Juggling Three Balls At Once

Every effective beginning needs to do three things. The chief of these is to get the story going and show what kind of story it's going to be. The second is to introduce and characterize the protagonist. The third is to engage the reader's interest in reading on. Some beginnings do more than this. Some create moods some introduce narrators who aren't the protagonist, or one or more of the subordinate characters. Some, as just discussed, establish a norm the story will then depart from. A story...

Presenting Exposition

You've decided what background material is really necessary in your story, and you've been careful to get your story up and running before breaking away for more than a paragraph or so to commit a stretch of exposition. Now the question arises of how to present it. If you can, build it right into the scene. If it's important that the protagonist has been married before, invent some prop (a belat ed birthday card from ex-spouse a final divorce decree in the mailbox ) or a bit of dialogue...

Delivering on Set Pieces

I emphasize delivering because far too many beginning writers get terminally shy about their set-pieces. They dodge away into talk, or skip the scene and maybe refer afterward to what happened. They'll do every blessed thing except actually write the I don't know how or why this kind of fundamental narrative timidity originates (although, rereading my own early stories, I see that I suffered from a touch of it too, here and there). I only know I've seen quite a lot of it, mostly in unpublished...

Flashbacks And Frames

If you tell of bygone events in narrative summary, it's exposition. If you dramatize them as a scene, it's a flashback. Flashbacks can be as brief as a single line of past dialogue or as extensive as a whole independent plot. The virtue of flashbacks is that, unlike exposition, they're showing, not telling. They have action, drama, immediate events. But they're not as strong or vivid as present-time scenes, simply because they're past. I mentioned in Chapter 7 that we tend to take the past less...

How Many Eyes Are Enough

Sometimes there's no viewpoint character, nobody whose eyes focus the action. Instead, the author tells the story. That's called omniscient all-knowing narration. The author narrates, mentioning what this or that character may be feeling or thinking anytime the author pleases. The trouble with using an omniscient narrator is that all the characters are kept at arm's length, seen equally and from a distance. It tends to be uninvolving. A reader finds it harder to identify with any one character,...

Short Stories Without Endings

Remember back in Chapter 6, I told you about how some writers hesitate, waffle, and try to dodge set-pieces The same thing can happen, only worse, with endings. No-ending stories happen a lot. They've happened to me, and lately. In my drawer I have a few beginnings I haven't been able to grow middles from yet, let alone endings. Some stories stall because they really weren't ever going anywhere to begin with. The fault was in the concept, from the first. It just takes writers a few scenes, or a...

Harnessing Melodrama

MENTION MELODRAMA AND ALL IT CONJURES UP for some people is a wide-eyed heroine being tied to the train tracks by a moustache-twirling villain. But that's not it. Not by half. If drama releases the electricity implicit in small events, melodrama calls down lightning. Melodrama is the equivalent of a blinding flash accompanied by a loud noise. It can be a bony hand creeping from behind a curtain, a grand passion, someone teetering on a high ledge, or any of a thousand vivid situations and...

Revelation

Both Young Goodman Brown and Good Country People demonstrate another technique, that of revelation. It's the basis of much plotted fiction, especially any story containing a mys-tery and that includes far more than detective or mystery fiction. When a story's main dynamic is to have the protagonist find out something, or realize something, that's been true for some time, the story's motion is in the finding out, not in the discovered fact itself. Except for the secret, the mystery, the story...

Character Sketch

A character sketch employs much the same strategy as a mood piece, except that the subject involved isn't a feeling, but all the important facets of a given person in his or her particular context. So the strategy is often to present a series of situations that bring out the character's possibilities and essential attitudes all the relevant parts of who that person is. Each of these situations may be fragmentary not a complete scene in the usual sense of the word because its purpose isn't to...

Taming Wild Melodrama

Curses are melodramatic the ancient kind, especially in mysterious symbols on parchment, especially involving mummies. Especially curses that work. Boasts Shakespeare's pompous Glen-dower, I can call spirits from the vasty deep, to which Hotspur retorts sardonically, Why, so can I, or so can any man but will they come when you do call to them So how can you have something like, say, a real working curse, something that actually comes, in your story and make the reader want to believe in it...

When Beginning And End Connect Circular Stories

The end of a story is much more like the beginning than it's like the middle. Middles have ups and downs, characters coming and going, intermediate crises. But a beginning focuses down from vague, cloudy Everything to a particular Something a single vivid problem, a situation, a central character. The middle broadens out to create a diverse reality. Then the end brings Everything, all the story's varied motions, down to a particular Something again a single, crucial action. Because ends are so...

Techniques of Circular Endings

The circular ending is a kind of before after, then now contrast. Since beginning and end are comparable but not quite identical, there are clear opportunities for mirroring, for running a kind of experiment with a particular variable, as discussed in Chapter 8. Circular strategy offers possibilities for irony and satire the disproportion between the way things are and the way they either ought to be or the way we wish they were because the reader is encouraged to compare the before and the...

Style And Substance

To the degree that it's not plot, any experimental structure will call attention to itself and often seem visibly artificial. So it has to be managed carefully or the story, the human content, will become secondary to the style. The story may even disappear altogether, lost in the clever externals of its presentation. One of the most damning things that can be said about a story is that it's an amazing technical achievement. That's admiration for craft, not enjoyment or appreciation. Whole...

Balancing Scene and Summary

Anything other than a scene is telling rather than showing, and slows things down. Sometimes, you may want to slow things down or you may have exposition or description which previous scenes require or without which following events will be bare and sketchy. If you've had a series of brief and emotionally intense scenes, it's probably time for summary at least a paragraph or two, or a page or two in long fiction. This overview can come from the story's narrator or, if you're not holding to one...

Taking the Curse off the Curse

There are straightforward ways of setting your curse in the middle of solidly credible things and declaring it right from the beginning. There are other methods of misdirecting attention so that the curse has already happened and been accepted before the reader has a chance to holler, Hey, now, wait a minute I'll start with the front-loading ways first putting the unusual right up front and making it part of the story's fundamental reality. 1. Show that it works, right away. Have your curse...

Try a Braid

In long fiction, plots don't merely alternate with subplots they're often woven together in something very like a braid. One strand loops around to the outside, out of sight, then warps in or under to briefly become the central point before warping off for another turn. Once you have your initial situation running, with the major characters established and facing some crucial problem the reader can tell isn't going to go away, a braided plot won't just continue on. You'll bring in a new...

Mirroring Plots

We've already discovered several examples of plots which are parallel, in whole or in part. In addition to The Empire Strikes Back, I've talked at least a little about Thackeray's Vanity Fair which splits awkwardly in two, between the Amelia Sedley plot and the Becky Sharp plot and WutheringHeights, with its parallel love stories involving Catherine and Cathy, the wild older generation and the tamer, younger one. Developing two independent main plot lines takes quite a lot of narrative space...

Worldbuilders Disease

For a writer, constructing the background material can be so much fun that it's mistaken for writing. Fantasy writers have a penchant for working up histories of imaginary empires that can run to hundreds of pages, full of maps and chronologies and genealogical trees a yard long. It's a common phenomenon C. S. Lewis, in childhood, chronicled the doings of Animal Land as adolescents, the Brontes produced long histories of an imaginary kingdom called Angria. The whole of The Silmirillion and...

Parallel Plotlines

Sometimes judging which is main plot and which is subplot is about like tossing a coin. Both seem about equal. Perhaps the most familiar example of that would be the contrasting adventures of Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Chewbacca, on the one hand, and of Luke and Yoda, on the other, in George Lucas' movie The Empire Strikes Back, the second segment of his Star Wars trilogy. All the characters are initially established together, at the secret rebel base tunneled into the ice. Since the ending...

Beyond Formula And Into Literature

There's another advantage of looking hard into your story's heart and bones to create mirrors and echoes based on what's gone before. It can help you use but transcend formula, ifyou're working in one of the genres with a fairly rigid and restrictive set of rules about how stories can acceptably be shaped. Detective mystery fiction is one gothic and romance fiction are others. Gothic, for instance, absolutely requires a female protagonist menaced wooed by a dominating male. Yet within this...

Multiple Viewpoints How Do You Switch

You've thought about it and decided your story really needs to be seen through two or more sets of eyes. How do you manage the switches A good rule for doing anything tricky in fiction, particularly long fiction switching viewpoints or anything else is to do it right away, to let the reader know the rules, and to do it consistently thereafter. And make no mistake viewpoint shifts really are tricky to handle and are worth all your craft and care. Badly handled, they're asjarring to most...