. (What do you think of my new opening?)
Here's a down and dirty list of what I think you need in the first five pages.
Exposition Must Haves:
*click the headings for great YA examples of each trait
1. A world - immediately drop readers into your characters' world. Where are we? Let us smell, taste and live it. Not too much. Just enough so we feel included and safe. (Remember: show, don't tell. Not: It was April 3, 2016, and the San Francisco Chronicle sat on the kitchen table. Try: I trolled the Internet for last night's A's results. Can't Billy Beane keep any player for more than two seasons?)
2. A Hero/Heroine - who are we going to root for? What's that MC have that I don't? Can I relate? Don't make him too perfect. (Not: Lilly Lane studied her third A paper of the day while she waited for Skip Target, the Tigers' star pitcher and a sure bet for Prom King. Try: Lilly Lane shoved the history test in her backpack. One C wouldn't kill her. If she scored an A on the next exam, maybe she could convince Skip Target she'd make a great tutor.)
3. A Catalyst - drop that shoe! We need to know what's at stake for our hero pronto! If you're not going to tell us until the end of the first or second chapter, you better leave us a trail of juicy clues. (Your catalyst is the event that sparks the plot. Something happens that propels the hero on his quest. If she's the school bully's favorite victim, maybe she gets suspended for a food fight that she didn't start. If he's depressed to the point of suicide, maybe he's sent to the school counselor who suggests he join their support group. The catalyst can be subtle or mind-blowing.)
4. A Problem - this we need to learn on the first page or three. I mean, what's going on that we care if there's another page to this story? If the problem is multi-layered, just give us one layer. In the "Wizard of Oz", Dorothy runs away and needs to get home. That's the main problem. Of course, she has several other adolescent troubles that lead to her leaving in the first place. (Problems can unfold, disappear or appear solved, reemerge with a vengeance, multiply or simplify - any or all of that happens as your story progresses, not in the first three pages.)
Inclusive in all is VOICE. Must have voice. That's not an exposition kind of thing, though. Voice carries your story from start to finish, so I don't include it in my Exposition Must Haves (but it most certainly is a MUST HAVE).
Share your WIP's first 100 words below. What are your Exposition Must Haves?
This month, we will explore PLOT. Plot includes the problem or central conflict to your story, how it will be resolved, who will resolve it, who will triumph, who will fail and all of that.
Traditionally, a plot structure consists of:
Exposition (story set-up; intro of main character; setting; time of calm)
Introduction of conflict
Attempts to solve conflict
Plot is the purpose of your story, the reason your protagonist wakes up in the morning, the force that causes your reader to turn the page. Everyone wants to know - what's going to happen now? Google "story plot" and you will uncover numerous models and structures for writing a story.
There's the Zen way: wake up, go about your day, and it will come to you.
There's the Professor's way: study great writers and uncover their structure.
There's the Lazy way: just write, plot will develop somehow just because you're writing something...err...moving your pen...
Now, I made all those up. Sort of. From talking with other writers, reading about other writers, I've discerned that these are three obvious ways someone might construct plot.
Today, let's talk more about that central problem. Specifically, how do you come up with one?
For me, it's a mixture of strategy and organic nurturing. I collect story ideas in a notebook, in my phone, on a pad of paper by my bedside, in the squares of my desk calendar. When I say that I 'collect' story ideas, I mean that I am constantly thinking about problems I encounter or someone encounters on a daily level, and I say to myself, "Hmm, would that make a good story?" Usually, that question is followed by a "It would if...". And that's how I come up with plot. And a "and, so" and you've got a whole premise.
Kidding. Sort of.
Think of your story's central problem like a scientist. You see a problem, so you come up with a hypothesis. When you do ------, this happens; so what if you do --------? What might happen now?
1. A boy and girl love each other [when you do this], but their parents hate each other. When the teens trick their families into renting adjoining cabins at a summer camp [what if you do this?], they wonder if love really is stronger than hate [what might happen now?].
2. Kimberly, a chubby teen, bares the brunt of vicious high school rumors [when you do this]. In order to fight back, she decides to get in shape over summer break [what if you do this?]. She loses weight and gains confidence, returning to school in September a leaner Kimberly, ready to seek revenge on her tormentors [what might happen now?].
Stuck for ideas? Troll your TV cable provider's movie choices. Read each premise. Which ones appeal to you? Write them down, then change one or two things and see what you come up with. This is a great exercise for practicing pitches. The late Blake Snyder ("Save the Cat") tells writers not to start their project until they know what it's about and what's at stake.
Think like a scientist, write like a screenwriter.
Share your thoughts below.