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...

Add Emotion and Stir Vigorously

Here's a tip based on a psychological quirk we tend to remember best the information that comes to us surrounded by highly charged emotion. That's why so many people can remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when they first learned of the assassination of President Kennedy and how they spent their very first date. Applied to exposition, this means that otherwise undigesti-ble chunks of explanation will move faster, and be absorbed more easily, if they're put in a highly...

After The Opening Take Your Bearings

I'll talk about short stories first because novels have to do exactly the same thing, only more so. (Novels have to do extra things, too, but don't worry about that now.) If you followed my advice, you began in m dias res. So there'll be things the reader will now be interested in knowing, to understand how matters came to be the way they were in the opening. So you may decide to insert some exposition at this point or even a dramatized flashback, where past temporarily becomes present. These...

Buried In Footnotes

I knew a writer who had nightmares about tons of exposition slithering down on her like a landslide. It can feel like that to a reader, too smothering deluges of fact that prevent any motion at all. Ever read a textbook with lots of footnotes Remember how you tended to skip or ignore the footnotes Now, those of you who've read Moby Dick how many of you actually read every word of the cetology chapters telling the folklore, anatomy, and habits of whales (Being a thorough-going nature nut, I...

But Dont Hint It to Death

In your build-up, though, take care not to try to write the set-piece before it's ready, before it's had a chance to simmer properly. Establish that it's coming, and maybe hint at the basic nature of the confrontation. You've established your characters, so the reader has some idea how each will react in crisis. But don't give away the exact crisis, or the outcome. Leave that for the scene itself. Grant the reader not only the enjoyments of looking forward but the enjoyments of discovery, scene...

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...

Chapter

SHUT UP HE EXPLAINED HANDLING EXPOSITION AT THE BEGINNING OF YOUR STORY, you're going to have to decide how to convey necessary background facts. That's exposition. Exposition involves breaking away from the ongoing action to give information for a paragraph, or for a page or more. It's the author telling the reader something telling, rather than showing. As I explained earlier, telling is much less effective than showing. It follows that exposition is less dramatic and less vivid than a scene...

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...

Collage

Collage is closely related to mosaic. But it doesn't tend to yield an overall picture. Its component parts remain parts, individual and isolated. Imagine a picture that's composed of a few newspaper clippings, a pair of scissors and a plastic doll's head glued to the canvas, some big blurs of red paint, and some mustard-colored corduroy cut into oblong shapes with threads dangling out. That's collage. The energy comes either from various kinds of violent, extreme contrast surprising...

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...

Compensations For Compensations

In many ways these four techniques of displacement and misdirection contradict the eight methods of putting your curse right up front and toughing it through with all the compensations possible, which I discussed earlier. I'd tend to use misdirection in situations of gradual revelation, when a mystery is involved and finding out the exact nature of the curse is the basis of the story (as in The Hound of the Basker-villes). I'd also use it when a melodramatic element is so outrageous that it...

Dithering

Some writers won't let a story be over. They burden the conclusion with meandering afterthoughts, Victorian epilogues, explanations. Some of them have even gotten away with it. Detective fiction, particularly the older, British kind with butlers, used to be particularly subject to talky, expositional endings after the real issues had been settled. Once the murderer had been named and officially led away, or had decently committed suicide in the drawing room, everybody sat around for maybe a...

Dont Forget to Knot as You Go

Remember what I said about alternating viewpoint that the story will try to split in two That's even more true when it comes to subplots. Knot the different strands of your narrative together from time to time. Build in all the connections and convergences you can. Show events in the main plot affecting what's happening in the subplot, and the other way round. Have characters overlap, figuring in both main plot and subplot, although perhaps more important in one than the other. For instance, in...

Driving Right for the Cliff

Of course, you may plan a story that maintains tight focus to the end, with scarcely any exposition at all and perhaps just two characters. Many of Poe's short stories follow that pattern I think of the narrator and doomed, foolish Fortunato, who provide the entire cast of The Cask of Amontillado. And the plot is down the stairs and down the stairs, pausing only to collect wine and brandish the necessary mason's trowel as the narrator prepares to wall his victim up in the ancestral wine vaults...

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...

Faking Out The Reader

The other way of winning conditional belief in your curse, especially after the story's initial section, is to keep the reader watching the right hand while the left hand is doing the funny business. 1. Introduce the melodramatic element by the back door in a scene ostensibly dealing with something else. (Charlie, I'm getting a divorce. I'm sick of your father's drinking, the way your brother Greg seems to disappear into the wallpaper, and your mother's flute playing. Disappears into the...

Grand Openings

You've tested it with the four questions to make sure it's basically sound. You've decided whether it seems to want to be long or short fiction. Now you're going to have to people and dramatize it. How do you start The first thing to realize is that generally you're not going to begin at the beginning. Your story's start, the actual words that begin the narrative, will be a good way along in the progress of the events you're imagining. The Greeks, as translated by the...

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...

In Search of Elegance

All this structural hanky-panky isn't something to engage in just for the fun of it. Any departure from linear, sequential storytelling is going to make the story harder to read and call attention to the container rather than the content, the technique rather than the story those techniques should be serving. There's a principle called elegance which means that a theory or an object has no excess parts. It may be very complex, but it's as simple as it can be and still work. This applies to...

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...

Knowing When To Stop

Often, after all that intense work, it's hard to let a story be over. You've lived with your characters so long. You know them so well now better than you do your closest friend, your dearest lover. Even if the story has a happy ending, if it's over, you've still lost them as your characters. Their decisions and actions are in the past, fixed, finished, not living and fluid as they were while you were imagining the story into words and scenes. They're not waking you up in the middle of the...

Laying The Groundwork

There are ways to prepare for an upcoming set-piece. Some of them are obvious, some less so. One obvious thing you need to do is simply naming the approaching event the visit of the wealthy but irascible grandfather, the trip to the zoo, the battle at the river, the big dance or exclusive party your protagonist yearns to be invited to. It would seem just common sense to mention the event before it happens and indicate, through characters' words and attitudes, why it's likely to be climactic,...

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...

Making A Scene

If you've been to a writer's conference or a creative writing class, or if you've read any books on fiction writing, you've already heard the major principle that older writers are always telling younger writers SHOW, DON'T TELL. As I hope I've shown (and maybe told, a little but this isn't fiction), it's an important concept that's very risky not to take very seriously indeed. Showing, in fiction, means creating scenes. You have to be able to cast your ideas in terms of something happening,...

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...

Mosaic Structure

The first strategy depends on selection and recurrence, as discussed in Chapter 8. Things repeat, and that repetition can be seen as a kind of motion. Patterns of images, of symbols, of repeated situations and attitudes, have a cumulative impact. Detail adds to detail, each clarifying the adjacent details, like putting together a puzzle. Not until all the pieces are in place is the whole picture at last revealed. Each piece is complete and has a shape of its own, but its fascination is in how...

Offcenter Endings

It doesn't seem fair, but an ineffective ending can invalidate, for a reader, an otherwise fine story. If the ending is bad, the whole story can become a letdown, even though the opening was involving and the middle was entirely satisfying while they were happening. As readers, we generally don't notice parts of a story as separate things. We consider the apple we're eating as a unit without stopping to analyze the texture and taste of each individual bite. We're enjoyers and appreciators,...

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...

Patterning for Contrast

Taking the concept of the one variable a little farther, it's possible to set up scenes as contrasts with one another. Repeated elements let the reader know the two situations are similar but something in the situation has radically changed. This is the basis of then now, before after pairings. Consider Scrooge, early in A Christmas Carol., nagging Bob Cratchit about using excess coal and requiring holiday pay for no work. Watch him show no interest whatsoever in Bob's family or personal...

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...

Ready Steady Go

If you test your ideas against these four criteria, a lot will be tossed out, or saved in your handy notebook for later. Don't let that upset you. There are a lot more where they came from, and some of them will pass the test with bells ringing and flags flying. All you need is one solid story idea at a time to keep writing productively, successfully, your whole life. Use these criteria and you'll have the confidence of knowing you're starting with good material from the very beginning,...

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...

Scrooge s Mirrors

I mentioned some chapters back that Marley was Scrooge's mirror. By that, I meant not only that Marley was Scrooge's partner more importantly, he shared the materialistic values which are Scrooge's central characteristic. (You were always a good man of business, Jacob, says Scrooge in an attempt to placate the ghost, rousing an irate howl from the spectre.) This qualifies, I think, as a legitimate and significant similarity between the two. Therefore, we can assume Marley's warning is valid...

Sequel Fishing

Another way of refusing to let a story be over is to write an inconclusive, foggy conclusion that doesn't really settle things at all. I just discussed the no-ending problem, and that's one form this inconclusiveness may take. In its more extreme forms, it can be a cliff-hanger ending that cries out for a sequel because the present story isn't really done. It just stops. I've read stories like that, and I expect you have too. Before I had any idea that there were three volumes to The Lord of...

Setting Up Whats to Come

Now, after the beginning that set up the major narrative and structural patterns, and after the opening section where your plot really got rolling, you should start imagining where, in the short run, your story is going. What major event, several pages or chapters ahead, is going to happen Start imagining it. Who will be there What's going to lead to it And what's going to happen What will you need to establish beforehand, so that set-piece can have its full weight and impact How can you go...

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...

Some Applications

But you're not writing about Scrooge or Marley. What can mirror characters do for your fiction They can highlight some central thing about a main character you want to bring out, as Scrooge's mirrors focus attention on the conflict between materialistic selfishness, however socially acceptable, and emotional involvement with others, however profitless. Is there some one trait of your protagonist you want to make plain in a way that's showing rather than telling Then set up a mirror character...

Something Continues

When you've completed one scene and are ready to begin the next, especially when there's likely to be a rough shift, a jagged change, choose something to continue. Following a single viewpoint provides some connections, but that's usually not enough all by itself. Your chosen element can be a connected action, begun or planned in the previous scene and carried on in the subsequent one. It can be keeping to the same setting, though perhaps exploring establishing a new part of it. It can be 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....

The Eyes That Matter

They're your eyes, your coherent vision of what you're trying to say and show. Whether you displace that vision into a narrator or have a viewpoint-protagonist who is a thinly disguised version of yourself, the job is the same to see things whole and clear and true. To focus on what's important and let the unimportant blur or drop out. To be a photographer of the mind, noting how the shadows are cast by your own private inner sun. In ancient times, it was believed that the eye sent out rays...

The Janus Faced Interval

Whether you're writing short or long fiction and whatever the section following the beginning is, it's got two chores to open up the beginning by looking backward or simply around, adding context and to look anxiously forward and lay the groundwork for what's to come. The Roman god Janus, the god of doorways for whom January is named, had two faces so he could look both ahead and behind. That's what you need to do, after a story's first beginnings. I'll talk about methods of doing that kind of...

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...

Things Get Blacker and Blacker

In long fiction, scene builds on scene, set-piece on set-piece. The impact isn't isolated, but cumulative. It becomes a story's momentum, its pace (about which, more in Chapter 9.) Very often, several or even all of the intermediate crises will be disasters, with matters apparently much worse than before. The protagonist will be defeated, though not quite utterly. This increases tension and suspense, acting as build-up for the final crisis. But each of the intermediate crises also should open a...

Transitions

Rhythm is composed of many things the interweaving of plot and subplot, the build to set-pieces, the introduction of new elements and surprises and the knotting off of old plot-threads, the amount and placement of exposition, the unifying effect of narrative mirrors and of a strong, distinctive theme, and the nature of the plot itself complex and intricate, or direct and uncomplicated. It depends on the amount and degree of melodrama, the number and relative complexity of characters, and the...

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...

Use a Preview Scene

Another way to lay groundwork is to have a small preview scene where some form of the actual events of the coming set-piece are set up a small duel or clash anticipating the big duel or clash. There's an instance of this in The Empire Strikes Back, which I discussed in the previous chapter Luke has a laser-sword fight with an apparition of Darth Vader conjured in an evil cave (a fight Luke loses because he wins). Those few seconds are setup for the actual duel enacted in several distinct stages...

Use Contrasts and Make Things Get Much Worse or Much Better

Your set-piece will have the most impact if you lead up to it with scenes of varied length, but all brisk and relatively short. Then, when your set-piece arrives, your reader will be ready to settle down to something more substantial and intense. If your set-piece is going to be a grim disaster, you have a choice your lead-in scenes can be cheery, hopeful, or peaceful (suspicious readers will immediately start suspecting the worst) or else more and more troubled and disturbing. Then the scene...

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...

Would You Trust A Viewpoint With Shifty Eyes

WHILE YOURE WRITING YOUR OPENING and then going on into the beginning of your story, you'll need to settle two things right away Whose viewpoint is going to control the storytelling How are you going to fit in (or manage to leave out) background information if, as I've advised, you've begun in the middle I can only talk about one of these at a time, but pretend I'm talking about both at once, because both need to be decided at the same time, namely right away. This chapter is on some...

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...

Slowly It Turns Step By Step

Stories, especially long fiction, need to be divided into stages, intermediate short-term plots, each with its own build-up, crisis, and resolution. Before Frodo and Sam can reach Mount Doom to destroy the terrible Ring, they have to reach Rivendell and Lorien and pass through Shelob's lair. Before Sam Spade can find out who killed his partner, he has to disarm Joel Cairo and the gunsel, dodge his partner's jealous wife and the police she sets on him, and find out who the Fat Man is and what...

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...

Mirroring Characters

Two children, one rich, one poor, who look just alike, change places. That's the basis of Twain's The Prince and the Pauper. He uses the boys, alike in everything but expectation and upbringing, to show and satirize the conditions of both rich and poor during the reign of Henry VIII. Two men, alike enough to be brothers, love the same woman. One goes to the guillotine in the other's place, because the other is the woman's husband. Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Two men inhabit the same body....

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...

Setting Up Subplots

Often long fiction will have more than one plot. The subplot s may run just a while before coming to resolution, or may continue through almost the whole story, being tied up just before the story's end. Sometimes subplots center on the main plot's protagonist, and sometimes they focus on one of the subordinate characters. Well handled, they can deepen the story's context, offer ways to mirror or contrast with the main action, and be used in pacing to offer foreground motion while the main plot...

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...

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...