The Writer's Writing Guide: Beginnings, Middles and Ends

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As Edward Albee says, a story is a parenthesis around the lives of these particular characters — they have had their lives go on before the story and, probably, they will have it go on after. A story is a zeroing in on one moment, or incident, or set of incidents that are connected in a meaningful way. We enter it, we stay with it awhile as it builds up, and then we leave it.

Beginnings

Your beginning is the set-up of your situation. This includes the background information (exposition) and something that kicks the story into action. (Toto escapes the evil Miss Gulch's basket and returns to a loyal Dorothy; Alice falls down the rabbit hole, observing how curious everything is.)

As I discuss in "Common Traps," one tendency of apprentice writers is to begin in a way that is boring. The two most common boring openings are a character waking up in bed, and a character traveling to where the rest of the story occurs. These are so overused and tedious that editors and many readers are likely to read no further. Such dull beginnings result from the writer not thinking of other ways to deliver exposition. She thinks, Well, if I just have Ringo dwell on the details of his wife leaving while he's hitting the snooze alarm 5 times, then I'll give all that information to the reader. Of course, the reader will hit her own snooze alarm. Separate the concept of exposition from the concept of beginnings. Beginnings need to deliver exposition, but that is not all that they need to do. Better your exposition should be subtle, with more coming later, than that you write a boring opening to accommodate it.

Put your best foot forward. Remember that the first sentence is the one read by the most people; many of them will drop off by the second sentence if the first isn't compelling enough. This means that you don't start at the beginning — of the day (waking up), the journey (sitting on the train), of the marriage (the joyous honeymoon). It also means you don't start with something vague or off the subject or dull. Plunge right into the problem. Start as close to the ending as you can.

You can see this example in movies. Pinocchio begins with Gipetto putting the finishing touches on his marionette and wishing upon a star that he could have a real boy. It doesn't begin with him learning to make toys. Terminator 2 begins with the bad guy beaming into a back lot and taking on the body of a policeman who will terrorize our heroes. It does not begin with the bad guy's life before he begins to terrorize. Open at the moment when a difficult situation tips over into unendurable. We don't begin with the first time Miss Gulch has a bad encounter with Toto; we begin with her taking him away to be put down.

This is also true of many contemporary books. Myla Goldberg's Bee Season begins with nine-year-old Eliza entering the spelling bee that will change the lives of everyone in her family. Tracy Chevalier's Girl With A Pearl Earring begins with Griet being hired as a maid by two strangers, who will change her life. In Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones, the opening covers the rape and murder of the teenaged Susie, who relates the rest of the story from heaven.

Contemporary books can also begin at a strong starting point narratively, while accomplishing additional things at the same time. Nick Hornby's High Fidelity begins with Rob describing his top five romantic breakups, while hinting that the major one (which he omits) is the one he is driven to resume, though he must revisit all those old girlfriends first. Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated begins with the very charming Alexander telling us about how he comes to work as the translator for the other main character in the book, while at the same time digressing into amusing details about his life that will be relevant later. Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides begins with our learning immediately that all five sisters in one suburban family committed suicide, and then spends the book discussing how and why this happened.

Whether you use sophisticated techniques or straightforward storytelling, make clear that a change is imminent, either because of something that just happened, is happening right now, or is on the verge of happening. Show this through action, a retrospective awareness, the tone of the voice, or some other means. You can learn how to do this by looking at the openings of books and stories you admire. You'll see how quickly they get you in, and how seldom they bore you — and you'll come up with ideas on how you can pull this off, too.

Middles

The middle of the story is the complication. This can be an intensification of established conflicts (Dorothy wants to get home but doesn't know how, and as the story moves forward her trials become scarier and scarier), a reversal of resolutions made in the beginning (James Bond has retired from his secret service agency, but must come out of retirement to nail a particularly gruesome killer), or a moving toward a recognition, whether that be recognition of some truth about oneself (I am strong; I can do it; I do hate my brother), or recognition of someone's identity (the maid is the killer; your wife is actually your mother). Middle sections are most compelling when they move upward, rather than laterally, in their tension.

Apprentice writers have a tendency to rush through their middles. This tends to happen when writers believe they know their openings and their endings, and have no ideas on how to bridge the space between the two. To them, the middle is a barren terrain that lies between their Eden of an opening and their heaven of an ending, and they have the woeful task of traversing it without falling asleep. In fact, most of the students I've known who become disenchanted with writing do so because they are seeing their middle section as a burden, a slog through boredom, rather than a joyous journey.

You can combat this tendency only if you open yourself up to the likelihood that you don't know the ending, that you must write your way through the middle to find the ending. Middles are not bridges between two known countries. They are countries in and of themselves. They are not just transitions. They are the meat of your story. Another way to look at it is to think about a typical school year, or a marriage. Just because you know how someone felt on the first day of school, or the wedding, doesn't mean you know how they'll feel about the final day of school or the fiftieth wedding anniversary will be like. You will know that only after living through the fifty years of marriage.

The way to write middles is, first, to be present in them as you write (as opposed to focused on the ending), and, second, to make sure there is growth and change occurring along the way. A dull story has a middle of repetitions that aren't building; a good story keeps us moving into deeper knowledge, or tension, with minimal repetitions.

Endings

The ending is resolution. All the strands come together. This should be major in nature; our climax should be of great consequence. It can be as simple as a goal achieved — the dying basketball player wins the game, the immigrant reaches Ellis Island. Or perhaps a goal is not achieved — Moses dies before reaching the Promised Land; Dr. Zhivago races off the bus after Lara, but just as he reaches out to touch her, he dies of a heart attack. It could also be that a new goal is achieved which the character would never have desired at the beginning of the story but now does, having gone through enough to have changed her character. For instance, in Bee Season, the changed Eliza, who now has different goals, deliberately loses the first round of the next year's spelling bee.

Endings are strongest when they are accompanied by some understanding, known as a denouement. This usually occurs after the climax, and is generally internal, whether on the part of a character (in which case it is often made explicit) or on the part of the reader (in which case it is usually implicit). Dorothy, after getting through the climax of going home, realizes she can find all the love she wants at home. The reader reading Cinderella realizes, after Cinderella has married the prince, that good things happen to honest, nice, trustworthy people who work hard, even though we're not told this directly.

You can glide right into both your climax and your denouement if you have really developed your character — including his wants and her fears — and you have fully developed your themes. Climax is tied to character; denouement is tied to theme. When you feel stuck, unable to work through the ending, stop and look at where you are. If it's at the climax, your problem is probably that you haven't developed the character enough. So you're trying to end too soon for the character's needs, or you want to impose an action that this character would not do, or you have no clue how the character will handle this particular moment. If, though, you are stuck at the denouement, you might know your character, but you probably haven't focused the situation enough to understand your theme, or you have too many themes going to know which one to concentrate on. Writers who get stuck at their endings, whether at the climax or denouement, haven't really done the work in their middles.

Once you figure out what is happening in your ending, you need to work on wording those final sentences just right. If you want a more contemplative ending — perhaps the narrator reflecting on how the preceding events changed his life — then use long, complex sentences, which lead to a slowed-down, more wistful air. You also might want to use more "ing" words, which make the sentence more poetic and dreamy and evocative of memory, and to put the subject and verb into the sentence as late as possible, which achieves the same goal. If, however, you want a sharp, quick, sudden ending, use short, punchy sentences. Put the noun and the verb right up front. Heighten the immediacy by putting the action right in our faces. Leisurely sentences are useful when you are ending inside a character's head; the latter sentences tend to work better when you are ending in the external world of action.

You can also play with the length of your final few paragraphs so that you can decide whether to let the reader down gracefully, like a car going from fourth to third to second gear, or if you're going to jolt the reader into the ending, like a car hitting a brick wall.

Look at endings of stories and novels you've loved and see what they did to you emotionally. Then you'll have a better idea of what kind of emotions you want to your reader to feel after finishing the story.

Overall Tips

Openings engage our minds, making us go — What's that? But why? Who would say such a thing? Endings engage our hearts, making us sigh or sob or smirk at life. This is why middles are much more than bridges between two known places: it is a complicated journey from the mind to the heart, and we can't know how to get there unless we're very present in the journey.

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