BEGINNINGS, MIDDLES, AND ENDINGS
A discussion of beginnings, middles, and endings would be incomplete without a few words about plot. To talk about plot is to talk about movement. A story that lacks movement will bore the reader, regardless of the well-chosen words or the well-developed characters. The movement of the plot is the essence of storytelling. Old storylines can be dusted off and replotted. The reader gets caught up in the movement of the story, identifying with the characters and following the theme through to the end.
A story is spectacle, and spectacle, by its very name, implies drama and may be key to plotting, depending on the situation. Spectacle in a novel can produce a grand visual sense in the reader’s mind, for example, a James Rollins character about to have his hand lopped off by the antagonist at the end of a chapter. That visual (spectacle) alone in a reader’s mind will drive her to turn the page and start the new chapter just to see what happens next. A novel is visual in the reader’s mind.
While thought is the theme the author has chosen to write about and it is one of the four major elements of fiction upon which the story is based, theme alone will not sustain the reader’s interest, but it is essential to the reader understanding the direction of the story.
Character is most important to the story. What interests us about characters is both who they are and what they do or have done or experienced. It is the characters that give movement to the situation, thus giving details to the story, thus plotting each move.
Plot, as movement, can be defined in many ways. A plot moves chronologically through time. It may be one day, one year, or one lifetime. Plotting depends on cause and effect. Significant events (cause) not only follow one another chronologically but are also related. Plot movement exists as a series of setbacks and understandings, discoveries and disasters, actions and reactions. Chapters are linked, obligating the reader to continue turning pages to find out what happens next. Effect, the result of the event, leads to the next cause and effect. For a plot to move smoothly, each event (cause) must have an effect, and this movement is repeated throughout the story. Each event is linked to the previous and the subsequent.
Example: In du Maurier’s Rebecca, the future Mrs. de Winter accompanies her employer to a vacation spot where she meets Max de Winter. The effect of this meeting is her subsequent marriage to Max. He takes her back to his estate, Manderley. The effect of that meeting is the attempts by the housekeeper to remove Mrs. de Winter.
Plotting can be external or internal, or a combination of both. Conventional stories unfold with external plots. They focus primarily on action rather than on the mind or ideas of the characters. Many genre stories, like the romance, mystery, supernatural, science fiction, and super-thrillers popular today, are based on external plots where there is excitement on every page. These are often the page-turners of today’s literature.
Internal plots are often considered more literary in form; they place much of the action inside a character’s/characters’ mind(s). This is done effectively when using the first person Point of View but is not limited to that POV. Internal plots are often theme based, driven by the actions of the character(s), and reflect the passions of the author.
Internal-external plots may combine motivations to move the story along. These are often successful in genre stories, often giving the protagonist a soul, thus satisfying a wide variety of readers. This plot style may also appeal to the reader, who prefers stories with a deeper meaning.
Example: The external plot in The Great Gatsby reveals the exploits of Jay Gatsby and his followers, while the internal plot as seen through the eyes of the narrator, Nick Carraway, provides the reader with insight into the motivations and goals of the characters.
So logically, plot moves us into the detailed discussion of beginnings, middles, and endings. Although this topic is not really a creative writing technique per se, the subject rises to a high level of importance because it relates to all four elements of fiction.
The beginning of the story is the situation. As discussed earlier, an effective opening is the hook. As a gentle reminder, in a short story, the author has about five sentences in which to interest the reader; in a novel, he has about five paragraphs. The effectiveness of the hook will determine whether the reader turns the page or puts the book down. An effective technique can be a flashback presented as a prologue. One of the most remarkable hooks of this fashion is the opening paragraph of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca:
Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again. It seemed to me I stood by the iron gate leading to the drive, and for a while I could not enter, for the way was barred to me. There was a padlock and a chain upon the gate. I called in my dream to the lodge-keeper, and had no answer, and peering closer through the rusted spokes of the gate I saw that the lodge was uninhabited.
It is this opening paragraph that grabs the reader and makes her want to read more. It raises questions: What is Manderley? Why is it uninhabited? What occurred in the past to bring the narrator to this remembrance? Although listed as Chapter One rather than Prologue, it is nonetheless a time frame in which the reader learns that the real story is in the past, and this opening just introduces her to the beginning of the story. Another example of a strong hook is from J. D. Salinger’s A Catcher in the Rye:
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
This hook is gritty literary fiction at its best. The reader immediately feels that there is a really dark side to this story and questions where she is being taken once she continues to read. This opening slaps the reader in the face and, no questions asked, she just wants more.
Every author should look for beginnings of short stories and books they consider effective and study every word, every nuance, to understand what makes a hook so valuable to the story. The beginning of the story is where the reader will meet the protagonist and the antagonist, as well as those other important major characters that will lead the story through its middle and to its conclusion.
Many authors, regardless of experience or success level, will stare at that blank computer page or that blank piece of lined, yellow paper, and question what they are doing and why. Every story starts somewhere, and it is at this time that the author asks himself what is the situation? When he can answer that question, the story will start to flow.
The author will set his tone and style at the beginning of the story. These should remain transparent but be strong and focused enough to keep the reader engaged.
The middle of the story is what keeps the story moving. The middle is everything after the introduction of the main characters and conflict, and before the climax. It is often the most difficult part of the story-writing experience. In a novel, it is the largest part of the book (in Gone With The Win, 86% of the book is considered the middle). The middle is the contract with the reader. The reader expects to be entertained, perhaps to learn something. The middle of the book is where the writer keeps that promise or contract with the reader. This is where suspense and foreshadowing come into play, where the story is maintained by withholding the end. The middle actually ends with the climax of the events, but not the end of the story.
Climactic points in a story carry the reader through the middle. The cause and effect, action and reaction, will keep the story moving and keep the reader turning the page. Knitting together all the fluff that makes the middle can be grueling, as stories have a tendency to wander away on their own if not contained. To ensure a steady road from the beginning through the middle to the end, you might prepare a synopsis, or write a chapter-by-chapter outline to help them organize their thoughts. Others will just get on this bull and ride it out. Regardless of what techniques you use, your main responsibility is to ensure that any actions you establish are met with the appropriate reaction; that foreshadowing is not left unattended; that all clues and red herrings are explained; and that the climactic point of the story satisfies the reader.
Chapters and scenes are the heart of the story and relate to all four elements: Character, Setting, Situation, and Theme. They describe the action that takes place in a single physical setting at a particular time. Chapters and scenes can be long or short, but they will focus on these elements: Character to show the conflict between characters, to develop a particular character or characters; Setting to give the reader a sense of time and place; Situation to give the reader information needed to further the story and to create suspense; Theme to, either overtly or covertly, share the author’s passion.
The end of the story is the place where the author ties up all loose ends. This is where the author delivers on his promise—when the climactic moment has come and gone; the story is over. As with the hook at the beginning, when the author is ready to type "The End," he should consider that he has met his agreement with the reader. No question is left unanswered, no loose end still untied. When the contract is effectively concluded, the reader will close the book, nod her head, and say, “Yes, that’s as it should be.”
Among the most effective endings is this from Gone With The Wind:
“I’ll think of it all tomorrow, at Tara. I can stand it then. Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”
It should also be noted, however, that an ending may provide the distinct opportunity for a new beginning of a new story. Many authors who write genre fiction that they want to serialize will end their current story neatly tied up, but may, at the same time, leave an opening to take their characters on a continuing ride with a new situation.
The discussion about beginnings, middles, and endings should include some discussion about prologues. Many editors don’t care for prologues and/or epilogues. Often a writer will use a prologue to introduce backstory about either a character or a situation, and this is frequently information that is best presented in the story itself. The writer may get tied up with his details to the extent that he writes too much. Remember, the story starts with the situation, and if the writer just can’t start the story without writing a detailed prologue, he should go back and reconsider the situation. Now, this is not to say that there is no place for a prologue, but the author must keep it short and to the point.
If the story takes place during World War II, the author might want to introduce the main characters in a brief prologue, but the operative word is brief. It can be used to set a sense of importance to the story.
Flashbacks and Backstory
A discussion about Middles would be incomplete without also discussing flashbacks and backstory. Flashbacks and backstory can each play a role in a story.
• Flashbacks provide information on characters prior to the start of a story or chapter. A flashback can establish a bond between the reader and the character(s) that will help the reader understand motivation.
• Backstory conveys what has happened before the story or chapter starts. But beware, when applied too often, these techniques can muddle the flow of the story and confuse the reader, leaving them wondering where the story is headed.
• Sequels often have backstory sequences in case the reader missed an earlier story with the same characters.
When either of these techniques is used at the beginning of the story, they are referred to as a prologue. When employed in the middle of the story, these devices are used to present the reader with some historical information that is important to the continuation of the story, or for the reader to understand that a particular event has happened in the past that creates a new or additional situation with which the protagonist must now deal. Both techniques can be used effectively to hook the reader at the beginning of a story or chapter, and they add depth to the middle of the story, but they should be used in moderation. Using this device too often, or making it too long, runs the risk of sending the story off in another direction and deviating from the story at hand. Like prologue, there is nothing wrong with using flashback or backstory, but it must be handled with care.
Finally, here the writer is at the end of the end, but in his mind, he is not quite finished, so he appends an epilogue to the story. If the story started with a prologue, the author should consider that the end must relate back to the beginning. Much like the prologue discussed above, the epilogue is often frowned upon by some agents and editors. That does not mean it does not have a place or should never be used. But much like the prologue and the backstory, the epilogue is a crutch.
A good writer will find a way to complete his story and write "The End" without relying upon the epilogue. Remember, when the reader finishes the book and reads the final words, she should close it and say, “Yes! That’s right!” She should not need any additional follow-up. The writer should have faith that his ending will create this sense in his reader. If, however, the writer just can’t seem to get beyond the true end of the story without adding an epilogue, then, as with previous advice, keep it short and to the point. When the story is over, the story is over, and an epilogue may tend to drag it further down the road.