Building a Story #2
Parts of the Story
by Deb Brammer
A good beginning…establishes the fact that something is going to happen….A good beginning, however, is not enough. After the process is started it cannot be halted or interrupted. This means that the change…must be a continuous reaction. Like a fire, it can smolder or blaze, but it cannot go out. A piece of fiction begins when the writer scratches the match, not when he lays the fire. It ends when all the logs become ashes. (The Craft of Writing by William Sloane, WW Norton and Company)
Every story needs to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each part has to carry its own weight or the story will fall flat. Let’s take a look at each part.
Every part of the story is important, but in one way the beginning is the most important.
If you don’t hook the reader (grab his attention) in the beginning, he will set your story aside and lose the opportunity to read your clever middle or powerful ending. If you don’t hook an editor’s interest in the beginning, your story may never be printed.
If, however, you do a good job of hooking your reader, you have a far greater chance of keeping his interest and winning him to your side. How do you do this?
Hook the reader.
Canadian children’s author Martyn Godfrey suggests starting each story with action, dialog, or something weird. If you use action, it needs to be intense action like falling down the stairs or running from a bully. If you use dialog it needs to be interesting dialog or dialog that hints at conflict. He started his book It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time with this weird sentence: After twelve years of being a boy, I never thought I could be turned into a girl so easily.
James Scott Bell has given me permission to use the following from Plot and Structure: Techniques and Exercises for Crafting a Plot that Grips Readers from Start to Finish. Mr. Bell suggests using one of these ways to hook the reader: intrigue, mystery, action, dialog, raw emotion, the look back hook, or attitude. He gives the following examples of these approaches. (I list these here as his examples. This does not mean I endorse these books.)
Tuesday was a fine California day, full of sunshine and promise, until Harry Lyon had to shoot someone at lunch. (Dragon Tears by Dean Koontz)
They threw me off the hay truck about noon. (The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain)
“How old are you?”
“Going into your third year?”
“Second in your class?”
“Isn’t it true you have a motive to lie?”
“Excuse me?” Rachel Ybarra felt her face start to burn. That question had come from nowhere, like a slap. She sat up a little straighter in the chair. (Final Witness by James Scott Bell.)
- Raw Emotion
Annie jerks taut in my arms and points into the crowd.
“Daddy! I saw Mama! Hurry!”
I do not look. I don’t ask where. I don’t because Annie’s mother died seven months ago. (The Quiet Game by Greg Iles)
- Look Back Hook
“The terror, which would not end for another 28 years—if it ever did end—began, so far as I can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain. (It, Stephen King)
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me…but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. (The Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger)
However you choose to hook the reader you need to show that something is about to happen. Dialog and action are better ways to open a story or chapter than narrative and summary. Put your character in conflict in the first paragraph. Introduce the conflict and get the story moving.
Introduce characters and location.
Introduce your characters, by name and enough description for the reader to get a general idea of what they look like from the beginning. You can refine your descriptions later. Too much description in the beginning slows the pace, but give the reader enough to get started. You can begin to hint at abilities and character flaws that will be developed later as a crucial part of the plot and plant things at the beginning which will become important later in the story. Show the characters as they are in the beginning so that you can show how they change throughout the story.
Introduce the location and the mood of the story. Keep your descriptions short, weaving them into the action and dialog of the story.
Establish point of view.
Establish your point of view. Whose eyes will the story be told through? Lee Wyndam discusses different points of view and how to handle them in chapter six of her book Writing for Children and Teenagers. William Sloane explains why point of view is important in his book The Craft of Writing. The reader wants to experience the story through one of the character’s eyes. He wants to feel what the character feels, see what the character sees, become a part of the action.
Short stories should generally be told from a single viewpoint. Novels may include as many as four viewpoints. (William Sloane says more than four are too many.) But each scene or chapter needs to put the reader in the place of one of the characters. The reader can only see what the character sees. The reader knows what that character thinks, but can only guess what other characters think. If you are changing points of view, identify the point of view at the very beginning of each change so the reader is not confused.
Show, don’t tell.
Many beginning writers fail because they tell the story instead of showing the story. This is one of the most important rules for writing stories. You need to recreate every major scene and make the reader feel that he is right there watching everything happen in the eyes of the viewpoint character.
Tell: Trevor felt angry and disappointed.
Show: Trevor slammed his books onto the table. “You always go to Abby’s school program’s. Why can’t you come to even one of my ballgames?”
In the second example the reader feels like he is sitting there watching what Trevor does, hearing what he says. He comes to his own conclusions about how Trevor feels.
Avoid explaining too much. The reader likes to come to his own conclusions. When you over-explain the reader may feel like you are treating him as a child, afraid he didn’t “get it.” If you feed the reader the right actions and dialog and thought of the characters, the reader will get it.
Make a decision.
What is your protagonist going to do about the conflict you’ve introduced? He’s got to make a decision to move the story forward. Often he makes make a self-sacrificing choice which works out for his good in the end.
Move the reader’s emotions.
Make your reader care about what happens to the protagonist. If you can move the reader and get him on your side you have already won much of the battle.
You want to move the reader quickly into the body of the story where he will stay to find out what happens, so you need to cut out all unnecessary words.
Except in very short fiction the protagonist needs to fail before he succeeds. Keep hitting him with more problems. What is the worst that can happen? Make that happen.
How many problems does the protagonist need to overcome? How many times does he fail before he succeeds? Three can be the magic number. Notice how many times the protagonist succeeds on the third attempt. Why? If she succeeded the first time it would be too easy. No conflict, no story. Succeeding the second time also seems too easy. But you lose the reader if you have the protagonist failing too many times in the same way. Three times often works well. In very short fiction it will be less.
In a novel the protagonist will fail in different kinds of ways. She may take a step forward, but then two steps back. Success and failure needs to come at irregular intervals to keep the reader guessing.
Surprise the reader with something unexpected.
Cause and Effect
Coincidences in plot often come across as unconvincing. Your plot will be more credible if much of the conflict comes as a natural consequence of what the characters do.
The protagonist not only has to solve the problem, but he has to solve it in time.
This is the climax of the book. Solve smaller conflicts ahead of this. The biggest, hardest, most important conflict builds to the dark moment when it looks like the protagonist cannot possibly succeed. You can use a twist, startling information, or an event that forms the ultimate challenge for your protagonist.
What does the protagonist decide to do that resolves the story?
Defuse the time bomb.
Reward good and punish evil.
Once the dark moment is over and the problem is solved, the story is done. You may only give a very short glimpse at how life is different afterward.
The protagonist must solve the problem.
He may have help of some kind, but he needs to take the action that works to resolve the problem. The antagonist may have won all the battles, but the protagonist should win the war.
The ending must satisfy the reader.
Happy, hopeful endings are the easiest to sell. As in reality, there may be losses, but the characters can learn from the losses. If the protagonist makes self-sacrifices earlier in the book, these need to be rewarded. The reader needs to feel that the ending is fair and reasonable. If you can move the emotions of the reader you will leave her wanting more.
The story should prove the theme.
Someone must change.
The protagonist will probably have changed a little from the beginning of the story. Maybe others have changed too.
Here are some examples from my books that illustrate the dark moment and the end.
Warning! This will spoil these books for you if you haven’t read them yet!
Dark Moment and End
page 121—“After a whole week at camp these two (Moose and Wesley) were still bickering. I had hoped that, as Christians, they would call a truce and work together. After Wesley had asked his dad to let Moose stay, I had hoped Moose and Wesley would patch things up and do more than tolerate each other. Actually I had had lots of hopes, and they had all come down to this. Wesley had to talk Moose into saving his life. What a disaster!”
This is the dark moment. The time bomb is ticking. It looks like they are too late to win the contest and Mama Cougar has her eyes on him. Cody is the protagonist so he needs to solve the problem. He seizes this life-and-death opportunity to convince Wesley and Moose to settle their differences.
How has Cody changed in the end? He has learned to be a leader and how to deal with difficult people. He has learned to keep on being a friend no matter what happens and trust the Lord for the results.
Two Sides to Everything
Cody decides to make one last try to make friends with Neville. He decides to sacrifice his treasured Swiss army knife. Neville doesn’t want that, but Cody has to work his small hand inside the ewe and pull the lamb’s leg around to help with a safe delivery.
This is the dark moment. The time bomb is ticking because Neville won’t work for them much longer and Josh will return to American. But Josh does the unthinkable and wins Neville’s respect.
How has Josh changed in the end? He has learned that he can learn from the one person he resents most. He has learned to overcome evil with good and turn an enemy into a friend.
Peanut Butter Friends in a Chop Suey World
Amy gets lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood and doesn’t know how to ask for help. This is a frightening experience even for an adult in a foreign country and this is the dark moment. The time bomb is ticking as the sky gets dark.
The neighbor girl helps her, but only after Amy has the courage to stop her and speak to her in her inadequate Chinese.
How has Amy changed in the end? She has learned to accept the differences of her Chinese friends and the different kind of friendship she will have with them. They are different, not inferior. She feels sorry for Jessica and forgives her. She accepts Mickey as an equal. She learns to accept her different friends for who they are and value the differences instead of resenting them.
*Excerpts from these books are used by permission of Bob Jones University Press.