Category: How to Study Fiction (Page 1 of 2)

How to Study Fiction, Part 14: Scenes, Part 6. Final Endings.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Endings of stories.

Two things to cover here:

  • The end of any given story.
  • The end of a story in some sort of series.

It turns out that there isn’t much of a difference, although there is some.

The goal of an ending is to satisfy the reader, right?  The reader should feel happy to have finished a story that, hopefully, is written so well that they don’t want to finish it.

Easy!  At least, if you’re good at paradoxes.

It actually is almost painfully easy, as long as you break things down in a methodical manner and don’t try to skip anything.

First, let’s look at types of endings:

  • “Up” endings.
  • “Down” endings.
  • “Ironic” endings.

These are sometimes known as happy/sad/mixed endings, or comic/tragic/ironic endings.  My definition is, “Did the character achieve their overall goal, and was it good?” If the character both achieved their overall goal and it was good, that is an “up” ending.  If the character both did not achieve their overall goal and it was bad, that is a “down” ending.

But if the character either achieved their overall goal but it was bad that they did, or didn’t achieve their overall goal but it was good that they didn’t, that’s an ironic (“up but down,” or “down but up”) ending.

An example of an “up” ending is in the original Star Wars.  Luke wants to become a pilot; he does; it’s good.  The story is more complicated than that, but the ending really isn’t.

An example of a “down” ending is A Nightmare on Elm Street.  Nancy wants to save herself and her friends from Freddie Kreuger.  She almost seems to win…but is dragged off by Freddie at the last minute.

An example of an “ironic” ending is Schindler’s List.  Schindler wants to live a normal life while making money off the war; he fails to do so, but saves his own soul.  Or you might say he wanted to save Jewish people and did so, but feels nothing but sadness because he wanted to save more.

It’s very difficult to have a straight “down” ending on a story, one that the audience will enjoy.  You often have to hold out the possibility of success until the very last moment in order for it to work.  Otherwise, it’s just too depressing.  (Even Requiem for a Dream has a bit of an ironic tone.)

How is an ending put together?  I’ll talk about this in more depth later, but for now, let’s go with:

  • It usually takes up the last quarter of the book.
  • The main character has been preparing for this final, definitive attempt at achieving their main goal throughout the book.
  • The main character attempts to achieve their main goal.  This is “the plan,” or “the big push.”  Officially, we’ll call it “the climax.”
  • The main character does or does not achieve their main goal and that’s either a good thing or a bad thing.
  • The rest of the story focuses on wrapping everything up.

So you’ve written everything needed to set up your ending, you’ve written the climax and it’s either “up,” “down,” or “ironic,” and you’re not sure how to wrap everything up.  What to do?

How to end a story (in general):

  • Wrap up your subplots, usually in reverse order of importance (see below for how to wrap anything up).
  • Wrap up your main plot.
  • With the last line, tell or confirm to the audience what kind of ending they just read.

It’s weird.  People want you to explain things to them, but not in a way that makes them feel like you’re explaining things to them.  I’ll explain.

There are basically five ways to wrap something up, and a sixth to not wrap things up and just leave the readers hanging (but not in a bad way).

  1. Happily ever after.  State or hint that no major changes or problems will occur after this for the character.
  2. Happy for now.  State or hint that life goes on, but for now, it’s mostly good things for the character.
  3. Doomed ever after.  State or hint that the character is screwed and that this situation will not change.
  4. Doomed for now.  State or hint that the character is definitely screwed and has a long road ahead of them if they want to fix it.
  5. OMFGINE, or Oh my f@#$%^& God, it never ends.  State or hint that all of this is going to happen all over again, in some form or other.
  6. Unresolved.  Move the interpretation of the story onto the reader’s shoulders; usually balanced between two possibilities.  You tell me, you tell the readers, what happens next.  “The Lady and the Tiger” by Frank R. Stockton is an example of this.

So when you’re wrapping up subplots, each subplot gets one of these wrap-ups.

Here are some examples, in order: “The two hitchhikers who won the lottery got married, the town drunk has stopped drinking for now, my brother is dead (and I was the only one at the funeral), Raymond’s in the hospital in a full-body cast, my parents are convinced that they need to hold another over-the-top Christmas party next year, and either Gail is still alive or she isn’t.  I still get postcards from her, but the postmarks are all old, her messages have been lost in the system for years before they reach me, and I’m still not sure whether she loves me or I’m going to wake up someday with a knife on my throat.”

Most of the time, the endings and the wrap-ups match:  happy endings and happily ever afters.  But a lot of horror movies have happy endings with doomed ever afters at the last moment.  And ironic endings get the endings that they get, with an extra reminder that the ending is happy–but wasn’t what the character wanted–or doomed–but was what the character wanted.  The irony itself is like a separate subplot that has to be wrapped up and pointed out.

You don’t have to tell the reader “this is a happily ever after,” but you really should hint at it, even when the reader clearly can already tell what that ending is.  The last scenes in The Princess Bride (movie version) show a) the kiss that was the most perfect, the most pure, then b) the grandson inviting his grandfather to come back and read the story again:  “As you wish,” he says.

That extra bit of confirmation of what type of ending you just read is something that audiences love.

But what to do with series?  Most series just need a regular ending as you wrap up all the plot threads (or most of them).  But some series have over-arching plots.  What do you do about those?

  • Wrap up all the subplots, generally in reverse order of importance.  If a lot of the subplots are to be continued, indicate that.
  • Let the reader know if this is a “happy for now” or “doomed for now” type of wrap-up.  “As they celebrated, they knew that there would be darkness ahead.” “Even as they grieved, they knew that for the first time, there was hope.”
  • The important part isn’t making the reader feel like what they read is “a complete book.”  Each book should have, as previously discussed, a beginning, a middle, and an ending.  Even high-fantasy sagas have steps that the characters have to take in order to reach their final goal; stop the book at the climax of the first, or second, or seventeenth set of steps.
  • The important part in this type of series is to reaffirm to the reader what exactly got accomplished in this book, how the reader should feel about that, and the expected tasks ahead.

An example, this time from Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny:

I would never rest until I held vengeance and the throne within my hand, and good night sweet prince to anybody who stood between me and these things.

The sun hung low on my left and the winds bellied the sails and propelled me onward. I cursed once and then laughed.

I was free and I was running, but I had made it this far. I now had the chance I’d wanted all along.

A black bird of my desire came and sat on my left shoulder, and I wrote a note and tied it to its leg and sent it off into the west.

It said, “Eric—I’ll be back,” and it was signed: “Corwin, Lord of Amber.”

A demon wind propelled me east of the sun.

The character states his goals and the stakes.  The character then states how he feels (curse then laugh), which is how the reader should take it, too.  The character states what he has accomplished (freedom, a chance).  The character threatens someone else, so we have that promise of what will happen next.  Then we get a little foreshadowing about how his goals will come out:  he’s going forward, but maybe his plans are not going to go as expected and may even be co-opted by something else.

You might want to think of the wrap-ups in an ongoing, overarching series as status checks rather than wrap-ups.

At any rate, try the easy, obvious solution when you’re ending a story: check in with all your plots and subplots in reverse order of importance while stating how things ended for the characters involved in that part, then kiss off the audience on the last line with something that tells them how they should feel about the events of the story.

A good wrap-up can take a lot of words, and that’s okay.  You aren’t belittling the reader or giving them something they don’t want.  Readers want to feel strongly about stories.  You’re allowed to help them along.

What’s up next?  When we’ve been looking at scenes, what we’ve really been looking at is structure on a micro level.  We’re going to look at macro-level structure next.  I’m going to just call it “structure,” though…




How to Study Fiction, Part 13: Scenes, Part 5. Endings.

I would like to note that the real reason I have this complicated numbering scheme is so I don’t forget what the heck I’m doing!  This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂


There are two types of endings to cover here:

  • The ending of the individual sections of a story.
  • The ending of the story as a whole.

These endings have to accomplish two entirely separate things:

  • Make you want to keep reading (before the end of the story).
  • Feel satisfied by the end of the story (at the end of the story).

There is also a special case, the end of a story that is part of a larger series.  These series can be:

  • Episodic, or more focused on the story in each individual episode,
  • Over-arching, or more focused on an overarching story that spans across episodes,
  • Or a combination of both, with an over-arching story interrupted by standalone episodes, also known as “monster of the week” episodes.

We’ll cover the kinds of considerations you might need to take into account for series, but it will really depend on what you’re trying to do.

Today we’ll cover…

Endings of sections of a story

There are several places that you’ll need to write endings within a story:

  • At the ends of chapters.
  • At the ends of scenes within chapters.
  • At the ends of mini-scenes within scenes within chapters.
  • At the ends of beats within mini-scenes (if any), within scenes, within chapters.

Just as with beginnings, a lot of the wordcount of your story is going to be dedicated to endings, maybe a fourth of it–but it won’t all be at the end of the book.

The ending of most of the sections of your book will perform the following functions:

  • Tell the reader the results of the latest try/fail (see Middles for more information).
  • Tell the reader, if the results of the latest try/fail aren’t going to be told quite yet, that they will be told later.
  • Tell the reader what to expect coming up next, if not already covered.

This sounds kind of dry, but the implications can get exciting:  characters can have literal cliffhangers, black out, have someone sneak up behind them…

The point being, that the endings of every part of your story before the last one should all point toward some event further down the road in your book.  Why do readers keep reading?  Because they want to find out what happens next.  Most of the endings in a book are just exciting or subtle reminders of what will happen next.

Let’s go back to “The Cask of Amontillado.”  Here’s the opening paragraph:

THE thousand injuries of Fortunato I had borne as I best could, but when he ventured upon insult I vowed revenge. You, who so well know the nature of my soul, will not suppose, however, that gave utterance to a threat. At length I would be avenged; this was a point definitely, settled –but the very definitiveness with which it was resolved precluded the idea of risk. I must not only punish but punish with impunity. A wrong is unredressed when retribution overtakes its redresser. It is equally unredressed when the avenger fails to make himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.

This is a beginning paragraph, so it does count as part of the beginning.  However, because Poe was such a smart guy, the end of the paragraph also has an ending.  Here, he hints that what will come next is a tale of revenge in which the avenger gets away with it.  This is also called foreshadowing.  

If you ended every structural unit of your story with foreshadowing up until the last one, you would not go far wrong.

The second paragraph, if you care to read it for yourself, is much the same way as the first.

Another good example is in The Princess Bride (the film version).  When Vizzini sees that the Man in Black is still climbing up the cliff, he tells Inigo to kill the Man in Black.  The end of that scene is a hint toward what will happen next:  a swordfight.

“He’s got very good arms,” says Fezzik.

“He didn’t fall?  Inconceivable!” says Vizzini, slashing with his dagger.

“You keep using that word,” says Inigo.  “I do not think it means what you think it means.”

They all look down.  The man in black is still climbing.

“My God.  He’s climbing.”

“Whoever he is, he’s obviously seen us with the princess and must therefore die.  You–” Vizzini puts the tip of the dagger on Fezzig’s shirt.  “Carry her.”  To Inigo, he says, “We’ll head straight for the Guilder frontier.  Catch up when he’s dead.  If he falls, fine.  If not, the sword.”  He sheaths his dagger and begins walking away.

“I’m going to do him left-handed,” says Inigo.

“You know what a hurry we’re in!”

“It’s the only way I can be satisfied.  If I use my right, over too quickly.”

“Oh, have it your way.”

And off Vizzini goes.

Something to note:  You don’t have to exactly tell the truth in your foreshadowing.  In fact, the more you tell about what’s going to happen next, the more your audience will expect things to not happen quite as foreshadowed.

If a plan is spelled out during a scene, especially at the end of a scene, you’re almost guaranteed to have something go wrong.

For example, in the above scene of The Princess Bride, it is strongly hinted that Inigo will win the swordfight.  Vizzini spells out the plan:  if the man in black falls, fine; if not, the sword.

However, Inigo loses the swordfight.

It’s perfectly okay for foreshadowing to not be exactly what was foreshadowed.  In fact, this is how you make something both expected and surprising.

The end of the scene in The Princess Bride starts when the characters look over the side of the cliff and see that their latest try (to cut the rope that the Man in Black is climbing, and therefore drop him off the cliffs) has failed.  They are seeing the results of their try/fail.  Then the reader gets a promise of what will come next: a swordfight.

Each “try” in that sequence has its own beginning, middle, and end:

  • They see the ship following them and try to outrun it.  They fail.  The end of that scene leads to the next try/fail, climbing the cliffs:  “Whoever he is, he’s too late! See?  The cliffs of insanity!  Hurry up!  Move the thing!  And that other thing!  Move it!”
  • They arrive at the cliffs of insanity and begin climbing, hoping that the Man in Black will be too weak to follow them.  Haha, no.  The end of that scene leads to the next try/fail, trying to outclimb the man in black: “He’s climbing the rope.  And he’s gaining on us.” “Inconceivable.”
  • They try to arrive at the top of the cliffs before the Man in Black can catch up to them.  (They succeed, but the overall outcome of the scene is in suspense, so there are a bunch of witty lines to show time passing and suspense building.)  The ending lines show that they’re still in suspense about whether they’ll make it or not: “Did I make it clear that your job is at stake?”
  • The arrive at the top of the cliffs and cut the rope, hoping that the Man in Black will fall.  He doesn’t.  “Inconceivable!”

Part of the reason the “Inconceivable!” line is funny is that it’s used for several try/fails, only for the try/fails to reveal that the Man in Black’s success, no matter how inconceivable, is real.

This is just a couple of examples of how endings can be used to draw readers from scene to scene.  Each author seems to have a different way of handling this, ranging from the dramatic to the subtle, the action-based to the emotional-based, and the straight-up truthful to the completely wrong-headed or false.

When an author stops to tell the audience what is about to happen, it doesn’t a) slow the audience down, or b) bore them.

Over and over again throughout The Princess Bride, the action stops to tell the audience what to expect next.  It’s not boring to get a hint about what happens next–it’s exciting.

There’s nothing like the moment when Watson tells Holmes in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band,”

My dear fellow, I would not miss it for anything.

We, as readers, don’t want to, either.

This post is getting long, so I’m going to split it up.  Next time?  The endings of stories!




How to Study Fiction: Part 10a: Scenes, Part 2a

Ugh…I should have written this earlier.  The number is my guesstimate for where this will go eventually.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book.

Scene structure terms.

I’m going to be using some terms about scene structure that may not be familiar, or that may not be used exactly as other writers have been using them.  These are terms that I developed for my own benefit as I was studying novels and short stories.

I found that breaking down books into smaller and smaller parts helped me see what the author was trying to do.  It can get really overwhelming, trying to sit down and say, “How did the author pull off this one cool thing in that book?!?”

I made up and adapted some terms so I could take smaller bites.

For the purposes of this blog series, I’m breaking down stories into the following:

  • Scenes, which are groups of text between one blank row and another, and which have a beginning, middle, and end.
  • Chapters, which are groups of text that has a first-level header line, such as “Chapter 1” or “1,” and which may cover multiple scenes or only one scene.
  • Sections, which are groups of text that covers multiple chapters.  May also be called “Parts” or “Books.”
  • Mini-scenes, which are bits of text within a scene that has its own beginning, middle, and end and has a change in time, setting, or the characters in that section.
  • Beats, which are bits text that has a beginning, middle, and end but is connected by transitional material within a scene or mini-scene.
  • Transitional material, which are bits text that transitions the reader from one unit to another unit, usually a beat or a mini-scene.  This is often a summary.

I may also use the following term in my movie examples:

  • Sequences, which are series of related scenes as a character tries several different tactics to achieve the same thing.

A chase “scene” is often a sequence covering may different locations and different tactics as the characters attempt to outwit each other.  For some reason, in movies this tends to be told through different scenes, while in fiction this tends to be mini-scenes within the same scene.  I’m not sure why that is.

Text, for our purposes, can either be summary or real-time.

  • Summary text sums up things that happened.
  • Real-time text demonstrates things happening.

For example, if a flashback is summed up in a few paragraphs or as an aside in dialogue, it’s summary text.

If a flashback is played out in a scene with dialogue, action, and description, it’s real-time text.

I don’t know if anyone else is using these terms the way I do–but I’ve found that I needed them to help identify pieces of structure.  Summary text is often used as transitional material; scenes are often in real-time.

The rule of thumb that is given to beginning writers is to “show, don’t tell.”  And, for the most part, that is a good rule of thumb–for beginners.  For intermediate writers, it’s important to be able to summarize actions to move the book along at a reasonable pace.  Do we need to know about each characters’ morning routine in detail?  When is it better to skip a morning routine entirely?  When it is better to summarize?  When is it better to write the scene out?

These are judgment calls that intermediate writers have to make all the time, and the rule “show, don’t tell” doesn’t really help at all.  Different writers will make different calls on these questions:  some writers love to write all their backstory in real time.  Others summarize, summarize, summarize.  Some writers love to connect beats and mini-scenes with transitional material; others don’t.

This is what I’ve observed from my studies:

  • If you want to lie to or mislead the reader fairly, write in real-time.
  • If you want the reader to take something for granted, summarize.
  • If you want to draw attention to the events of a scene, write in real-time.
  • If you want to focus attention elsewhere, summarize.

If you want to show that one character is taking something for granted (but that the reader should have some doubts about the statement), have them summarize the situation in conversation.  You can see this all the time in mystery and crime novels.  The investigator questions someone.  That person makes a statement.  Something about that statement, the investigator thinks, is off.

Most backstory involves conflict.  It’s possible to turn any summary into a real-time scene with conflict in it, and it’s possible to turn any scene, no matter how dramatic, into a summary.  Especially when you need to sum up the events of book 1 in the beginning of book 2…

Back to Endings next time!  Sorry about the side note!

Live, die, rewind… The Clockwork Alice


How to Study Fiction, Part 12: Scenes, Part 4. Middles.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂


The middle of a scene is where you get into all that nice, juicy conflict.

I know, I know.  A lot of writers have heard the advice to start in the middle.  However, that just means “don’t take forever to get to the story, don’t start with the Big Bang or the birth of the character as a baby or even with the first event that is relevant to the story, because that’s what backstory is for.”

But to rush into the middle of a scene without first having a beginning is disorienting.  Long-term professional writers don’t do it.  Write a beginning to set up the character, setting, and conflict of every scene before you get into the middle; otherwise the reader is going to get lost.  It doesn’t have to take a lot of words.  Just do it.

Okay, you’ve had your lecture.  Go read the section on beginnings if you missed it.

Middles are made up of conflicts.  The conflict can be obvious.  It can be subtle.  But every middle has a conflict.  If the conflict isn’t obvious, watch for something horrible to happen to that character in the next scene or two. Some writers like to put in a happy moment, successful moment, or reconciliation between characters before they kill that character off [cough Joss Whedon cough].

And sometimes, in more literary stories, the characters don’t have any conflict.  It’s the reader who is supposed to be conflicted at all the surprising non-conflict that the characters have.  A good example of this is Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado,” in which the main character decides to take his revenge…and has zero issues carrying it out.

(I really like that story, sorry.  I’m just going to keep using it over and over in this series.)

So.  You’re not a beginning writer anymore, and you’ve stopped taking terms like “conflict” for granted.  What is this conflict, in practical, fictional terms?

A conflict is when the main character attempts to do something and is prevented by some element of the story from doing so.

The conflict can come from a variety of different sources:

  • The character themselves (internal conflict).
  • Other characters.
  • The environment.
  • An interruption.
  • Fate/bad luck.

As long as it stops the character from accomplishing what they set out to do–even if it’s something good–it’s conflict.

In the case of stories where there is no outright conflict (as in “The Cask of Amontillado”), the conflict comes from upsetting the reader’s expectations in some way.  These stories are generally pretty short, around three thousand words at most–at least, the ones I’ve been able to spot in the wild are that short.  It’s hard to sustain tension without in-story conflict.

The way that the character can be prevented from accomplishing their goals can vary as well, and this can be critical:

  • The character can try to accomplish something, and fail. (Try/Fail.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, succeed, and still have things turn out worse. (Succeed But Worse.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, and be interrupted. (Interrupt.)
  • The character can try to accomplish something, and how it all came out can be held in suspense. (Suspense.)

These are just the main conflict outcomes that I’ve been able to identify from my studying, by the way.  There may be more.

Here are examples of these four outcomes, from the movie The Princess Bride:

  • Inigo tries to stop the man in black from following Vizzini and Buttercup.  He fails.  (Try/Fail.)
  • Buttercup tries to find out the truth of whether Humperdink told Westley that she wanted Westley back. She succeeds and finds out that Humperdink didn’t send his four fastest ships and has in fact been lying to her. This gets her locked up and Westley tortured.  (Succeed But Worse.)
  • Fezzik tries to walk down the hallway of the castle with Westley.  When Inigo screams for him to knock down a door, he does so–however, when he comes back, Westley is gone. (Interrupt.)
  • Westley, Fezzik, and Inigo look over the castle gates, which are guarded by sixty men, and discuss their plans, which, by the way, they don’t spell out in detail.  The scene ends with Fezzik saying, “I hope we win.” (Suspense.)

There is also a great suspense scene that ends with an interrupt, which shows that you can get clever and combine conflicts:  When the shrieking eels are circling Buttercup in the water (suspense), suddenly, we are interrupted by the Grandfather telling the Grandson that “She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.”

If the scene hadn’t been interrupted, it wouldn’t have been as exciting–Princess Buttercup tries to escape but propels herself deeper into danger (Succeed But Worse), only to then be rescued.  As it is, the interrupt from the Grandfather is such a reversal of expectations that it’s funny.  (If it was a trick that was pulled more than once, however, it wouldn’t have been as entertaining!)

The middle of a scene can get quite complex.  It can have one long conflict.  It can have multiple short conflicts.  It have have a few short, then one conflict.  It can have conflicts within conflicts.  The pattern of conflicts is up to you.  Different writers tend to have difference preferences for types of conflict, lengths of conflict, and how many conflicts they string together in a scene.

Which conflicts should you choose?  It depends on the story.

Mostly, go with your gut instinct.

But if something isn’t working, ask yourself, “Does this conflict reflect what the story is about at this point?”  For example, if the story is about something that just goes on and on and the scene has only one short conflict and it ends in a complete and utter failure, does that reflect something that goes on and on?  If the story is about an internal conflict and the scene focuses solely on an external conflict, does that reflect the story?

But if it’s working, don’t change it, even if the reason you wrote the scene that way isn’t immediately obvious.  Your subconscious may have plans…

Next, I’m going to talk about endings.  First the kind of ending that makes you move from one scene to the next, and then the kind of ending that makes you put the book down happy yet wanting more.

Just before Black Monday in 1929, a secretary discovers magic…and the swindlers who use it. Read it here.




How to Study Fiction, Part 11: Scenes, Part 3. Beginnings.

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂


This is my weakness, really.  I’m terrible at beginnings, or rather I have been.  My attitude has always been, “My readers are smart; I shouldn’t have to tell them everything…and then tell them everything again…and again…”

I started out as a poet, see, and readers of poetry hang on your every word.  They let words sink in.  They ponder.

Readers of fiction don’t ponder until after they put the book down, really, which ideally they have read in a single, rushed sitting.  Kind of the opposite of poetry, in which you know it’s a good poem if you can’t finish the stanza, because the poem has triggered so many emotions and memories that you have to process them first.


I have a problem with not adding enough to my beginnings.  Some people try to shove in too much (the “wait wait let me explain my entire world to you before the characters get to do anything” people).  And both groups, I think, can end up getting burned by early criticism and try to do the exact opposite.  Overkill abounds.

For a good beginning, I think the point of balance is:

  • When you tell the reader what they need to know to get through the scene with everything making sense, but not more than that.
  • Lines that “promise” that there will be more information on areas where the reader doesn’t need to know something yet, but will clearly be curious. (Ironically, these go in the endings of things–which we’ll talk about later.)
  • Anchoring everything through your POV character’s POV, rather than getting ranty or explainey as an author.

What the readers need to know:

  • Who are the characters involved, especially the main character and (if different) the POV character (as in a Holmes/Watson duo).
  • What the setting is, including time frame, location, and any attitudes/rules about the way the setting will be treated (for example, the UK of a James Bond movie has different attitudes and rules than the UK of a Dr. Who episode).
  • What is going on, including enough of what went on before the start of the scene/story to get us up to speed.

I’d also like to note that readers need to know this stuff…a lot.  Often.  As in the words that cover this information are probably about a quarter to a third of the book.  Not the first third of the book–this stuff has to be scattered throughout every chapter, every scene, and every try/fail of the book (more on try/fails next time).

At the beginning of the book, you have a lot of “beginning” information to cover.  Then, every time you change POV characters, introduce a new character, change scene locations, or add a plot twist or new information, you also have to have more “beginning” information.

Let’s look at an example, the movie version of The Princess Bride.

  • There is a scene introducing the boy, his mom (who never shows up again; she’s just there for the boy to whine at and to deliver the information that the grandfather is going to be there), the illness, and the boy’s love of sports and video games.
  • There’s another scene introducing the grandfather, the book, the boy’s opinion about same.
  • There’s another scene introducing the farm, the girl, the farm boy, and their relationship.
  • There’s another scene deepening their relationship, and the two begin to kiss.
  • Whoah!  The rules of the story have changed, and the boy interrupts to demand that the grandfather explain the rules of the story.  “Is this a kissing book?”
  • The story resumes and the girl and the farmboy split apart so the farmboy can seek his fortune.
  • But news comes to the girl of his death, and she announces that she will never love again.
  • Five years pass, and the girl has become a princess, about to marry Prince Humperdink, and we’re shown (and told) that she doesn’t love him.

All of this stuff is the beginning.  We only start getting to the action of the plot when Vizzini tries to kidnap her.

However, the action of the plot (the middle) also has a beginning.  The beginning of the main plot, which is “try to rescue Buttercup,” goes like this:

  • The princess is abducted.
  • Vizzini explains that he is kidnapping the princess in order to start a war between Florin and Guilder.
  • The three kidnappers’ characters are introduced, so that we like Inigo and Fezzik, but not Vizzini.
  • The princess tries to escape from the ship and is threatened with death.
  • The story is interrupted by the grandfather as the rules of the world appear to change.  The princess doesn’t get eaten at this time–but someone might get killed.
  • The grandfather gets back to the story, the princess is “rescued” by her abductors.
  • Inigo spots someone behind them, but isn’t sure who it is.
  • The kidnappers flee to the cliffs of insanity (new location), climb them, and cut the rope.
  • Vizzini tells Inigo to kill the person following them, then catch up.

Now we’re at the main action of the main action.  Yes, this whole “beginnings, middles, and endings” thing gets a bit complicated and may seem repetitive (but if done right, the reader won’t notice).

The main action of the story is Westley’s efforts to rescue Princess Buttercup from marrying Humperdink.  The story isn’t over until he has definitively rescued Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.  Everything up to this point has been setting up the rescue of Princess Buttercup from Humperdink.

But wait!  There’s more beginning.

  • Inigo paces around, watches the man in black climb with painful slowness up the cliff.
  • He throws the man in black a rope.  He climbs up, after some bits of dialogue that establish more of Inigo’s character.
  • The man in black climbs to the top and is about to start the main action of the main action of the main action of this scene, when he is interrupted by Inigo, who wants him to rest up.
  • They have more conversation to establish Inigo’s character.
  • The man in black says, “You’ve been more than fair,” etc.

Now the action begins, and they begin to fight.

However, each beat in the action has its own beginning as well.

  • They both pose with the sun setting behind the man in black, at the edge of the cliff.  (Beginning.)
  • Inigo takes a few slashes with his sword, which the man in black easily dodges. (Middle.)
  • Inigo pauses, circling his opponent. (Ending.)
  • They both pose, now with the sun setting behind Inigo, at the edge of the cliff. (Beginning.)
  • The man in black attacks Inigo, using the same moves, which Inigo easily, but less easily, dodges. (Middle.)
  • Inigo smiles.  (Ending.)
  • Inigo begins another exchange, this time more complex.  (Beinning.)
  • The two play back and forth, demonstrating their basics to each other, but it’s clear that this won’t be over very quickly. (Middle.)
  • The camera transitions to a wide shot, showing the setting around them.  (A bit of setting interrupting a slow spot in the middle, to help give it a little structure.)
  • The swordplay continues, as if it could go on all day like this. (Middle.)

This is the beginning of the swordfight (made up of several tiny beginnings, middles, and endings of its own).  This part of the fight is more about establishing who is more skilled (not clearly either at this point), how they both fight (the man in black remains a mystery), and isn’t about combat and winning so much as it is about feeling each other out.

The beginnings continue on a regular basis throughout the fight:

  • Inigo begins analyzing the man in black’s technique.
  • The man in black begins driving Inigo back, even though Inigo has demonstrated all this learning.
  • Inigo begins driving the man in black backward after he switches hands.
  • The man in black compliments Inigo at the top of the ruined tower, before switching swords.
  • Inigo goes after his sword.
  • The man in black throws away his sword.
  • Inigo asks, “Who are you?”
  • They begin fighting again.
  • The man in black holds the sword at Inigo’s face after disarming him the last time.

What’s happening is that in order to keep the fight from becoming one big blob of action, the beginning/middle/ending structure is being applied to break up the fight into smaller sections.  Unless there’s a reason not to, this is generally how stories work: people’s brains can only take in a few bits of any one thing at a time.  In order to reset the brain so we don’t get confused (as you would if this were a real swordfight!), the story is broken up into smaller and smaller parts.  The beginnings help keep the viewer from getting confused or–even worse!–getting bored with the action.

We need to know:

  • Where each part of the fight happens in relation to the rest of the fight.  Why didn’t Westley fall off the cliff when Inigo had him pinned to the wall?  Where did that wall come from? We know this, because we were shown the fight up the stairs, then a shot of the ruined tower, and then Inigo pins Westley against the crumbling wall.
  • The “rules” of the fight.  Inigo doesn’t just fight Westley.  First Inigo studies Westley using a simple bit of technique, and only then does he get more intense.   Also, we know that Inigo is supposed to kill Westley, regardless:  this sets the expectation that this is a life-or-death fight.
  • What the characters are like.  We learn about Inigo’s character (he doesn’t want to kill a weaker opponent but will if he has to, and wants a good fight more than anything else at this point).  We learn about Westley’s character (he holds back until he must use his full technique in order to move past Inigo).  We learn that they are both masters.  (And, later, in the beginning of another scene, Humperdink confirms this, which tells us about Humperdink’s character.)

Because we know these things, the fact that Westley cracks Inigo over the head to save him at the end of the scene is both a surprise, and yet makes perfect sense.  The expectation of this being a life-or-death fight was set in the beginning, more than once–but it wasn’t set by Westley.  His goal was always just rescuing Princess Buttercup.  We just assumed that it would require death in order to do so, because Inigo’s goal was to kill Westley…after a good fight.

When you’re studying a scene:

  • Look for new locations, characters, and information being introduced, especially if it’s right before a fight or argument, a conflict of some kind.
  • At the beginning of a chapter or scene, look for the first action that has something at stake for the main character.  That’s the start of the middle–everything before that must necessarily be a beginning.  But it has to be an action; saying that something will be at stake isn’t action.
  • Watch for paragraphs of nothing but description.  They often are used as a structural element to reset the reader’s brain and mark the beginning of a new attempt at solving a problem.
  • Look for small talk that goes nowhere; it can be used as a beginning, too (Agatha Christie does this a lot, and it’s all over the mystery novel Fletch, too).

As we look at beginnings, middles, and endings, please notice something: beginnings aren’t just the start of a story, or a chapter, or even a scene.  They’re all over the freaking place!    But that doesn’t mean they have to be long, drawn-out, or repetitive.  Even though such a huge amount of The Princess Bride is dedicated to beginnings at each level, as a viewer you barely notice it, because the beginnings cover slightly new information, or someone else presenting the same information but in a different way, every time.  A good beginning doesn’t feel laborious.  It just feels comfortable, like you’re in the hands of a master storyteller.

And that’s your goal, as a writer.

Next time, we cover the middles…

Once upon a time, the fae came to earth to engineer the perfect changeling…then the Others began to shatter their world.  Are the fae here to save us from their fate…or to replace us and avoid their own? Click here to find out.



How to Come Up With Story Ideas

Something that you have to do as an author is come up with story ideas: on time, on certain subjects, about 80% as expected and 20% new and fresh, and to fit with the rest of your work.


But what’s even more difficult are the requirements left unsaid:

  • The idea has to generate a story that is neither longer nor shorter than the intended length of the work.
  • You have to have a personal connection to the idea.
  • The idea has to be translatable into a story with a strong setting, characters, and action that extend beyond the idea itself.
  • The idea can’t be something that the logical readers for that story will hate.

If you generate enough bad story ideas, you will eventually just generate a story idea that meets the expectations.  If you write enough stories, you’ll eventually write a story of the correct length and quality, too.  There are techniques to help make all this more efficient, of course, so you don’t have to write a million words just to get a 3,000-word short story down on paper.  But random ideas and a lot of writing will, eventually, do.

The trick actually seems to be in finding a personal connection with any given story idea.

I’ve written stories that fit all the requirements but seem like someone else wrote them when they were done.  Or I’ll get a quarter of the way through a story and come to a dead stop.  This isn’t my story, someone else tell the damned thing.

I thought for a long time that you had to search desperately for story ideas that “connected” with your soul, or something.  Is this “my” idea?

However, finding a connection to a story is a process like any other:  what about this story idea is like my life? what about this story idea do I feel passionately about? have I had strong dreams that are like this idea?

You just have to feel a connection to your story.  Doesn’t matter what it is. You don’t even have to know what it is.  If you don’t feel it, nose around until you feel something.  Or ditch the idea and find one that you feel more strongly about.

It doesn’t matter where you get your ideas, what they are, or that you feel good about a story as you write it.  Just that you feel something about it.

That’s what makes you finish a story.  And, when tempered by craft, that’s what makes it worth reading.

Anthology story that you’re stuck on?  Feel something.  Trying to decide whether to write to market or not write to market? Feel something.  Stuck in the middle of a passion project that’s gone dry? Feel something.

Have an opinion and emotions about the content of your story.

Have your own personal point of view.

I wrote this as a reminder to myself as I’m sitting down to write a story for an anthology and am stuck on it.  Mutter mutter… Anyway, please sign up for my newsletter if you haven’t yet.  You get a free story, and in every issue there’s a terrible pun, some random book recommendations, updates on what I’m working on (ghostwritten and personal), and an article or short piece of writing that you get ahead of everyone else.  I think next month’s is going to be a poem about a hilarious bird call I heard out on Chatfield Reservoir. Click here to sign up.






What Am I Selling, When I Sell a Story

I’ve been working a lot on studying marketing lately.  Not just indie book marketing, but the principles behind selling stuff.

When I started out as a writer, I thought writing was mostly about putting one’s thoughts and feelings down on the page, and then some magic would happen, and people would like what I wrote and want to pay for it.

Like many things in life, if you want the magic to happen, you have to make it yourself.  And when you do, the magic turns out to be completely mundane.  I eventually figured out that the magic, in this case, was selling things.  The connection between making something and have people want to buy it is…selling things.


A lot of people seem to grasp this instinctively; I didn’t.  Here’s what I’ve been reading to study up:

  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Robert Bly.  If you read one book on the subject, do this one.
  • Kickass Copywriting in 10 Easy Steps, by Susan Gunelius.  Pretty good, another approach on much of the same material.  For people who need more structure.
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman.  This is more of a “why” than a “what” book for freelancers.  Very good.
  • Six Figure Author, by Chris Fox (and related titles).  Translates Bly into action steps specific to indie writers.

And some other books that I abandoned after they made my eyes roll.
Two things stuck out to me:

  1. I had no idea what I was selling.
  2. I had no idea why anybody would buy it.


I had come a long way from the standard indie writer approach to marketing and promotion, which is basically, “I have a new book out, if you are so inclined, please buy it,” which I tend to refer to as the buy my crap approach.

Telling people to buy your book without telling them why they want it is poor salesmanship, and can’t possibly do your book justice.

But I (and it seems most writers) didn’t actually know why anyone would want my books, or books in general.  What do books do for people?  And how do you demonstrate that your book does that in general, and specifically that one thing that the reader wants from your book and no other?

(This is called a “unique selling proposition,” by the way; you have to identify it before you can do anything else.)

I had to back up.

Why do people read books?

  • To be entertained in the way that they specifically find entertaining.
  • To escape from their lives.
  • To process the problems in their lives in a safe way.
  • To empathize with other people, to become them for a little while.
  • To totally geek out over something.

Why do people read my books?

  • To escape from the normal world, but not necessarily too far.
  • To feel like they’re part of an intelligent, insightful conversation.
  • To see something they’ve already seen, but with a fresh perspective (often ironic).
  • To see something they haven’t already seen or cannot see, as if it were real.
  • Alice in Wonderland geeks (yay!).

There’s something that gets discussed in the process of selling stuff, features versus benefits.  The features are the things about your book that make it what it is.

The Queen of Stilled Hearts is a book about Alice in Wonderland; it has zombies.

The benefits of the book are what the reader gets out of it.

The Queen of Stilled Hearts is a dryly ironic book that sets you right in the middle of a Victorian Oxford class war and provides insight into Lewis Carroll, Alice Liddell, her family, and even Queen Victoria.  The story is a darkly true coming of age story, where Alice doesn’t so much come into her own as get bullied into taking her place as an upper-class daughter.  Sometimes there is no happy ending, because people are jerks, and it’s nice to have that dragged out into the open rather than, once again, prettied up for the family photo album.

The difference between features and benefits is emotion.  Features are about stuff that exists; benefits are about how the audience feels about it.  The magic is in the feels.

I’m still struggling with how this works, and until I’m a millionaire I probably won’t feel like an expert on the subject, but I have reached the point where I can see other writers screwing this up.

Nobody wants to know the plot of your story, per se, before they read it.

People want to know how you’re going to make them feel.

When someone writes a story, they are writing an experience for the reader.  Everything else builds toward making the reader feel something in particular.  When I write, I am selling experiences.  What people want to buy, when they buy a book, is a particular experience.

Selling uses the features of the book to focus the reader’s attention on the experience they’ll have.  “You’ll have a great time reading this book!” is not a convincing argument.  Why?  What if I’m not the right reader for the book?  How will I know?  So you do have to use the features somewhat. They just aren’t the focus.

“If you like Alice in Wonderland and zombies, you’ll like The Queen of Stilled Hearts!”

Pretty much true.

“If you like dark historical fiction with a horror bent, you’ll like The Queen of Stilled Hearts!”

Also true.  Genre is a way of identifying clusters of experiences in books.

I’m still not to the point where I can pull an effective book description out of my butt, but I’m getting closer.  I’m also finding that it affects my writing; I’m thinking more about what readers will experience as they read.  This is a real pain in the ass at the moment.  I’m thinking waaaay too hard about it as I write (and it’s me saying that).  But I feel like I’m getting closer to what readers actually want.

What do readers want?  They want a good time, the time you get from visiting old cemeteries and wondering whether that statue covered in moss and stains is an angel or some kind of fallen demonic entity.

Or something like that 🙂

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How to Study Fiction, Part 10: Scenes, Part 2

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

This time, we’re going to talk about basic scene structure.

Very nearly every professional-level scene that you read has a basic structure in Western fiction.  There will be some exceptions (especially when it comes to highly literary or experimental books), but…this is mostly just it.

  • The beginning sets up the scene.
  • The middle shows the main character of the scene trying to do something, and the results thereof.
  • The ending sets up another scene.

Like many great big truths in writing, it’s pretty prosaic (which literally means to be “like prose”).  The wonders and delights and inventiveness of the most creative books are mainly based on those three elements.  Over and over and over again.

The main exception is at the end of the book, in which the ending of the scene does not set up anything else, but gives the reader a kiss-off, or feeling of satisfaction at the conclusion of the book.  Some people call this a validation.

I’ve been working with some authors who struggle to grasp how straightforward and dull the crafting of scenes is (it’s the content of the scenes that is exciting, not how they’re put together).  It’s like they can’t believe that this is literally all there is to it; these are often writers who don’t type things in and are still captured by the illusions that writing creates.

In our memories, books are endlessly inventive.  In practice, they really, really aren’t.  Human brains are, for most people, fundamentally the same, and are affected by the same techniques.  We are so used to overlooking these techniques that we forget they’re being used on us.  It’s like watching commercials on TV. You don’t actually notice that there’s an audience in mind or that the commercial is identifying benefits of using that product or service for that audience.  You might notice something clever about the ad, but you’re completely missing the point that there’s a specific group of people being sold to, or that the information in the commercial is presented in such a way as to make sense to that audience.

The structure of a scene is there to make readers’ brains do something specific.

  • Explain why the reader should care about what’s happening in the scene.
  • Increase the tension in the scene/story.
  • Move the reader to the next scene.

That’s it.  At the end of the book, you stop moving the reader forward and instead give them a sense of satisfaction.  That sense of satisfaction is the biggest advertisement for your next book (not a cliffhanger for the next book in the series!).

The beginning of the scene should contain all the information the reader needs to know in order to care about what’s happening.  No more, no less, no surprises.  Don’t withhold clues from the reader; they are part of what sets up the sense of satisfaction at the end of the book!  Hide the clues instead–bury them in other information.

The middle of the scene should contain the main character (who may or may not be the point of view character, as in Sherlock Holmes stories, where Watson is the POV narrator) trying to take the next step to resolve whatever is going on in the story.  As a general trend, whatever the main character does has to make things worse somehow, either by failing or by succeeding in a way that triggers something bad to happen. This is how you increase tension.

The end of the scene should set up the reader for the next scene.  Generally, this means wrapping up the current “try” that the main character is attempting and letting us know the fallout, or promising to tell us later.  Foreshadowing for the next scene is hinted at, new information is revealed, and dramatic escalations of danger (cliffhangers!) are introduced.

It’s like one of those flip books where there are sixteen heads, sixteen chests, and sixteen tails:  pick the ones you like and make an “original” scene!

I’ll go into beginnings, middles, and endings in more detail next. But here are some signs that you’re missing on scene structure:

  • “This is an interesting scene but I’m not sure what it’s about.”
  • “This scene is full of infodumps.”
  • “I think I’m missing some pages.”
  • “Cool story, but I had a hard time getting into it.”
  • “You have to read the first five chapters before you can decide whether you really like the story.”
  • “I liked the beginning but the middle got boring.”

Some of these issues refer more to the overall structure of the story, but you have to grasp scene structure in order to understand the reasoning behind overall structure issues.

When I first started studying structure, I felt offended that writing was nothing  more than a “craft” in which predictable pieces were glued together in certain predictable patterns–it felt like there was very little art involved.  But every art has a phase like this, I think, where one studies one’s materials and how they’re put together, so that it’s easier to take flights of fancy and to follow one’s intuition.

You won’t always be so self-conscious about scene structure, I promise.

Next time, I’ll talk more about beginnings.  What information needs to be in your beginnings?  What do you do if you tend to sprinkle that information throughout your scene instead of putting it in the front?  How do you keep the beginning of a scene from turning into an infodump?

Until next time…

Free book and other curiosities here.








How to Study Fiction, Part 10: Scenes, Part 1

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.  You may also want to check out the series on pacing, here, which I’m eventually going to fold into this series when it turns into a book 🙂

Scenes are the building blocks of your fiction.  If you can turn out a nicely crafted scene, readers will forgive almost any mistakes you make (except when it comes to characters–like killing them off or making them act out of character).

Scene issues at this level:

  • Second-guessing whether a scene is “finished” or “good enough.”
  • A feeling that something is missing but not knowing what.
  • Information delivered at the wrong place, at the wrong time.
  • Author intrusion and rants.
  • Disorganization.
  • Dragging chapters.
  • Characters spending a lot of time talking to each other about stuff they already know.

One of the major issues with a lot of writers’ scenes is that they are poorly organized.  The writer knows that a certain amount of information has to be delivered to the reader, but sticks it in willy-nilly.  Or the writer might not put in all the information the reader needs at all, thinking that hiding information will increase the drama and tension of the scene.

(We won’t get to tension in writing until later, by the way.)

Here’s something that most beginning writer books won’t tell you:

Structuring a scene properly will take care of a lot of problems that sound like minor problems…but that you can never seem to fix.

If you’re getting feedback on your scenes being:

  • Boring
  • Talky
  • Full of too much description
  • Ranty
  • Confusing

Then it may be that you’re just not telling the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it.

And the way to fix that is through the structure of your scenes.

Basic scene structure, coming right up…

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How to Study Fiction, Part 9: Reading, Part 3

This is part of a series on how to study fiction, mainly directed at writers who have read all the beginning writing books and are like, “What now?!?”  The rest of the series is here.

Techniques to help handle reading issues (post-reading!):

You’ve read the book.  Now what?

I’ll go into more depth about specific techniques as we go through the other elements of what you’re studying.  For example, when we talk about pacing, I’ll explain how to drill down into how to study pacing in what you read.

But for now, the long and the short of it is:

Type it in.

If you want to know why something works or doesn’t work, the first step to analyzing it is to pop yourself out of the dreamland that is reading, and move behind the scenes.  This is incredibly hard to do.  Good writers are brainwashers, creating an almost inescapable spell over your attention span.  If you try to read something in order to study it, you may pick up some things subconsciously, but you’ll probably fight against it.  “No!  I’m breaking the rules!”

Typing something in lets you stay conscious and awake, but doesn’t break the connection to your subconscious.  Your subconscious learns whatever it’s going to learn (and learns it better, too, because of the extra time you spend with the text), and your conscious brain gets to make observations.  It’s the difference between taking a bullet train over the landscape and walking on foot.

You cover a lot less ground, but it’s ground that you know in the soles of your feet.

Do you have to type in the entire book?


I recommend that you type in:

  • Whatever element you’re currently studying, from several books that you enjoy.
  • Openings.

As you’re moving into intermediate writing, the biggest priority most writers have is that their openings are terrible, start in the wrong place, are boring, or have a lot of action and no reason to give a crap.

Type in the first section, or maybe the first 1000 words, of anything you enjoyed reading after you finish it.

Even if you do nothing else from this series, this is the thing that’ll put you ahead of most of your compatriots after a few books.  If you’re looking for “the big secret of writing success,” this is it.  Type in openings for a while.

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