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The first thing they tell you in any creative writing class is that all stories are divided into a beginning, a middle, and an end. The reaction the speaker usually gets to this infallible wisdom is an eye roll, a shrug of the shoulders, a muttered ‘duh’. Obviously that’s true. Of course things have to start somewhere and stop somewhere and have a middle part in between. We know this.

The thing is, if you don’t consciously apply this rule to your stories, they have a weird way of not conforming to this ‘obvious’ rule. It is entirely possible to write a story in which the central characters end up in the same place they started. It is also possible for them to change so much, and go from one situation to the next with such chaotic abandon, that there are a hundred beginnings and middles and endings over the course of the book and nothing makes any sense.

Part of the problem it’s so easy to slip up is that when you read books, you aren’t immediately aware of their structure unless you’re looking for it, in the same way that you never get halfway through a great book and say to yourself ‘Gee, I haven’t seen a single spelling mistake yet!’ It works in part because you’re not aware of it.

Even when it’s not there, you’re only aware of its absence in a subconscious way. It arrives as a feeling of indifference to the outcome of the tale, or mild confusion.

The worst offenders are books which are all middle. They start in medias res (in the midst of things), and you dutifully follow the main character through a series of obstacles and problems, all of which he overcomes, and then he meets a girl and they fall in love, and then the book ends with a standing ovation or some bullshit. The characters don’t change or suffer, the stakes remain the same, and the end looks like the beginning because it’s really all the middle. It’s like walking around the block and calling it hiking.

Then you have to consider the length you want each section to be. If you’re a long winded person, you might write sixty thousand words of beginning, panic when you realise nothing has actually happened, and then try to wrap up all one hundred loose ends you’ve laid out in a twenty thousand word sprint.

I had a crazy Scottish lecturer at university. He used to give out free cask wine in class, and we’d spend most lectures drinking beer and eating burgers at the pub, and as far as I’m concerned he was the only guy who really knew what he was talking about. One of his many tricks was this easy way to avoid overly long beginnings: when you edit the first draft, delete the first two or three paragraphs. If it’s a novel, the first two or three chapters. I don’t delete so much these days, but only because doing that showed me how much time I was wasting in the early stages.

So beware of long beginnings and hasty endings. The best approximate distribution for a novel (taken from one of Shawn Coyne’s books) is roughly 25% beginning, 50% middle, 25% end. Only a guide, of course, but one I’ve found extremely valuable.

The middle is longer because you should be spending it ramping up the suspense and tension as much as possible to keep them turning pages. The climax happens at the beginning of the end, and once the climax is done it’s all about closing arcs and trying to get that feeling of lingering resonance that a good book delivers, but that can stale pretty quickly if you spend a hundred pages post-climax describing how characters go about their lives in the aftermath of whatever Big Event they experienced.

And speaking of the Big Event…

Be aware of the climaxes. There’s only one major one, and it should occur around the end of the middle (second act). Have you ever noticed how the good guy always ends up in hand to hand combat with the bad guy? And how, for the first two thirds of the fight, the good guy always gets his ass kicked all over the place? But then at the last minute he has some kind of a realisation, or he sees something he didn’t before, or he changes in some fundamental way? And suddenly he starts kicking major ass? That’s the end of the act two climax in a nutshell. It’s the scene in the matrix where Neo gets shot full of bullets and then realises he can stop them with his mind and fights multiple Agents one handed. God damn that was badass. We love it. How much worse would the movie have been if he could kill agents one handed from the beginning? There would be no story, right?

Act two must belong to the villain. It is his (or its) job to heap horror after horror upon the hero, who is then forced to prove what he or she is made of. The climax is the hero realising something or changing in some way and then using that change to turn the course of events; it is the hinge upon which character development turns.

So to summarise: Act one is all setup. Introduce your characters and give your reader the clearest picture of them that you can without waffling on. Plant them in a setting and establish the current relationships and situations. Most importantly, raise a lot of questions about things, because questions are why people continue to read a book they’ve just started. They want to know what’s going to happen – and they won’t want to know unless you give them a question they need to answer.

Basic example: John is a nerd with an awkward personality. That is a character introduction.

John is a nerd with an awkward personality and he loves the popular cheerleader ice-queen. That’s raising a question: Will he get the girl?

Act two must contain at least the following, (and much more that I haven’t learned yet): 1. Every scene must raise the stakes and make everything more dangerous for the main characters. 2. The hero must suffer as much as possible at the hands of the villain. 3. Almost everything should go the villain’s way. 4. There must come a point of total despair, where it looks as though the hero can’t possibly win. 5. At this point, the hero changes in a fundamental way, or finds just the thing they need, and it must not be done in a contrived or lazy way (hey, I just remembered I hid a gun in my pants and forgot all about it!). 6. The hero will then use this to win the climatic confrontation and turn things in their favour.

And finally we arrive at Act three. Here the hero has beaten (mostly) the villain and the climax has come and gone. The first part of act three is usually the process of the characters returning to a state of normality, and if done well it shouldn’t be easy for them – even if the villain is done. Sauron is destroyed, but Sam and Frodo must still escape from Mount Doom. Indiana Jones has obtained the Holy Grail and healed his father, but now he must escape the crumbling temple.

Once this part is done, the story is over – but at the same time it isn’t, because the story was never really about the story – it was about the characters. So the End is where you need to show how they’ve changed, what the results of their actions were, and try to do it all in such a way that the reader is left with a lingering sense of… something. Sadness or happiness or relief or love or even horror and dread. The extent to which you achieve this resonance is partly skill in terms of how you go about those final scenes – Frodo returning to the Shire – but it is also dependant on the depth of your story leading up to that point. If you didn’t sufficiently raise the stakes and develop the characters over the course of the book, it will be impossible to leave the reader with a sense of resonance at the end.

So, as the Red King said: ‘Begin at the beginning, and go on until you come to the end: then stop’. Simple advice, no? Ignore it at your peril.

– BP 2/9/17

My Process 1: Imagining

 This is the first in a series of posts about my process for writing short stories, from scratch to finished product. It’s changed a lot over time, and it’ll probably change a lot more, but for now these steps have been working pretty well for me, and it might interest you to see a complete breakdown of everything. Disclaimer: everyone has their own methods, and these are just mine. This isn’t an instruction manual, it’s a journal.

So, with that out of the way…

It starts with a thought. I’ve finished a story or novel or whatever, and I go for a walk, or I lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling, or I sit outside and drink tea, and I think. Mainly, I’m trying to achieve one thing with the pattern of my thoughts, which is to feel one of a few specific emotions. I want to feel creepy crawly, or melancholy, or dark, or horrified, or all of the above. The thoughts I concentrate on are any that encourage these emotions inside me. Images, sounds, and concepts flash through my brain until one catches me in some way, makes me feel right. Then I put it aside and keep going until I have a bunch floating around.

Here are some examples of thoughts I might have during one of these brainstorming sessions:

A woman’s disembodied head follows a screaming boy down a street.

A silhouette stands in a doorway with white eyes and a downturned red mouth.

A man wakes up with the certain knowledge that he will die the moment he falls asleep.

A field of long yellow grass stretches to the horizon against an orange sunset, swaying in the wind.

Green islands floating in black space.

A notebook which makes true everything you write in it.

Most thoughts I discard immediately, either because they’re boring or too cliché or because I can’t see the potential for a story. Some appeal to me on an emotional level, others strike me as cool concepts, but are for now nothing more than potential.

Once I have a few of these thoughts and images, I pick the ones I like most and start asking questions about them. Why is the head following the boy? What kind of things could a person do with that notebook? What characters might live on those islands? Eventually, I find I get fixated on one of those ideas and ask more and more questions, each answer building the story a little bit and occasionally providing me with ideas for some cool scenes.

I’ve learned that my own ideas tend to be of three main types. The emotional based (the ones that make me feel creepy or melancholy), the concept based (imagining interesting items or settings that I want to explore), and the character based (I have a character that I find interesting). Whatever the type of story the initial idea is, however, I must be sure to include the other two elements before I start. If I have a creepy image, I need to add an interesting character/s and a concept. If I have the concept, I need the character and creepiness, etc.

The other important thing I need before I start, as crazy as this may seem, is the ending. It took me a long time to admit to myself that I write better this way, because many authors, my idol Stephen King among them, hate this way of writing and think it spoils all the fun. I have found, however, that having a killer ending in mind before I start is half of what gets me excited about a story.

Finally, once all these things are clear in my mind, I start working the details. So far, by the way, I haven’t written a single thing down, and most likely all of this progress has occurred over the course of a one or two hour walk. This is the time I start thinking about the overarching structure – hook, build, payoff; beginning, middle, end. I think of character names, who they are, and how they relate to each other and themselves at the beginning verses the end.

Sometimes when I reach this point, I swear very loudly, discard everything and start again from scratch. Usually if an idea is bad, I notice it early enough to nip it in the bud, but not always. I have actually drafted and edited countless stories, only to realise they weren’t any good, didn’t have heart, were executed badly, etc. and deleted them without showing them to anyone. It happens. The only antidote to this that I know of is to be picky with your ideas. Don’t just sit down and write something because it seems cool and you’ve already developed the plot and characters and all the rest. Don’t write something even if it’s good. Write it only if it really gets to you, if it makes you want to run to your computer and write the whole thing in one go. Don’t settle. If you’re going to write the thing, liking it isn’t good enough – you have to love it – and this goes double for novels.

But let’s assume that now, at the end of my walk or meditation or tossing and turning in bed at night, I have done everything right. I have the characters, the concept, the mood; I have the details, the structure, the plot, and I love the story so much I’m burning to write it. The last thing I do in my mind is find out what the thing’s about.

I’ve written about this in a previous post – the one true sentence. Also known as the Hemingway method, also known as the Controlling Idea, also known as the Theme. This is a single sentence, which you believe to be a truth about the world, or people or whatever, and it is the thought around which your story revolves. It can be anything, as long as you really believe it, and it’s relevant to the story. I have written many stories, for example, around this sentence: People are animals.

Once I have that, I’m ready to go. The final step of the imagining phase is to put some of what I’ve been imagining down onto paper. Usually I’ll grab a random piece of scrap paper and scribble the title of the story (which almost always changes by the end), the summary of beginning, middle and end sections, and the summary of the first few chapters or scenes (No more than a short sentence or a few words in each case.)

For example:

Title: Black Book

Beginning: Guy discovers book which makes true what he writes in it, experiments.

Middle: Guy becomes obsessed, starts manipulating his world to his advantage.

End: Guy twists things beyond repair, despairs, writes his own death into the book.

First scenes: a) guy goes for a walk, depressed, finds book in gutter and starts journal.

  1. b) feels better, starts writing fantasies as well as reality, fantasies come true.
  2. c) Starts experimenting with more outlandish ideas.

 

This is a simplistic version, because I haven’t taken the time to imagine any other characters or cool scenes I’d want to include. Still, it’s pretty close to what I typically have written down before I start a story. Once I have this, I’m pretty much good to go, since a, b and c add up to at least two or three thousand words right off the bat. Once I get to b or c, I’ll be able to more clearly make out what the next steps should be, and I’ll go from there.

That’s it for planning. Beyond this point, it’s time to put your balls where your brain is and write some words. Next instalment is all about the juicy meat of the thing: First Draft.

Why Read?

 

Reading, at first glance, is not something that should be natural for us. Human beings are hunter gatherers originally, social animals, explorers. We like to do things, to talk and love and play, even running for our lives or fighting gives us an adrenaline rush, something a lot of sports enthusiasts still enjoy. So what compels us, now, to sit for hours on end staring at page after page of tiny symbols on white paper?

Well, the same reason we do anything, really: emotion. Books – good ones at least – make us feel emotions, and that is absolutely the core of their appeal. The bad book is not one that is badly written, or one with an unrealistic premise, or irritating characters, though it may include one or all of these things. No, the bad book is the one which fails to make us feel.

The idea for this post came to me the other day during a conversation with a friend in which I expressed my intense annoyance for all the ‘bad writers’ out there who churn out terrible books and make millions of dollars. Why should these people, I said, who haven’t put in any real effort or time in bettering themselves or learning to write well, be successful, while hundreds of other, better authors remain unknown? But my friend only shook his head. ‘They can’t be bad writers,’ he said. ‘They’re famous.’

Which got me thinking. If they’re famous, millions of people are paying money to read book after book, and as my friend pointed out, they can’t really be bad if that’s the case. I mean, I think they’re bad because, technically speaking, they are. They have shitty cardboard characters, terrible prose, bland style, whatever. But readers don’t read for your style or your characters or plotlines. They read because they want to feel something, and whatever criticisms I have for these writers, they must be making their readers feel or they wouldn’t sell books. It’s that simple.

This was kind of a revelation for me, because until then I’d always been assured that if you were skilful enough as an author and had a decent story, you were guaranteed to become successful to a degree. Now I see the truth: it is entirely possible to write a coherent story with realistic characters and a tight, clear style, and still end up with something shit. I’ve written some, and I’ve read books like this, books I finished with a growing sense of frustration as I turned the pages, wanting to know what was going to happen next even though nothing about it interested me. This is so fucking boring, I would think to myself at the conclusion of each chapter. I can’t wait until I finish all five hundred pages of this shit so I can throw the damn thing away and forget about it.

And that, my friends, is the antithesis to the ‘famous bad writer’. It’s the ‘really good but incredibly boring writer’. He is the guy who has a top of the line tennis racket and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game and rules, but can’t actually play for shit. The point is, the ‘bad writers’ are still achieving the writer’s most important goal. They are creating emotions in the reader, and doing it consistently enough to make people plough through their awful writing.

So of course, the next logical question is, how the hell do I do that? Obviously, I haven’t cracked this particular nut yet or I’d already be a professional writer myself, but I have a few theories.

I mentioned earlier that human’s aren’t natural readers ‘at first glance’. I say this because in actual fact, people were telling each other stories as soon as they could communicate. Long before the first written symbols appeared, there were cave drawings, and I suspect that before these you had a bunch of hairy cavepeople sitting around a campfire and telling each other about this guy they once saw got eaten by a lion, only it was a lion ten times bigger than normal with a roar like a volcano erupting.

The goal back then, as now, was to get the biggest reaction out of the audience, and I bet they achieved that just as well as modern storytellers, only without the advantage of the written word. In a way, the storyteller had an easier job back then, because he wasn’t concerned with paragraphs, grammar, style, etc. What he did concern himself with were what I think are the most important things, the things which play the biggest part in creating emotion within the reader: characters, story, and suspense.

My reasoning goes like this: You need characters, because a reader cannot feel emotion about a story which does not include other people. You need realistic, interesting characters because the reader must connect the character to a person they know in real life, perhaps even themselves. If you identify a character, you immediately care what happens to them, because you feel like you know them. And if you care what happens to them, then when the storyteller warns of impending doom you feel a bit scared on behalf of them, and when the teller allows them love and happiness, you too feel some of this.

You need story, of course – but it can’t be boring. Bad things must happen, conflict, problems, evil. Whether your characters overcome the conflict or succumb is really irrelevant – as long as the reader feels a strong emotion as a result. The key thing as that the story deeply affects the lives of the characters in some way and causes them to react. It has to be negative, too, because positivity is boring. No one ever reads a story that begins ‘happily ever after’ unless it goes downhill from there. The story must also be subject to the characters, because readers want to see that the people in books have a certain control over their destiny. If you read a book governed by the author entirely, you become bored because it seems like no matter what the characters want, they can’t change anything. Fate becomes predetermined, and the reader starts thinking poisonous thoughts like ‘oh, I bet the girl dies so the author can send the protagonist on a revenge mission,’ or ‘Obviously that unassuming and innocent guy is the murderer, he’s the one I’ve been led to believe is the least suspect!’. One of the better tricks I heard was apparently used by the writers of South Park. They said that instead of thinking of story as something that follows the principle ‘and then this, and then this, and then this,’ they instead thought along the lines of ‘But this, therefore that, but this, therefore that…’ Using the former, you could tell any story you want, and no event need connect to any other nor affect anything else. In the latter, it is impossible to write a story without a logical progression, and without each event both following from what has come before and affecting what will come after.

Finally, I argue for suspense, although that sort of qualifies as an emotion all by itself. I think there are many popular novels out there whose sole powering emotion is suspense, even at the expense of the elements character and story. Neil Gaiman once said that a writer should prize four words above all else: ‘And Then What Happened?’ But it ain’t that simple, either. Here’s a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s rules on writing: ‘Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

I would agree with everything he says here except for one sentence: ‘To heck with suspense.’ Sure, it’s good for the reader to have total understanding about what’s going on, where and why, but there’s no reason any of that should get in the way of suspense. Most of us know exactly what’s going on in our lives, where and why, but that doesn’t mean shit when it comes to telling our future. Same with books. Knowing isn’t knowing. If anything it can add to the suspense, because with a greater knowledge about what’s going on there are a whole host of potential dangers and hopes for your characters, which you inevitably dwell on.

So. Characters, story, suspense. The catalysts for emotion. It’s just a hypothesis, so let me test it out with you. Here is a story:

Bill was a brave boy, but sometimes he was also very scared. Bill found a monster under his bed, and the monster said: ‘Give me your dinner every night or I’ll eat your parents.’

Bill hated the monster, but every night he went to bed with a growling belly and tears on his face.

He tried to tell his parents, but they laughed and said: ‘Don’t be silly, Bill, there is no monster under your bed.’ They sent him to sleep that night without any dinner.

But Bill was brave, and he would not let the monster eat his parents. So that night, he made a dinner of his own. It sat on a silver platter under cloth, and it was made of pins and nails and knives. He slid it under the bed and the monster ate it all in one gulp like it always did.

Bill lay on his bed and heard the monster choke and cry, and when he looked over the side of the bed as he’d always been too afraid to do, he saw blood soaking into the carpet.

Later that night, Bill’s father came to tuck him in, and said: ‘Did you learn your lesson, Bill?’

‘Yes, Daddy,’ said Bill. That night he went to bed with a growling belly, and a smile on his face.

 

Okay, so the story is 222 words long and written fast, but I think I did okay. Basically, it was the shortest story I could make while satisfying all the criteria I set for myself. In every single sentence I either develop character or the story, and in some sentences (4th and 5th) I do both in different clauses. The suspense comes in by the first sentence, specifically when I state that Bill is not only brave but also scared, thus raising a question – and as we all know, questions are the essence of suspense.

But how did it turn out? If it were a fatter, 3000 word story I could have added in a lot of extra stuff and it wouldn’t read like a children’s book, but that’s beside the point. The point is, did it do anything for you? If it did, I might be on to something. If not, well I was gonna go back to the drawing board anyway.

So, to answer the question in the title of this post… we read because reading makes us feel. In the end, writing is like sex. You can enjoy yourself all you want, but if you do it right the other person will get the most out of it. You have to make them feel something. Of course, if you usually try to make your readers feel terror and revulsion like me, it’s probably not the best analogy.

Anyways, I liked my story, was it good for you too?

It took me ages to understand the importance of structure. When I was a teenager, I wrote a series of fantasy novels called Felix Bones (coolest protagonist name ever, right?), and the main reason they sucked was the utter lack of structure. Allow me to explain.

            So get this: these badboys, four books in total, amounted to one hundred and eighty thousand words, and there was not a paragraph to be found. Each chapter consisted of walls of text thousands of words long, and the sentences were long too, and rarely varying in length. I told the story from third person focussing around the protagonist’s point of view and in chronological order. The chapters were all roughly the same length and weren’t divided into scenes or events. Instead, I would write until I got the feeling the chapter had gone on long enough and then I’d look for an opportune moment for a character to say something dramatic or the next action scene to be over, and then I’d end the chapter.

Why is this bad? Imagine a three hour movie done in a continuous shot from the same angle and focussed on one actor. You miss a lot of stuff, it’s boring, and it’s tiring.

Okay, so Jack Kerouac wrote an entire novel on a single piece of paper in a continuous stream of consciousness. It’s a good novel, but I still wouldn’t recommend the structure. It worked for him because of what the novel actually was, the story of a lost kid on a rambling trek across America with no destination in mind. Remember that: the structure worked because it matched the story. Do not write like Jack Kerouac. That structure will not match your story.

Here’s the thing. The posts I put on here in regards to writing are pretty much descriptions of tools. They are my explanations of how the tools work and how I understand they should be used or not used. In the end, though, they are tools – not commandments or templates or even guidelines. I can’t write a list of character types and say: ‘These are some really good characters to use in a story’, and I’m also not going to say: ‘Your books should always be written with Beginning Middle and End and have logical chapter breaks.’ That is one way structure can be used, it is not the only way.

Point in Case: Isaac Asimov. Ever read that guy’s books? His chapters are all over the place, and I don’t think any of them even play out in chronological order. Some of the initial chapters happen after the last ones, and they jump all over the place, touching on this and then that and then something else. Point is, he used structure for a purpose. His chapters were short because he wanted to show the reader lots of different things, some in the future and some in the past, some on Earth and some on Mars, and ooh look a squirrel! The effect is of a story coming together in bits and pieces, confusing at first and then becoming clearer, and all the while interesting because you know each chapter is about something new.

Structure is a tool, and it should be adapted for your story.

But how do you know what kind of structure to use? Should you follow five different characters and conclude all their arcs at the end? Or jump from villain to hero throughout the book to get two clear persepectives? Or should you have long in depth development and break it up with news reports and diary entries? The best answer I can give you is, it depends.

Structure has power, people, understand this. It can change a novel into a different novel. It doesn’t matter what colour wallpaper you put in your house, it’s the framework that decides whether you’re living in a mansion or a shack. Here’s a fun game: take your favourite novel and ruin it by changing the structure.

Fight Club told in alternating chapters, with each one being first person of Jack, Tyler, Marla, Bob, and the 7-11 guy. And each chapter is longer, with more in depth aspects of their lives. Now you can’t use Jack’s signature bleak tone the whole time, and you have to add details and character arcs that change the path of the story. It would be very hard to maintain any of the mystery and confusion that Jack feels. Probably you’d kill it, because the story is Jack and Tyler. If you give equal page space to other things, you’re neglecting what it’s really about. On the flip side, take Game of Thrones and change the structure so that every chapter concerns the same protagonist. I bet the new version would be unrecognizable.

Before you decide what structure you want to use, ask yourself what your story is. Do you have an original protagonist with an interesting personal philosophy/outlook? Longer chapters in first person would be my choice, advancing the action through his eyes. Are you worried about long sections where not much action takes place? I’d suggest shorter chapters, each with a different focus or point of view. Too many characters? Maybe you can use structure to focus on the most important ones. The others still affect the course of the book, but they do it ‘off screen’, and don’t steal page space.

If you’re still getting the hang of it all, though, you should do what I do: keep it as simple as you damn well can.

The first decent book I wrote had the following structure. Beginning, Middle, End. Each section was divided into about twenty chapters, give or take, and each was divided into three parts. Example: Beginning was: ‘Kid finds book that opens other universes, explores one with his friends, discovers a monster.’ I wrote seven dot points for the first section of Beginning, each outlining a specific event or scene that had to happen concerning the notes. Each dot point became a chapter. Before I started, I had the basic direction for Beginning, Middle and End, but only the sections for Beginning, and only the chapters for the first section. That way, I had a solid direction to head in, but enough freedom of movement that I could change if the book called for it.

I don’t plan on using the same structure for all my novels, but that one was an eye opener. If I was struggling in any chapter, I could just go to my notes and find the reason I was writing that chapter in the first place. Even though I had no idea how the book was going to end until I was about halfway through ‘End’, I always knew how each chapter was going to end, and that was enough to keep me writing day in and out until it was done.

Don’t be deceived: a simple story structure does not necessarily make a simple story. You can use the same three act structure to shape everything: novels, character arcs, subplots, whatever, and come out with something wildly different each time. The simplest structure, the one I used for Book of Worlds, follows the same principle as the rules of grammar: it’s a foundation. You can break rules of grammar, bend them however you want and flip them upside down, but you better not fuck around if you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to be certain it’s gonna work out.

Stephen King once said that Grammar is the pole you grab when you’re drowning. Something stable you can fall back on. Simple structure, for me, is the same. When I’m lost in some complex (to me at least) story twist or plotline, I can always sit back and breathe and repeat the three magic words: Beginning, Middle, End.

You keep your experimental continuous narratives and non chronological chapters to yourself, okay? I’m just fine over here in the corner with my three words.

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