On Beginnings… and Endings   1 comment

As writers we have a natural inclination to just jump right in and start telling our story.  We know we have a great tale; else we wouldn’t bother grinding our way through fifty or a hundred thousand words – or maybe more.  So let’s roll up our sleeves and get going.

“Not so fast,” the lady says.  “You say it’s a great story.  But,” she scoffs,  “I am not persuaded.  I don’t care if it took you two years or twenty to write it, that’s your concern and none of mine,” she adds.  Then comes the clincher:  “You are asking me to invest my time in reading your work.  Tell me why I should do that.”

How do we get past that point?  First off, nobody says that writing is easy.  If it were, everybody and his kid sister would be Stephen King.

Try this.  Go to the library, or maybe to your neighborhood bookseller (if there is still one around) and pull books off
the shelf at random, choosing only authors you have not read.  If it is a friend’s collection, remember that your friend has carefully selected those books so the collection is not really random.  If your friend ‘looks like’ your target audience, fine, otherwise be aware.

Take the first one, read no more than the first three paragraphs, then close it and pull another off the shelf.  Keep doing this, going no
further than the opening lines, checking out at least a dozen books and preferably fifty.  Then think about what you have just read.  Which of the works that you have so abused do you have a compelling urge to pick back up and dive into?  Which ones were less than memorable?  What was the difference?

My premise is this:  Readers will suspend judgment for three paragraphs before they decide whether to go further.  I am not talking about the Execrable Wretch who reads the closing pages first – we don’t write for them.  Likewise with the fence sitter who opens to some inner page first – we don’t write for them either.   That doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun at E.W.’s expense, though.  If the closing dialogue is buried in subtext, then the faithful reader will feel like a confidant and will lick the frosting right off the cake, while the E.W. who insists on eating dessert first will be frustrated and made to feel like an outsider (which of course, they are).

We write for readers who follow our story the way we tell it, savoring each of our carefully chosen words like a tasty morsel.  And that reader will give us the courtesy of starting at the beginning.  But, they reserve the right to read just those few opening words before deciding our story is worthy of a fair chunk of their time, or else concluding that it sucks.

Personally, I have an abiding respect for the person who reads my opening lines and then tells me my work sucks.  If, in that span, I have failed to reach off the page and grab them by the throat, then my work does suck, at least for that reader.

Tell me where I’m wrong in this.  My belief is that the primary purpose of the first paragraph is to get the first-time reader to go to the second and third paragraphs, then to finish the first page.  If they turn that page in anticipation of learning more, then I’ve got them by the short hairs.

“But wait,” you say.  “They need to fall in love with my main character, find out what he or she is doing, and where the action is set.”

“Bullshit,” I say.  Giving a few clues to the setting (time and place) and genre (if there is one) is good, but the reader isn’t ready to climb into bed with the main character quite yet.  Your protagonist (and antagonist) are far too important to your story to be hastily introduced.   First, the reader needs to meet you, the author, so they can decide if your artistic voice suits them.

  “And that,” I say triumphantly, “Is the job of your opening.”

November 28, 2012 : Endings

So what about conclusions?  We’ve all read stories where the ending just drags along interminably.  Hell, we’ve probably written them, too – I know that I have.

What makes an effective ending?  At the risk of seeming a know-it-all, I’ll propose this:  An effective ending will do two things.  One, it will leave the reader satisfied that the mystery has been solved, the conflict has been cleared, or the marriage has been saved.  (Or not.)  Whatever the story has set up in the mind of the reader has been concluded in such a way that the reader is satisfied that the hero/heroine can go no further, or at least that his/her path is clear and need not be followed.  Big deal, you say.  You’ve constructed the big finish and everybody lives happily ever after.

Not quite so fast, I say.  Here’s the second goal of the effective ending:  To send the reader off with an itch to find more of your work, so they can read that too.  This is likely the more difficult part.  How do you create that author-reader bond so that it will transcend the first of your works that they have stumbled across? How can I make Sissy into a character that makes the reader want to go find out how Delsey did, and then move on to Alice?  These stories have only one thing in common: they all include characters that I have invented.  (Go ahead and substitute your own characters for mine – this isn’t supposed to be about me.)  But, you protest, whatever conflict Sissy confronted had nothing to do with what happened to those other women.

This also begs the inevitable question from the whodunit fan.  In that genre, the main character appears in every story of the series, recycled one to the next, and he/she sometimes even deals with the same villian from book to book, with nothing changing except the plot and perhaps the setting.  To me, this is really no different, except that it is easier for both the author and the reader.  It’s like having the same group of friends dealing with different situations, remembering how they dealt with other threats.  Perhaps it is this familiarity that afficionados of detective stories seek – it’s like eating familiar dishes.

So here’s my point.  Perhaps you didn’t sympathize with Delsey, feeling that her woes were self-inflicted.  Maybe Alice seems too driven, and after all, she’s not even the principal character.  Maybe Sissy wasn’t honest with herself in the beginning, and only later found the consequences to be inescapable.  In each case – in these unrelated stories – you the reader may find a disconnect.  But what I was after, with each of these women (and their male counterparts) was to set up a believable situation, and provide a credible character to deal with it.

What is ‘credible?’  To me, the believable character need not be likeable, behave consistently, or share similar values with the reader.  They simply need to be a character that you can visualize sitting down across the table at the neighborhood diner (or bar).  You may feel uneasy about what this character may have in mind doing to you – if so then I have succeeded.  You may also wish you could go to bed with them.  That, too, is a success.  But neither of those reactions will be evoked by a character that lacks credibility.

How well I have succeeded at any of this is not for me to decide – that is the role of the reader.  But if the reader finishes one book, tosses it aside, and looks to another author then I have failed, at least with that reader.  It’s like eating ice cream…  If you say, “Damn!  I gotta get me more of that stuff,” then the product is good.

Posted September 7, 2011 by JD Rule

One response to On Beginnings… and Endings

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  1. I really like the way you engage in matters of concern to all writers. I also wish you would post more frequently, because your views are always interesting.

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