When Circular Endings Go Wrong

The most likely problems beginning and end poorly connected or lacking a definite turning point aren't all that can go wrong. Some problems can happen to any kind of story, and I'll get to those in a minute. But there are two other problems to which circular stories are especially prone. Knowing what they are will help you watch out for them. One problem is assuming that, because the story continues beyond the final confrontation, it doesn't have any plot chores to do. Such an ending can turn...

Case in Point Whats in the Living Room

To illustrate, rather than cite a finished, set story, I'll use my experience with one of my own short stories, so you can see how the method works. The protagonist of A Sense of Family is a lanky middle-aged woman named Val, a sculptor. The initial scene shows how Val tends to lose track of the hours and the days, absorbed in her current project, a block of marble a tombstone discarded for commercial use that she's turning into a bas-relief horse. That first scene is Val alone in her drafty...

About The Author

Ansen Dibell is the pen name of a teacher writer editor whose five-novel science fiction series, The Rule of One, has been internationally published. After earning MA, MFA, and Ph. D. degrees from the Writers' Workshop of the University of Iowa, Dibell went on to a diversity of jobs including delivering phone books door to door and serving as a college president. Active with community writers' groups and college level writing programs, Dibell calls herself a writing coach Many people contend...

Changing Focus

A writer I know had an enjoyable fantasy dramatizing the education of a girl in the disciplines of wizardry. The story culminated in a magical battle between the girl's mentor (a good wizard) and his enemy (an evil wizard). The girl looked on. It didn't lack drama, action, or very literal fireworks. The problem was that the protagonist of the story wasn't the protagonist of the ending. The story had changed focus, right at the end. And so it was uninvolving and surprisingly empty, considering...

Clear the Decks for Action

Linear strategy, even more than circular strategy, requires a narrowing down as the end approaches, so the ending can happen cleanly and decisively. All the narrative clutter possible should go. Any subplots and side issues should be resolved beforehand, along the way (as is the revelation the present falcon is a fake). If you had a divided plot, either both major plot lines should already have converged into a single narrative line (as in The Empire Strikes Back), or the less vivid of the pair...

Coming To Plot The Hard

If you're like me and most of the writers I've known over the years in writers' groups, at conferences and in classes, you're coming to plot the hard way. A scene, a bit of dialogue, a character sets you happily scribbling or keyboarding away. And then, too often, something happens. The story starts to slow and go sour, dead ending in frustrated scraps of revision. It's eventually tossed with the rest of the might-have-beens in the bottom of your sock drawer or even in the wastebasket. Or maybe...

Early Middles New Directions And Subplots

REMEMBER AWHILE BACK, I WARNED YOU that every plot will try to go wrong after the first big scene It's true. Generally, it's because fiction fatigue has set in. You've been concentrating intensely, and now your beginning is complete, doing all the jobs that beginnings need to do. Back off a day or two, catch your breath, before going any further. That's terrifically important. You'll be inclined to tinker with it, unsure that the hard choices of intuition and craft were the right ones, after...

Happy Endings

A happy ending isn't necessarily one that makes the characters grin a lot and start crackingjokes at one another. It's not even one that promises marriage, true love, or victory to the protagonist. In a very meaningful sense, a happy ending is one that satisfies, and that kind of happy ending, any story can have even one that ends up with virtually everybody dead on the floor, like Hamlet. The traits that make an ending satisfying are fittingness (the characters seem to have gotten the ending...

How To Test A Story Idea

Ifyou're like most of the writers I've run into, you have more story ideas than you know what to do with. They're popping into your mind faster than you can jot them down in your handy bedside notebook. And how could it be otherwise Things have been happening to you, and to everybody you know, all your life. You've been reading, and absorbing stories, almost that long. The newspapers and the evening news offer conflicts galore, and memorable people, events of apparent importance. Once you've...

If At First It Doesnt Start Start Again

Now if all this discussion makes a beginning sound crucial and complicated, it is. But then, so are middles. So are endings. If you have a story idea, then don't worry about the beginning. Get your story told, all the way through, at least in first draft. As I've said before, stories change in the telling. Often you'll find that what you thought was going to be the heart of the story ends up as kind of an appendix, and the story's true motion and true meaning have gone someplace you never...

Is It A Fair Fight

Your story's scenes are going to be the specific stages by which your main character's motivations are enacted against opposition, internal or external or both. A motivation against no opposition is boring. How somebody always got everything he wanted, succeeded in every task, won every girl in sight, and never met a comeuppance, wouldn't have any drama. A chronicle of Don Juan's amorous exploits would be dull (even if porno-graphically dull) without the avenging paternal statue to send the don...

Keep Out Of The Plots

However you decide to handle exposition, of whatever kind, remember the plot is paramount. Plot is the engine drawing everything else along. If you weigh it down with too much exposition, it's going to grind to a wheezing halt. Limit exposition to the absolute essentials. Introduce it the least conspicuous, most natural-seeming way. Keep it as short as possible in any one place. Spread it across different scenes, if you can, according to where it's actually relevant and needed. And always make...

Make Room for the Aftermath

How you lead your narrative out of a set-piece is just as important as how you lead it in. The outcome of the set-piece has to matter, and needs to have narrative and emotional space to matter in. After the big scene, the story should be changed and the characters meaningfully affected by what's happened. If everything goes on as before, the set-piece will seem much fuss and bother about nothing empty, irrelevant, and finally disappointing, no matter how well written and dramatic in itself. It...

Many Happy Returns

In school, you were probably taught, as I was, to avoid simple verbal repetition using however or interesting too often in a single paragraph. The kinds of repetition that work in fiction, that make buried but not-quite-hidden connections that can hold a story together, aren't a matter of single words. They're part of a writer's larger vocabulary image, incident, situation, character. Narrative structure. Plot in the largest sense notjust what happens, but precisely how the incidents are...

Mirroring Single Scenes

Once you've got two situations tagged for connection, how do you go about building in recurrences You do it by continuing some specific element(s) of the first situation in the second. Going from simplest to most complex, you can 1. Keep the second situation almost identical to the first, except (perhaps) for one crucial element. The characters involved, the place where it happens, the props mentioned, the nature of the confrontation itself, can all continue. Simply because the sto ry will have...

Outlining from Inside

When you've written your set-piece, you should be looking ahead to the end, to see if you can see its shape any more clearly from this vantage point than you could before. And if you can, make adjustments to make this scene lead more clearly, more precisely, toward the last cliff, with fewer possible turnings-away, so that the story, crisis by crisis, narrows down to a point that seems inevitable when it comes. I call it outlining from inside. Blocking out the story, one set-piece step at a...

Patterns Mirrors And Echoes

I'VE SAID THAT EVERY STORY makes promises to its readers, promises the writer has to take care to keep. Mostly, those promises are unspoken ones. And some are made indirectly, through pattern. Just by writing, you're choosing what happens and what doesn't, what's possible in your little world and what isn't. What your characters are concerned about becomes, automatically, your story's concern as well. The kinds of people whom you select as your characters their attitudes and capacities, the...

Return with Us to the Thrilling Days of a Galaxy Far Far Away

I'll ask you now to flip back to Chapter 5, near the end, where I did a bit of commentary on the structure of The Empire Strikes Back Reread that section, then meet me back here. OK You're back There, I was talking about parallel plots, and how they can be held together with echoing incidents. Now, the focus is on the incidents themselves. A threat of freezing, in the beginning of that story, mirrors a threat of freezing at the end. A cave in one of the parallel plot lines is mirrored by a cave...

Revising and Revising and Revising

A third way of not allowing the story to be finished is by diving immediately into endless, destructive revisions that tear the story up by its roots and hack away at its branches. New scenes New climaxes Wonderful new dialogue muttering inside your head As long as you're working on it, you tell yourself, it's not really over. And you really don't have to send it out or risk the trauma of somebody else looking at it and (horrors ) maybe not liking it as much as you do. It's all for the story's...

Single Viewpoint Whose Eyes Are Best

If you've decided to use a single viewpoint character, the main choice, the one to depart from only for good reason, is telling the story from the viewpoint of the chief character, the protagonist. He or she is the one the story's events are centered around. He or she is the one who's going to be chiefly affected by what happens. But don't forget the protagonist is whoever you say the protagonist is that choice, in turn, determines the nature of the whole story. The story of a flood is a...

The Dreaded Authorial Finsbury

This brings me to a related matter writers turning into Fins-burys lecturers droning on about some esoteric specialty or into True Believers who see fiction primarily as a soapbox from which to promote some doctrine or belief, whether political, social, ethical, religious, ecological, or whatever. Partly, this is related to the tradition of the omniscient author, which I discussed in the last chapter. Authorial intrusions the story stopping dead while the author rambles on about whatever...

The Experiment the Variable and the Rule of Three

In item 1, above, I suggested you could repeat virtually the whole situation with just one significant change. I'll explain a little more what that involves. In a scientific experiment, a researcher will generally have two groups the test group, and the control. Both groups are as identical as it's possible to make them, and they're treated exactly the same, except for one item the thing that's being investigated, altered with the test group to find out what effect that single change will have....

Theme and Variation

Moby Dick is an exploration of humanity's relation to the infinite and the eternal. Hamlet has been characterized by Lawrence Olivier as being about indecision. A Christmas Carol is about the cost of a selfish alienation from humanity. In some stories, a single essential concept appears in a variety of forms and is demonstrated in successive situations. While plot can and often does help organize that demonstration, a strong enough theme can sustain a story by itself. The subject being examined...

Trick Endings

Henry popularized them, trick endings have been a temptation and a danger to all writers but especially to beginners, to whom such gimmicks can be perilously appealing. Some tricks, like dirigible endings, are born of incompetence and the failure of imagination. Others, although unexpected, legitimately arise from within the story itself and are validly star-tling on the first reading, anyway. And some tricks are solutions to narrative problems, trapdoors to let a story escape the trap...

What Is Plot

THE COMMON DEFINITION OF PLOT is that it's whatever happens in a story. That's useful when talking about completed stories, but when we're considering stories being written, it's about as useful as saying that a birthday cake is a large baked confection with frosting and candles. It doesn't tell you how to make one. Plot is built of significant events in a given story significant because they have important consequences. Taking a shower isn't necessarily plot, or braiding one's hair, or opening...

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...

Why Explain

You may be asking, reasonably enough, if exposition is so dull, why not stick to scenes Well, you can, if you want to and your story will allow it. A good many short stories are one single scene with no more than a phrase or two of exposition or description in any one place. Hemingway's stories are almost all sparse like that. Some novels, like Jack Shaefer's classic western Shane, can be all present-time, all surface, and yet be powerful in a stark kind of way. But doing without exposition can...

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...

Or Serve It With a Twist

If the outcome, or the crisis itself, seems too predictable, like the traditional western gunfight, you can throw in maybe one surprise element not attacking guerrillas, but something you've carefully refrained from hinting about. If you've set the stage for a duel, deliver a duel, all right but fought with dynamite instead of guns. If your build-up has promised an explosion at a bank, deliver an explosion but one that not only opens the safe but sets fire to the thieves' getaway car. Never...

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...

The Power and Problems of Melodrama

Because melodrama ignores the ordinary to concentrate on the unusual and unlikely, it often creates a credibility problem. Because it chooses the heart over the head, the snap reaction over thoughtful consideration, emotion can go over the edge into sentimentality, tear-jerking, thrills or scares for their own sake, as empty of meaning as a whoopie cushion. Melodrama can therefore seem or be sensation-mongering, appealing to the lowest common denominator and our least intelligent responses so...

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...

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...

Linear Endings

Many stories demonstrate a more linear strategy. The story is a jagged, uphill journey, with building suspense, sudden slides, and occasional diversions in one direction or another, until at last it reaches the summit the highest point of conflict, the make-or-break confrontation. Companions on thejourney have come and gone, and finally it's just the two major opposing forces left and the characters who exemplify them. Once the result is known, the story is over. Anything afterward would bejust...

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...