Middles and Endings

I’m thinking of devoting my Wednesday posts to topics on middles and ends.  It seems only fair, since my Friday posts are exercises – and exercises are generally for the purpose of getting started.  Beginnings get all the glory, with writing, and in some ways that makes sense.  After all, nobody will get to the middle or end of your book if you don’t have a stand-out opening.  Readers and agents judge you by your first few pages, your first few paragraphs, your first few sentences.  I, myself, as a browser of books, have often put a book back after reading the first line.

However, there’s nothing more disappointing in the world of readership than a book that starts great and goes steadily (or abruptly) downhill from there.  It’s frustrating, because the writer has gotten you invested in the story, convinced you to care about the characters, and lured you into taking the time and attention to find out What Happens Next, only to let you down.  I hate it when I’m invested enough in a book that I can’t just stop reading it, but wish I could just stop reading it.

Like most avid readers, I have a hefty stack of titles I want to get around to, and if you hook me into reading your work, I expect something back for my investment.  If I don’t get it, I’ll be disgusted with you as a writer, resent you for wasting my time, and I’ll never buy or recommend another of your books…ever.  This is not the reader response an author wants, obviously.

The beginning’s job is to catch the attention of the reader and make them want to find out about the plot and the people in your story.  Once you do that, you have an obligation to follow through with a middle that does its job well – being the story.  That’s the middle’s job.

All the elements of being the story (questions raised and answered, intrigue and tension built and relieved, complications arising and being overcome (or not), downfalls suffered, redemptions achieved) have to work together to advance your plot in a way that holds the reader’s attention.  It isn’t enough to have an interesting plot.  You have to have the storytelling skills to tell it in an interesting way.  I’ve read a few books, actually, that I loved in spite of a weak plot simply because they were told in a way that kept me turning the pages, thirsty for more, curious about the characters’ next moves.

Which leaves, of course, the end.  Last but not least, dear ending.  You are just as important as the beginning, except during the slush pile years.  The ending’s job, then, is to be the payoff.  Yes, it’s there to wrap things up, but just tying up your loose ends or saying Happily Ever After may not be enough.

True, there are some genres we expect a certain type of ending from – horror usually ends with a twist or a final scare, sometimes the gruesome death of a character who thought he/she had gotten away; romance is often the happily-ever-after scenario; a series will sometimes set up the conflict for the next novel; etc.

Specifics aside, however, I think what makes for a truly great ending is this:

  • A sense of how things have changed, especially in the characters’ internal landscapes.  A sense of how far things have come or how far things have gone.
  • A sort of Zen acknowledgement that things began in a status quo and that things will return to a status quo, even if the new status quo is entirely different from the old.
  • A payoff worthy of the journey, whether your book is a wild adventure or an introspective/interpersonal struggle.  A payoff that suits the story, too.  Don’t get melodramatic if the rest of the book was low-key and subtle.  Don’t have a drawn-out, ho-hum ending to a book full of explosions and gunslinging.  Don’t kill someone off arbitrarily just to end on a poignant note if the rest of your book was light-hearted.

Decisions, Decisions

I used to write blindly – no idea where a piece was going, what length I was shooting for, what type of story or book it was going to be, what the storyline actually was…nothing planned.  While the spontaneity had its perks, I rarely finished anything.  These days, I do free writes from time to time, writing whatever comes to mind, as a way to purge, as a brainstorming tool, to make connections and associations – in short, to get the advantages of spontaneity without the commitment to making it be a story.

And when I sit down to a project, I know what I want from it.  I don’t plan for every turn of events, don’t outline beyond a rough arc and a few spots of tricky or intricate turns, but I do have some idea of how I want things to end up, and a few of the places I want the story to go through along the way.  I also tend to decide, ahead of time, on what kind of story I want to be writing.  Not necessarily genre (my stuff tends to be weird amalgamations of bent genres fused together into its own thing), but I’ll have in mind, say, High Concept Zany Adventure, With Funny Bits In.  (That would be The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, by the way.)  Or Uplifting Post-Apocolyptic Story, With Rabbit.  (Short story in progress, as well.)

For me, setting a few ground rules actually opens up possibilities rather than limiting my ideas.  Having a direction, something to aim for, makes me look at the broad horizon of the storyline as a whole, rather than plugging along paragraph by paragraph, missing the forest for the trees, working only with what I have written rather than looking at what I can write next.

There are many times I find myself borrowing metaphors from the process of making visual art as a way to look at writing.  The worst part of starting any art project, for me, is the blank page.  Endless possibility is weirdly inhibiting.  Blocking off a few shapes helps you start looking at what you do know needs to go into the piece.

Having a little definition, really knowing what you want a piece to be, goes a long way – at least for me.  If I have a clear sense of what I’m aiming for, everything starts to flow.  I know what kind of things I want to have happen, what fits, what won’t, what I need to happen and how to make it work with the tone instead of against it, where some relief is needed if the story is getting to heavy or where some darkness is necessary if it’s getting too silly and off-the-wall.

So I will keep doing free writes when I’m stuck, need ideas, or am between projects, but I will also set some clear markers for myself when I sit down to really work on something…because that’s how I get things done.

The Hook

The Hook is a lie.  Let’s just get that out in the open right now.  Everybody talks about how you need to have your literary Hook, the thing that grabs readers’ attention and makes them want to find out more, as soon as possible in your story or novel.  This is true.

The lie is an indirect one – a lie by omission, a lie by understatement.  Because you don’t need one Hook, you need lots of hooks.  You need a trail of breadcrumbs.  You need Reese’s Pieces leading through the forest.  You don’t get to have one big hook at the beginning and then you can meander however you want to and trust that readers will stick with you just based on one thing that was briefly mentioned all the way back at the beginning of the story.  The truth is, readers rarely take it on faith that you’re going to be interesting.  These days, there are plenty of people who assume just the opposite, in fact:  book = boring.  Jeez, it’s not even in Hi Def, and there’s no surround sound.

A story needs some sense of direction, of forward movement, and a sense of mystery, and I don’t mean the genre, in this instance.  An excerpt of my deskside dictionary’s definition of “mystery”: 

(1.) something unexplained, unknown, or kept secret (2.) any thing or event that remains so secret or obscure as to excite curiosity … mystery is applied to something beyond human knowledge or understanding, or it merely refers to any unexplained or seemingly inexplicable matter.

Now, until your plot plays out, there will obviously be stuff that’s “unknown” to the reader, whether it’s kept secret or not, and the key component in the whole definition, in terms of what I’m talking about in this entry, is the phrase excite curiosity.  You want your reader to wonder about things, to feel like a little kid again, asking, “And then what happened?” over and over, until the very end, and maybe even after they’re done reading your book.

Drop hints.  Foreshadow.  Give the reader subtext and clues that the characters miss sometimes.  Throw in setbacks.  Raise doubts.  Bring up questions that will need answering.  Give a glimpse of something bigger on the horizon, but only give enough to make your reader want more.  Build anticipation.  And make the payoff worth the wait.

A hobby of mine is looking through books and magazines on architecture, interior design, and landscaping.  One of the things I read in a landscaping magazine really struck me, and has always stuck with me as a visual metaphor for what we strive for in writing.  In garden design, this landscape architect was saying, one tries to simultaneously provide a view and obscure the view.  While each “area” should look interesting, you want people to be drawn on, through your design, and the way to do that is to show only part of what lies beyond.  Using arches, gateways, trellising (is that a word?), turns in hedges, etc., a designer will open up a glimpse, but not reveal the full effect of the next space in the garden.  It builds a sense of intrigue, makes people want to fill in the rest of the information.  And I thought, “A design hook.  Foreshadowing with hedges!”

I don’t remember what magazine the article was in, or who the designer was, unfortunately, but I think of it often when I’m working on a plot, and particularly when I’m revising.  What am I giving a glimpse of here?  Is that enough to make someone want to take the next few steps down the path?  Am I giving them too much, too soon?  I’d better save something really good for when they get to that part of the story, because they’ll need a big WOW! after that much build-up.

And there you have it.  The truth about narrative hooks!  You must have lots of them, all through the story, right up to the end.

Plottin’ & Schemin’

Sorry, that just put the Beastie Boys song “Rhymin’ & Stealin'” in my head.  Anywayyyy, I had a mini writer’s retreat with Marian Allen last week to do some work on our respective upcoming NaNoWriMo projects this November.  I’m using NaNo to write the first book in a trilogy I’ve had in mind for ages now, so naturally our shop talk got around to plotting techniques.  I’m normally not much of an outliner, and if I do outline, it’s usually not in much detail, but (a) the plot of this trilogy is extremely complex, (b) there are a lot of characters, and their stories interweave and affect each other, even those who don’t know one another personally, and (c) it’s a trilogy, which means I want continuity between the three books, and I don’t want to get to book three and say, “Crap!  I wish I’d mentioned THIS THING I NEED FOR THE PLOT TO WORK back in book one!  Now I’m going to have to shoehorn it in and treat it like it’s been the case all along!”  Of course, that would only be a problem if books one and two were published by the time I was writing book three, but let’s give me some credit here and say that’s a possibility.

I know quite a lot of events that need to happen for the main plot and for the subplots (and there are times when my subplots directly affect the main plot, too), but the order of many of the events is up in the air.  At the suggestion of my writing buddy, I tried a more visual structuring technique:  Take a piece of paper and mark it off into rectangles – 9 columns and 3 rows.  In the fifth column of each row, write “Turning Point”, in the next-to-last rectangle write “Climax”.  Your first box is your setup, the last box is your conclusion.  Start filling stuff in.

Now, I modified this somewhat to accommodate a 3-book storyline.  For the trilogy, each book gets its own row, so there are 9 rectangles per book.  That means less nitty-gritty plot detail can go into it, but the general shape of all of it comes together in one place.  I have 18″ by 24″ paper (for painting, usually) and many colored pencils (for coloring books, usually), so I color-coded important characters and got busy.

While I don’t think this will be a solve-all for my plotting problems in this series, I think the combination of a list-form, all-just-text plot file  with this visual structure layout will be highly useful.  Already, there are times when my brain gets stuck with one format, and just switching to the other type of outline unsticks it.  The more tools you, as a writer, have, the better, because every single project is different, and a tool you never needed before may suddenly be really useful for your next story!

The Obligatory “Outline” Discussion

One of the topics that’s bandied about most often among writers is outlining.  Should you do it or not, how detailed do you get with it if you do, how far should you let things stray from your original outline (if at all), is outlining the death of a story from the outset…?  Many a debate is had about outlining at writer’s workshops.

So what’s my take on it?  Do it, if it helps.  If it impedes you, don’t.  Personally, I tend not to write an outline, but I do make copious notes for myself on things I want to include in the storyline.  Sometimes it ends up looking a lot like an outline, because I try to keep it in a rough chronological order.

Generally, how I decide whether to outline or not is based entirely on whether or not I can hold all the vital plot information in my head while I’m writing.  If I can’t, I’ll stop and make reminder notes to myself, or put the book itself aside for a few days to write an outline.

The down side to having an outline is, sometimes you feel obligated to follow it to the letter, and get yourself bogged down into writer’s block.  The down side to NOT having an outline is, sometimes you write yourself into a corner–and can’t untangle the story without completely dismantling it and starting over.  Either way, the trick is to balance flexibility with clear direction.  You’ve got to be going somewhere with your story, even if you don’t know quite where until you’re done writing it.  On the other hand, you can’t make something work if it just doesn’t fit with the actual, fleshed-out story.  It may look great in the outline, but when you’re working with your characters, you may realize that they aren’t responding quite the way you expected.  That means that either (a) you need to go with what your characters are telling you or (b) you need to tweak the circumstances or add another layer to the events that WILL get your characters to react the way you need them to.  How do you know which one of those is the right solution?  Easy.  Whichever makes the story and the characters stronger and more interesting.

Now, for someone who doesn’t usually outline, it’s kind of hard for me to do it when I need to.  My husband (also a writer) passed on a method of his own to me a couple of years ago (and he’ll be very pleased to know he’s made his first “appearance” on this blog), which I’ve found very helpful.  It’s easiest done on the computer, where you can rearrange things easily and without having to use an eraser.  I use Word for it, because I can use bullet-points to organize everything.

If you have a definite beginning, middle, and end in mind, write those down as three separate points.  Anything you know for sure you want to have happen, put in semi-chronologically between those points.  Then expand on each of those points or break them down into individual events or scenes.  I’ll use, for my example, the guy from my post about One Damn Thing After Another–the guy who saved his dog from being eaten by zombies.

So let’s say that’s part of a novel.  The overall story is that this guy and his dog have to survive an outbreak of zombie football player attacks in a small Midwestern town, and you’ve decided that the source of this particular set of zombies is a spurned cheerleader who’s an expert in black magic, which she’s used to bring all these football players back from the dead.  You have an overarching plot, there.  In the most general terms, then, you have:  Beginning – main character and dog living in small town.  Middle – angry cheerleader uses black magic to raise zombies from dead, main character and dog fight off zombies.  End – main character and dog survive.

Okay, so if you know anything about your characters, that’s the first way to expand things.  Is this the main guy’s hometown?  If not, why did he move there?  Why does he live alone with his dog?  Is he divorced, not married yet, reclusive, or just happy to be a bachelor with his best pal the dog as his only responsibility?  Does he know the football players or the cheerleader?  (It’s better if he does.  In fact, I might make him the coach of the football team or something.  Get him really involved!)  Why’s the cheerleader so pissed?  And how the $&#* does she know black magic???  This is stuff you’d answer in “plot points” in between your beginning and middle.  Once you answer that stuff, I’d bet anything that more ideas for things to have happen will occur to you.  Now the middle will be easier, because you’ve got things set up and the characters are probably clearer in your mind.  You can flesh out the middle of the outline, or start working on the beginning and see what direction your characters go with your setup.  Either way, your characters should be directing the action once you’ve set things up for them.  And the end?  Well, of course, we said the main guy and his dog survive.  Whether they survive and are traumatized for life, survive and live happily ever after (vowing never to trust cheerleaders again), survive and the man marries the cheerleader’s cute algebra teacher who worked out where the zombies were coming from and saved man and dog from certain death, etc., will all come down to how you fleshed out the middle of the story.  And if you knew from the start that you wanted, say, the ending with the algebra teacher, then you’d have planned the middle accordingly.  Sometimes working backward is an excellent plotting strategy.

I like using this style of outlining, because it’s as much brainstorming as organizing–and I love brainstorming.  You also don’t have to fill in every blank, which leaves a feeling of flexibility to the process of the actual writing.  There, Luchian, you have your debut on my blog, and you have my thanks for your plotting methods, O Plotting Wizard.