It Ain’t Over Until I Stop Talking
A secret, unspoken joy of a small town is that particular moment when your professors go from being authoritarian experts and become your equally lost peers. Sometimes it’s a blessing, a means to return the gift of support and motivation your fifth-grade teacher instilled in you.
One of the most impactful adults of my childhood would go out of her way to make sure I’d be able to escape the other students when overstimulated by their, we’ll say, antics. She supported my creativity and rule breaking more than any other, and even allowed me to take charge of an entire class period to “teach short story writing” to my fellow third-graders.
As an adult, I encountered this woman again in my creative writing group, where I found her to be immensely insecure and uncertain about her convictions. Other members looked down on her and questioned her choices constantly, a giant man barking, “WHY?!” at her anytime he disagreed with her vision. Unexpectedly, I was given power to empower her just like she had for me.
It can also be a bad thing. Teachers are humans too, and with that comes all of the pettiness and politics that teenagers take possession of. My high school drama teacher had been the longest, most constant relationship out of all of the people who have taught me. I thought her stern and opinionated, but intelligent, passionate, and respectful.
Yet, when I became a teacher myself, I started to question her decisions, starting to realize the ineffectiveness (and unfairness) of how she prioritized the students with natural showmanship over teaching the eager. She wanted high quality shows with minimal effort, not to teach, not to challenge. There weren’t many “lessons” in her lessons. As I worked with her as an adult, professional peers, I found more unsavory practices. She would scream at the techies, insult her directors, and take over any group discussion to make it about her needs and her opinions. Her judgment was law and everyone else was a philistine. The work she produced itself wasn’t something I was too enamored with, and soon the woman who I’d idolized in my youth was nothing more than a stress-inducing diva.
She had had a lot to say about… well, everything, and was my initial introduction to a great deal of writing/acting rules. “Everyone wants something even if it’s just a glass of water,” sort of opinions. And I, as someone who despises being told what to do, never took it seriously, doing my own thing regardless. It was as I aged that I realized that these parroted pieces of advice weren’t always the clearest. Once I understand—via experience and practice—what they were trying to get out, I had more respect for them. But there’s one thing I’ve heard constantly that I still to this day think is too vague to be remotely useful: “Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end.”
While talking with a woman about the playwriting group I founded this year, she mentioned her idea—a café with strange characters—and my past mentor’s criticism: this whole beginning, middle, end shebang. The writer accepted the advice eagerly, but was unclear about which direction to go with it. To me, that made sense, as I always wanted to quip back, “The beginning is when I start talking, the end is where I stop, and the middle is everything in between.”
It’s sort of like when people say, “Get rid of it because it’s unnecessary.” Well, the whole book is unnecessary really. More to the point, I find that it’s misdirecting from the real issue—it’s not unnecessary, it’s that it’s boring and easy to cut. Or boring and doesn’t lead anywhere. Maybe it’s a distraction or looks like the author is rambling. But, the more important part is that it is boring, regardless of the impact it has later on. If it was interesting and off-topic, no one would bat an eye (unless they wanted to hear more about it.) So-called unnecessary details are what separates the story from the summary, and sometimes those little jokes that don’t move the plot forward are what actually keep the audience glued to the screen. To me, the word “unnecessary” is a shame tactic that requires little thought to get something to change something.
As an avid reader of new writers, I know how there are stories that don’t have their beginning, middle, ends, just verbose tangents that make you feel like you’ve wasted your time. Yet, I also say that there are so many exceptions to what constitutes as the effective trifecta of a story plot, it’s mostly based on an, “I’ll know it when I see it,” mentality. It’s difficult to warn a writer starting a new book what to look for without the use of a formula, and surprisingly, there are many formulas and rules to choose from. I recommend that all authors experiment with these, but that takes years of tooling around and research.
So what about the new writer who wants to make something cohesive?
A cardinal rule is to remain focused.
If I’m telling you the story about how I broke up with my boyfriend, I’m going to include the aspects and factors that I consider relevant. I may begin my story with how we met, but only if I think how we met is demonstrative of how we ended. So, by the fact that I had to ask him out and be incredibly aggressive, it might be a great place to begin if our relationship ended due to his lack of effort. How we met foreshadows how we ended. But if we just met in a grocery store and we broke up because he doesn’t think brushing his teeth is important, that might not be the best place to start.
What’s “on topic” is really easy to identify because it’s a true story: we have all this information we know we can’t tell each second of—two years together, there’s a lot of days that can be summed up or skipped over—and so we have a better natural filter. (Some of us more than others, of course.)
Fiction is a little more difficult, especially genres like fantasy and sci-fi when details like where the milk she pours into her cereal came from might be something the audience needs to know for sake of world building. Plus people love subplots.
However, the rules remain the same. Millions of things happen to these characters, not all of which need to be explained. Staying focused doesn’t necessarily mean to one story, but it does mean to ask yourself how information relates to other information, or if a scene is even telling the audience anything. Just because a character would go to the bathroom, being human an all, it can be left out unless the fact that they went at that time informs later or earlier actions.
Really, most people would agree that you can start a book out in anyway as long as it’s interesting. Personally, I would focus on that first, but I will throw out a few things that seems to be successful.
Good beginnings typically…
-Give strong sense of character.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, Peter Quill’s dance through the “rat” infested cavern and his argument with his humanoid opponents immediately give a sense of how he handles conflict and endears him to us.
-Gives a sense of the author.
Whether it be The Martian or Pride and Prejudice, the strength of those first paragraphs lie in the perspective/philosophy/sense of humor. We get a vibe to the voice of the book, and some insight into who the writer is; why they’re writing the damn thing in the first place.
-Gives a sense of the overall mood and/or theme of the book.
“It was a dark and stormy night.” Horror, comedy, drama, a rollercoaster, you get a taste of what emotions the rest of the story intends to instill in you.
-Sets up important details of the character’s situation that explains later actions.
When we see that Lilo has no friends, no family, and is intensely weird and alone, it becomes the foundation to not only the stakes in losing Stitch, but also makes sense as to why she remains loyal to her terrible, disloyal dog.
I remember, when first writing a novel, thinking about what the hell happens in the middle? And the truth is, this is the most flexible, yet easiest part to get wrong (as in, lose your audience.)
Good middles typically…
-Make a huge change in the character’s situation.
So, if we see how the character handles conflict in their comfort zone, what happens when we take them to a place they’re unfamiliar? Blake Snyder, writer of Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need refers to this as a “upside down world” and the idea is, after establishing a normal life, how far in the opposite direction can we go? I don’t think it needs to be absolutely polar, but definitely the middle is going to want to look very different from the beginning, if that be setting, social standing, or the types of problems the character now has.
-Explain the character’s priorities and concerns.
There should be a moment of doubt and resistance when a character’s life changes—as humans don’t like change in general, and it adds to who your character is. When suddenly he’s faced with a decision, you learn a lot more about it when it comes to why he hesitates. Why wouldn’t he do something? What ultimately propels him?
-Show the “concept.”
Your book often starts out with an idea, such as a young boy finds out he’s a wizard and goes to school, or even you’re in a café with a bunch of colorful locals. After you set up what’s normal and strange for the life of the people in your story, take a moment to play with the actual concept that caused you to write the book. Have Harry take a magic class. Let your locals make jokes at each other’s expense. For the first portion of middle section, write the book the way you want it to be without worrying (too much) about stakes or progression of plot.
-Set up more reasons the character needs to succeed.
The beginning needs to tell your audience why the character cares about whatever it is he’s trying to do, but the middle needs to emphasize the importance. This is where you start adding stakes and developing even more reasons for the character to pursue his goal and, most importantly, to do it now.
A good ending will, of course, tie the majority your threads together and leave the reader feeling something. Many amateur writers fail in this area because, honestly, they get impatient and they quick. They rush the ending and sort of just stop.
Endings, especially for novels, can get away with “lacking” certain aspects, even being improved because of it. Books in series, for instance, don’t want every problem tied up, and even standalones might do better if you leave the audience with a question rather than answering it for them. That being said, it’s very easy for a reader to feel ripped off if the author doesn’t have an ending with an impact.
Good endings typically…
-Leave the audience feeling something has changed.
A reader will put the book down feeling scared or on edge, excited or satisfied. They might have new intellectual concepts to chew over, or even be inspired in their own life to make a difference. A bad ending will make a reader wonder why they bothered picking up the book in the first place, typically because though the author tried to instill emotions, they did not succeed.
-Utilize emotional swings within the last few pages to achieve this.
There should be a moment of doubt as to whether or not the character will succeed/how they will succeed. If the hero ultimately wins the battle, at one point, he needs to look like he genuinely might lose. You don’t have to convince the reader of this, many books don’t, but if you can, all the better. If he comes in and just wins everything, blowing away the enemy in one fell swoop, the conflict doesn’t look hard enough, and the ending isn’t as much of a payoff. If you don't know what the main character is trying to succeed at, it's a sign that your story is just unfocused rambling, and it's likely you're boring the reader.
-Make it clear why you told the story.
It was funny, arousing, or cathartic. It explained a big problem in our world we need to solve, or at least open up to discussion. You had a point, and you made it, even if you don’t give answers.
-It makes sense as to why we saw the rest of the story.
If the ending would work just as well without the buildup, then the buildup isn’t working. Because we saw the whole thing from beginning to end, we see how what happened in scene two makes the finale make sense/more important to us as the audience. This falls in line with staying focused; at the last scene, we know why we needed to learn everything we did throughout the book.
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