Rhobin’s topic this month: How do you ensure a story has a good beginning, a satisfying ending, and good continuity in between?
When I was supervising students, I had to advise them on how to write a research thesis. I always told them, “Write the Introduction last, when you know what you are introducing.” In that situation, the boring, bread-and-butter stuff needs to be written up first: Method, Analysis, Results. A literature search was done before the study started, so that could simply be inserted, using a few linking paragraphs. Then it was the ending: Discussion — and finally the start.
I edit many books that start pretty lame, but warm up after perhaps chapter 3. Most of the story might be excellent, and well written, except of course no reader would reach the good bits. Guess what my advice to the writer is: throw away the first few chapters, put the project on ice until it gets cold, then rewrite the opening.
A loose, wandering plot diluted with irrelevancies is another problem I often see. I might tell the writer to construct a plot, then expand it into the story, but another good device is to write the ending first, so there is a clear view of where the story is going.
OK, that’s my advice to others. How do I do it, personally?
I usually start with a fair idea of how the story will end. Sometimes, but not always, I actually write the climax and finale. I did this for the first version of Guardian Angel: actually wrote my little heroine’s horrendous death. Then I had to agree with critics that this ending spoiled the story, and solved the problem by extending it — to her next birth. I knew the last line for this final version, but didn’t need to write the last scene until I got to it.
I didn’t pre-write the ending for Hit and Run. I knew that Charlie was going to be transformed into a decent person, and go to jail, but had no idea about the fate of the other characters, including the narrator, Sylvia. When she died, she took me by surprise, and the way she chose to do so put a smile into my heart.
I think of fiction as a series of scenes. Each is told from the point of view of one of the characters, and I do my best to induce my reader to BECOME that person for the time being. So, the story is a daisy chain of scenes, joined with short word bridges, especially when we need to skip time and/or place. In a way, each scene needs to be a short story that has a beginning, body and end. It needs to be built on previous happenings, and open up future ones, so that the reader feels compelled to find out what’s coming next.
If you were to look at any of the novels I’ve written in the past 20 years, you could extract a clear plot from it. When I wrote the Stories of the Ehvelen, that’s what I actually did: I had a list of events that needed to be covered. Oh, this got modified during writing, but the structure was there for me to follow.
I no longer need to do this. I invent a few people, and they then tell me what to write. But the result is equivalent. The plot is still there, even if I had no idea what it was going to be while writing.
Because I aim to make each scene as gripping and powerful as I can, it doesn’t matter what order I write them in. So, apart from the ending, I mostly just start at the beginning, and keep going, recording what my characters tell me. If I get stuck, I may skip ahead and write something else, returning later to fill the gap.
Writing is the chocolate icing on the cake of life. When you write, have everything else disappear from your consciousness. Write THIS scene to make it truer than the reality out there.
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- free short stories
- essays that are challenging, informative and thought-provoking
- interviews of remarkable people who honoured me with their answers, and entertaining answers I’ve given to other people’s questions
- brief descriptions of several of my books
- and past issues of my newsletter, Bobbing Around.
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