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.

The Bad Side

It’s easy to want to make your central characters the “good guys”, and therefore nice people; even if they aren’t perfect, per se, they can end up with nothing particularly “wrong” with them, no real flaws, just sort of humdrum, plain-vanilla people.  They’re okay.  They’re not offensive.  They seem like they’d be all right to have dinner with sometime, but you wouldn’t go out of your way to find out more about them.

Wait, these are your characters.  You need people to give a damn.  You need people to want to dig around in these people’s trash cans and browser histories, spy on them when they don’t know anyone’s looking, and draw them out so they’ll tell us crazy stories about their lives.  Let them be offensive sometimes, make the wrong decision, take the wrong side, make mistakes, act inappropriately defensive, and use messy logic to justify behavior that isn’t really justifiable or logical.

It can be tricky to balance flaws so that they don’t make readers dislike a character, but I’ve found that most of the time what carries the characters I like in spite of their bad sides is just that they are all-around strong personalities.  It’s pretty simple.  A little boldness, determination, or pluck in the face of hard times will make up for a fair bit of bad behavior.  Inner conflict and self-awareness will counter a few bad decisions or ill-chosen reactions.

The hard part, sometimes, is coming up with what flaws you want your character to have.  You don’t want to just tack them on like it’s Pin the Tail on the Donkey, either…they have to feel like they fit the character, like they stem from somewhere in their past or the side of themselves they keep hidden.  Anyway, here are some ways to choose flaws for your characters:

  • Take any of your character’s “good” traits and turn it into a flaw.  I’ve written entries about this before on this blog.  Make determination turn into stubbornness sometimes, or edge heroic deeds with a little narcissistic tendency.  Make a good sense of humor into a defense mechanism or courage into simply not thinking through consequences before acting.
  • You know those zodiac descriptions listing what your birth sign is supposed to mean about you?  Well, a lot of it is an ego-stroke about how cool you are if you’re this-or-that sign, but they do list negative traits, too.  Read for the bad stuff, and come up with a few things that fit for your character.
  • Plan ahead.  What character flaws would benefit the story?  If your protagonist is too cocky and makes mistakes early on, will that be a great way to land her in the bad circumstances you’ve got lined up for the middle of the book?  Great.  Make her cocky.  Think about why people do dumb stuff, make choices that are obviously not good for them, etc.  Some inner issue that person hasn’t overcome is often a contributing factor.
  • Balance characters against those closest to them.  You have a solid idea what one guy is like, what his hang-ups are, etc., but you’re not sure about his brother, who is another central character.  In the case of brothers, you’ve got a long history between them and the same household circumstances and family history growing up.  That’s a heck of a place to start from.  If one brother dealt with the family one way, how would that affect the other brother?  And if one brother has a particular strength, can that be an area of weakness for the other?  How do they compensate for one another, where do they clash, etc.?
  • Dialogue.  How does your character interact with other characters?  Is he funny?  Cutting?  Brusque?  Does he interrupt?  Does she take the lead in conversation?  Listen more than she talks?  This is what your character is putting out into the world of your story, how he or she is affecting the folks around him/her.  Pay attention.  What is your character giving away about the not-so-nice side of his personality?

Friday Exercise – Wish List

Make a list of 5 elements you know you want in your next story (or book).  If you know what tone you want, a few of your main characters’ traits, whether you want first or third person narration, what genre you want, where you want to set it or what kind of setting you’d like to use.  For example:

  1. three friends as the central characters
  2. lots of humor and banter in the narration and dialogue
  3. scenic setting…maybe on a journey of some kind?
  4. adventures and mishaps, and maybe a battle with a tin of pineapple?
  5. a dog

And that example is pulled from Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome, by the way, which is the funniest thing ever written.

Think of it as sort of a wish list for your story.  List more than 5 things…list as many things as you can come up with.  Fill in the details.  You want to write something that will fit into the steampunk genre?  Okay, so which established elements of steampunk do you want, and how is your story a little different?  How can you take an element of it a little further, give it a twist, or focus on an area that’s been overlooked before?  You want an exotic setting.  Otherworld or real-world exotic?  If it’s the real world, pick a place you’ve always wanted to know more about, or that you’ve visited, and do some research.  If it’s otherworldly, are you going for futuristic, alternate history, another planet, science fiction, or fantasy?

The point is to aim for what you’re excited about writing, and then get you asking and answering questions to focus your sights.

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.

Friday Exercise – 3 Changes, 3 Complications

Write down three major life changes – stuff like moving, losing a job, getting a divorce, etc.  Whatever three come to mind for you.  Now write down three complications to successfully making these three transitions – can’t get a buyer for the house, no jobs available in the character’s field, ex gets stalky.

Now start an outline for a book, because this will be too much plot to fit into a short story, most likely.  And going along with the three things theme, you could work in a list of actions your character takes to try to fix each of your complications, a list of three supports that help your character, a list of the reasons why the first three things came to be, a list of the outcomes for each of the three initial problems.

Personally, I’m already off on a mental tangent about how the house is haunted and that’s why no one will buy it, and the character’s old job field was a miserable drain on his energy and in his efforts to sell the house he does a bunch of remodeling on it and makes it gorgeous and becomes a professional home renovator and loves it, and decides to keep his now-beautiful house, and his stalky ex-wife gets attacked by the ghosts when she sneaks in through the basement one night and…see, this exercise will totally give you ideas!  So go do it.

Good News, Bad News

I’m going to cheat again this Wednesday, and put up a writing prompt instead of a “proper” post:

Hit a character (or set of characters) with good news and bad news on the same day, but not about the same thing (i.e., not “The good news is, you don’t have tuberculosis.  The bad news is, you have emphysema.”)  How do the emotional reactions mix within the characters?  How do the characters interact with one another?  Who looks on the bright side, and who only sees the negative?  Who does your character go to first with either item of news?  Does he/she tell only the good news, and keep the bad to himself/herself, or vice versa?

Plot and Fundamental Human Needs

Characters have always been the easiest part of writing for me – they’re usually the first component of any story to occur to me, often the first to flesh out into something three-dimensional in my mind, and the primary source of conflict in most of my work stems from the characters and/or their own inner conflict(s).

However, I don’t like to limit too many of my plots (especially anything longer than a short story) to being purely character-driven.  It’s always harder for me to come up with external conflict I like that’s big enough for a book plot, so I use tools to brainstorm that kind of stuff.  One thing I turn to a lot is psychology/sociology.  Which sounds like it would lead straight back to internal stuff (which it does, sometimes).  But it gets me thinking about the external pressures people face, how different people react to the same circumstances in totally different ways, and how those varying reactions can become another external conflict in the story.

One thing I use to brainstorm is looking over basic human needs.  The precise wording, number, and definition varies from theory to theory, but it’s all pretty much the same stuff, just broken down differently.  There’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which the basic needs like sustenance and safety have to be fulfilled before the “higher” needs even matter to a given individual – which is an interesting point, in story terms.

There’s also a Wikipedia article on fundamental human needs with a nice little table with specific goals, actions, qualities, etc. related to each category of needs.  It defines fundamental needs as:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

How do you make a plot out of fundamental human needs?  Well, as usual with writing, be sadistic to your characters.  Take some of these things away from them, or at least threaten to.  Or make them choose between two.  Or set two characters with two different problems with need fulfilment at odds with each other.  Or explore a community with an unfilfilled fundamental need, and how individuals’ reactions to the issue affect one another, making things worse for the others or better for the others.

To me, the best book plots often don’t have “bad guys” per se, just people who want different things, going about getting what they want in different ways, pulling at each other or pushing each other away, each one internally conflicted and each one affected by the events around them, as well.

Friday Exercise – First Lines

Since I’ve started reworking the opening of my novel this week, it’s only natural that opening lines and opening scenes are on my mind.  Of all the scenes in a novel, however, the one that invariably has to do the most work is the first one.  Not that you can drop the ball once you’re past the first chapter, by any means, but that first chapter had better be spectacular.

And that doesn’t mean it has to start with a fist fight, a murder, or a gunslinging showdown, although it certainly can, if that fits the book.  I think what really makes or breaks a beginning isn’t as much about action as it is about intrigue and movement.  If there is a sense that, “Hey, this is going somewhere!  I want to slip into this story world and see what’s up!” you’re going to win readers over, whether you start with high action or dialogue or, if you do it really well, even description.

How do you give that sense of intrigue and movement from the very start?  A big part of it is hints.  Foreshadowing.  Giving just a little background away here and there and then going back to the events at hand.  Raising questions in the reader’s mind and making them wait a little (or a lot!) for the answers.  And most of all, characters who clearly have goals and/or conflicts (or conflicting goals, which can be incredibly fun to write).  Aimless characters are boring characters, most of the time – just because Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man was hilarious, heartbreaking, and horrible, that doesn’t mean every writer should try for a similar character.  Yes, there are aimless, lazy people in the world, but that doesn’t mean I want to write about them or read about them, unless you write as well as Dostoevsky…and I know I don’t.  /Rant.

Anyway, on to the exercise:

Come up with 5 optional first lines for a story, each of which hints at something to come, something that’s already happened, or something that is actively happening.  If possible, hint at more than one event!  If your opening line is descriptive, make something about the description be a hint.  Some examples:

  • The year Bill Kabitzki killed himself, two things happened to me.  (The opening line to the horrible book I wrote when I was in my teens.)
  • Being dead has its advantages.  (The new first line to The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.)
  • There was something about the barn, this morning, that disturbed him, although he couldn’t have said what it was.
  • “That’s funny,” I said, glancing at his ID.  “I thought you were lying.”
  • She pulled the trigger…and nothing happened.

Pick one of your opening lines – the one that intrigues you the most – and write the story that comes after it.

Choosing Curiosity

For the second week in a row, I’ve missed my Monday post – this time, because I was busy all weekend (thus, didn’t have time to write one in advance), and then started jury duty Monday morning.  So, like last Wednesday, I’m posting about writing instead of marketing with my Wednesday post.

To start with, here’s a little run-down of how my time has been spent lately:  last week (when I had the flu), over the course of this weekend (when I was out doing stuff, meeting and getting to know new people, hearing lots of memories and stories shared between friends, seeing new places and hearing the history these friends had there together, etc.), and so far this week (while waiting to be called from the jury pool room to trials, being questioned for possible selection to a jury, chatting with fellow jury pool members to pass the time, etc.).  All of this stuff is pretty much outside my normal routine, some of it understandably crappy (being sick, parking downtown, having to get up early (I’m a night person and an evening shift worker), sitting in a room for hours just waiting for something to happen), some of it understandably exciting and fun (my weekend), and some of it able to go either way (jury duty is very much all or nothing…either you’re just sitting around passing the time as best you can, or something important is happening).

That said, what’s been on my mind in terms of writing has been (a) the fact that breaking out of your normal routine does, indeed, get your brain going, (b) even if you don’t choose what breaks your routine and even if the break is unwanted and/or unpleasant, as a writer, you can use anything as an opportunity – any experience adds to what you know about life, and therefore what you can convincingly write about in your fiction, and (c)  anytime you’re stuck in a room full of other people, you’re sitting on a gold mine of observable material…characters, dialogue, quirks, mannerisms, backgrounds, story ideas….

One of the best things about being a writer, I think, is that we have the gift of being able to pull something positive out of any situation.  Whether it’s traumatic, aggravating, uncomfortable, or fantastically awesome, a writer can get at least a short story or a poem out of almost anything that happens.  At times in my life, that has been the one gleam of reassurance and positivity in the back of my mind – when things have been at the very depths of fear and trauma, I’ve had this calm, logical piece of myself that has told me, “This is going to be so good for your writing someday,” and patted me on the shoulder…it’s a soothing thought when you’re in a panic, a ray of hope in times of despair, a candle in the darkness.  Writers are lucky to have that.

In less dire circumstances, such as the aggravations of being in a jury pool (getting up ridiculously early and still being barely on time because of parking, monetary troubles, long lunch lines, chairs that make your butt hurt after 45 minutes, waiting around for stuff, not getting picked for a trial that sounded interesting, etc.) there’s still that happy little part of me that’s like, “Ooh, but shiny!  Now I know all this stuff about how this works that I didn’t know before!” and “Hey, this lady I’m sitting next to all damn day waiting to get pulled for a case knows an awful lot of cool stuff about [whatever]…wonder where that could lead?” and “Hm…this guy sure knows a lot about [historical event].  Has some good yarns to spin about the experience.  Let’s keep him talking!”

A writer can always choose to get curious – let yourself wonder about a system or a process you’re encountering for the first time, pay attention to what’s going on, listen to what other people are saying about it to you or to each other, watch the folks who’re on familiar ground and how they interact with one another and with the newbies, chat with people in waiting rooms, look around for anomalies, watch facial expressions.  It beats being bored anyday…and it’s good practise.  My theory is, the more you make it a habit to be observant and take note of your surroundings, the more generally inspired you’ll be, and the richer your details will become.