I’ve had people ask for a summary of the presentation. We had a video camera and mikes up; if everything goes well, there should be a recording available via Pikes Peak Writers.
The presenters were Angel Smits and Karen Fox. I wished Karen had used more examples in her part of the presentation (endings), especially from her own stories; otherwise, it was a very useful presentation for me. Angel has me, a non-romance-genre reader, talked into reading A Message for Julia. Angel and I are having a booksigning at the Chapel Hills/Briargate Borders on March 19th from 1-4, so a signed copy is in my future, I’m sure…
Beginnings and endings, obviously, are important. Beginnings sell your book; endings sell your next book (whether you’re writing a series or not). They both recommended writers read some version of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Hooked by Les Edgerton.*
The basic plot of every story is “Stability plus inciting incident is instability; instability plus struggle to resolve it becomes a new stability.”
There are four main goals for your opening scene:
1) To introduce a story-worthy problem.
2) To hook the reader. The hook elicits an emotional response from the reader.
3) To establish the rules of the story.
4) To forecast your ending.
The opening scene should be the only scene in which your character doesn’t enter the scene with a goal to accomplish; it’s the only time your character can be purely reactionary (otherwise, the character will be weak).
There are 10 components within most scenes:
1) Inciting incident. An event that puts the story into motion. Not an exciting incident – blowing up a car – but an inciting incident – proposing to your girlfriend the moment before the car blows up. A riot is an exciting incident; the people that whip up the riot are the inciting incident.
2) A story-worthy problem. Each story has just one; this is the thing that motivates the main character throughout the story. There is only one per story; otherwise, the story cannot be tied together at the end. (Everything else is a subplot or a plot for a different character.) This is the internal conflict that must be resolved; the external conflicts may not look like they relate to this, but they really do. (The example I thought of here was Batman: justice vs. revenge due to his parents’ death.) The SWP is not necessarily known by the main character, especially at the beginning of the story. If you can visualize it, it’s probably not a SWP, but a surface (seeable) problem. The SWP probably deal with something inside you that allows you to connect with your character and will make the story ring true.
3) An initial surface problem. The story has many surface problems; the reason the character has to deal with these, rather than walk away, is due to the SWP. The main character can’t not act.
4) The setup. The setup is a snapshot of where the main character is, physically – only tell what you must.
5) Backstory. Some backstory is necessary, but don’t do large, slowing sections of it. No “I remember when…” sections. Give flashes of what you have to know about the characters for their actions to make sense only. If your characters have any other way to find out this stuff, don’t use backstory. Don’t make a prologue out of backstory.
6) A stellar opening sentence. The first sentence should reflect your character’s trouble or send them into trouble.
7) Voice/Language use. Emotion is what makes readers identify with your characters; you may want to research the kinds of emotions that should be in your scenes as much as you research the setting.
8 ) Characters introduced. Your main character must elicit two of these three: sympathy, empathy, and/or reader identification. When your readers see that other characters like the main character, they will tend to like the main character, too.
10) Foreshadowing/Forecasting. The best stories hint at the ending; seeds of it are planted. A grace note may be used; some kind of thing related to your main character that is repeated at the end of the book.
The first four should be in every scene; the rest are important but don’t have to show up in every scene.
When you’re writing your initial scene, you should know these things:
1) What emotion are you striving for?
2) What does the reader absolutely have to know for the first scene to make sense? What can you tell them later?
3) What pace are you striving for? That is, how long will your book be? How long do you have to tell your first scene?
4) What are you story rules? They have to be consistent throughout the book and include the tone you use to tell the story.
Hooks: plunge the protagonist immediately into trouble, but are not necessarily a big conflict (you don’t have to start with a fight scene).
Endings come from all the promises you’ve made to your readers; you have to keep them all. There are always multiple possibilities for the ending, but the ending has to solve everything, or it won’t be satisfying.
An ending addresses the Joseph Campbell black moment and resurrection.
The power of the climax has to be in the emotions.
All subplots should be resolved before the end, preferably in the order or least important to most important. Resolve external plots first.
When you know what the real ending is, you can increase the tension of the ending by ruling out other possible solutions to the problem, using or increasing opposition, and forcing your hero into a corner.
An ending shouldn’t be a simple confrontation, but a decision between “bad” and “worse.” The choice, once made, is irrevocable and cannot be fixed. The true challenges involve moral/ethical dilemmas; there must be a price to pay.
The climax of a book is the main character’s final exam: all clues/pieces needed for the main character to resolve the problem have to be in place.
The ending should reflect the tone of the rest of the book; a “loud” book should have a “loud” ending, and a “quiet” book should have a “quiet” (but intense) ending.
The resolution, after the climax, should be short; the last line should tie back into the first line of the book and possibly introduce a surprise of some kind that still ties into the rest of the book; you should give your readers what they want, but not in the way they expect.
Types of endings:
1) Hollywood ending. All is well.
2) Ironic ending. The main character wins, but at a loss. (Literary, mysteries.)
3) Tragic ending. The hero loses, but the conflict is resolved.
4) Surprise ending. There’s a twist ending that changes the spirit of the whole story (thrillers, SF/F, mysteries).
5) Open ending. The storytelling is implied to keep going on; it’s up to the readers to com up with how things go from there. (This isn’t popular in the US so much as the rest of the world.) Most US stories have a closed circular form, in which the main character returns to the starting point of the story, but the world/character has changed.
The last sentence should capture the theme of the story, the emotion of the story, give a symbol of fulfillment previously established in the story, use humor to show that all tension is gone, or look to the future and show that all is well.
Epilogues should generally not be used, unless they involve events that cannot be implied by the regular ending, for example, if different characters or a different setting/time is used. The epilogue should validate that the main lessons learned by the character have stuck.
A climax must be learned or earned by the main character; you cannot compromise by having the calvary ride in, no lessons learned.
Don’t have too many endings. Get in, and get out.
If the ending could possibly have happened the same way if your character had been a different person, it’s the wrong ending.
The main character must have changed; falling in love (or dying) is not enough. The change must remain in place after the end of the book.
With series and sequels, each book must stand alone as a story. Either the characters remain essentially the same (as in a sitcom) or they change from book to book and have new SWPs each book. Sequels flow out of the first book; it’s very hard to sell books that don’t stand alone.
*If you’re looking for a copy at the PPLD, I got in line for mine first.