Monthly Archives: September 2014
Hey everyone. Do you know what day it is today? I just looked at the calendar… and it’s the 26th of September. Which means I’m scheduled to post in the TCWT blog-chain! Usually, by this time, I have my post ready-written and perfectly pedicured, manicured, with eyebrows plucked and all the wax out scraped out of the ears and burning brightly as candles. But today, unfortunately, due to my
swottish and procrastinatory tendencies important exams coming up, the day has somehow arrived without me having written post. So bear with me as I try to come up with something quick.
This month’s prompt is terrific: “What are your favourite book beginnings and/or endings?” This is a really interesting topic to consider, because beginnings and endings are a crucially important part of any story. Stuff this up, and chances are you’ve stuffed up the whole thing. On the other hand, get it right and you’ve gone a long way towards writing someone’s favourite book. So let’s go through and look first at some of my favourite beginnings, then some endings, and then at a couple of stories that did really well with both.
Thinking of favourite beginnings was much harder than I thought. I could think of heaps that were really good, but no absolute stand-outs. Nevertheless, I’ll give you a couple of my best picks, and try to pin-point at least part of why I liked them so much.
Of the books I’ve read recently, the one with the best beginning was probably Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Initially, what’s interesting about this novel is the narrator, Lockwood. A boring name for a boring guy, but even boring people can be interesting when a good writer tells the story from their point of view. In the first chapter, this city-bloke turns up on the bleak Yorkshire moors in a jolly good mood and imposes himself on the local populace (all the while claiming that he is an “exaggeratedly reserved” fellow). There, he immediately starts coming to wrong conclusions about everything. First, he decides that his landlord, Heathcliff, is a “capital fellow” when it’s obvious he’s anything but — and then he blunders around guessing who the young lady of the house might be married to (“Heathcliff, you’re wife? No?” “Your son’s wife then? No again?” “He’s not your son? Really?” “I’m asking too many questions?”)*. This works to get a bit of humour and conflict in the story early on, but the hinkiness of the narrator also establishes a certain air of mystery and uncertainty that really gets you hooked into the story. That air of mystery is cranked up to maximum when Lockwood is forced to spend the night at the Heights and has a series of bizarre dreams in which he is visited by ghosts. Clearly this place is haunted, not merely with ghosts, but with memories. And so the beginning draws us into the story, causing us, like Lockwood, to want to discover what these memories are.
Another beginning I loved was the beginning to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (by some famous author). There, rather than beginning with the main characters of the novel, we begin at the Riddle House (through a dream of Harry’s), where we learn about mysterious and evil goings-on that we know will impact on the events of the story. This heightens the sense of dread right from the start (all the more so because this is the 4th book in the series, and thus we understand many of the implications of the dream). After this dream, we cut to Harry, and the more mundane activities he is involved with, but we have that sense of fear and anticipation linked with the dream that draws us quickly through even the slower parts of the novel (which, admittedly, are virtually non-existent). In both Wuthering Heights and The Goblet of Fire, it’s that element of mystery from the beginning that is instrumental in drawing us into the story, and in creating a sense of tension and dread throughout the book.
Favourite endings were every bit as hard as favourite beginnings, but again I’ve picked a couple of excellent ones.
The first I’d mention is Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech. This was a wonderful book. Ultimately, it’s the story of a girl (Salamanca) trying to come to terms with her mother’s leaving, but this is bound up between the interweaving stories of Salamanca travelling across the United States with her grandparents, and the story she narrates to her grandparents as they drive — the story of her friend Phoebe, who’s own mother also left, but then came back. This story is a masterpiece of pacing: it unfolds slowly and beautifully, yet without dragging it’s feet, and the different sections of the story — past and present — reflect on each other while at the same time leaving many details obscured. And then, at the end, the last piece is placed in the centre of the jigsaw puzzle, and it all makes sense. Salamanca knew everything, she just didn’t tell us. (At this point you do feel slightly miffed as a reader, because she tells it to some random police officer after going through the whole book without tellingus.)
The second book I’d mention is The Lord of the Rings (by another famous bloke). This is, quite possibly, my favourite novel of all time, so it’s no surprise that it contains one of my favourite endings. I won’t say much about it, but I loved how the ending was expected, yet unexpected; completely foreshadowed, and yet a complete surprise. And how it so wonderfully proved the wisdom of Gandalf, because Gandalf is awesome.
I’ve given you a couple of my favourite beginnings and endings, now for a couple of stories that had great beginnings AND endings.
First — to move away from books, for a moment — let’s discuss one of my favourite films: Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. This film starts off horrifically. A man drowns in (what looks like) a big fish-tank, and another man, who is caught standing outside the tank, is sentenced for his murder. It’s a dark and creepy opening scene that immediately draws us into the dark and creepy story. From here, we dive into the past to work out how we got there, watching as a tale unfolds of the increasingly bitter rivalry between two 19th century stage magicians. The story has so many twists and turns, flash-backs and flash-forwards, that one quickly forgets which way is up, but it comes together in a remarkable conclusion that turns the film upside down (if you knew which way that was), and makes you realise that the beginning was even more horrific than you thought. It’s one of those films where it clicks at the end and everything suddenly makes sense. Indeed, this film was even better because there were two clicks at the end — as my friend put it: “they blow your mind, then they blow it again five minutes later”. The beginning and the end work together perfectly to create a fantastic, unified story that turns itself on its head.
And now, the final story I’ll talk about: Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. I’ve chosen this book precisely because it has a very different kind of beginning and ending to The Prestige, and most of the others I’ve listed.Okay for Now doesn’t score by virtue of its fantastically mysterious opening, nor due to an ending that makes everything fall into place. Rather, what I love about this is how Schmidt achieves a fantastic unity of voice that is present from the first page to the last. It’s a simple, poetic, sympathetic voice that makes us love the narrator, Doug Swieteck as much as we loved Holling Hoodhood in the prequel (The Wednesday Wars) — maybe even more. Here’s how the story starts:
Joe Pepitone once gave me his New York Yankees baseball cap.
I’m not lying.
He gave it to me. To me, Doug Swieteck. To me.
Schmidt uses words tastefully and economically to very quickly build up a picture of who Doug is. “I’m not lying” is a refrain throughout the book, highlighting Doug’s struggle — growing up in a family of liars, with not being believed even when he tells the truth — while his fixation on Pepitone’s giving it “to me” highlights how unimportant he is to almost everyone.
By the end of this story many things have changed. Doug has transformed from a jerk to a really sympathetic character. He’s made many friends, and he’s gone from feeling almost totally unimportant to being very important to many people. And yet, he’s still the same guy, and he still speaks with the same voice. Here’s how the story ends:
And I’m not lying, I heard, all around us, over the sounds of the huge machines in the room, over the sounds of Apollo 11 heading to the moon, I heard, all around us, the beating of strong wings.
We’ve still got the same voice, and yet now there’s a sense of security and hope, even in the face of obstacles and even perhaps death. Now it’s “us” not “me”.
What did you think of those beginnings and endings? I think it’s clear from my selection there, that there isn’t really any formula for writing a great beginning or a great ending. Some great beginnings start by plunging you into a mystery, others just draw you in through a really interesting narrative voice. Some endings make you see the story in a whole different light, others wrap up delicately and touchingly. There’s no “right” way to do it, really. And isn’t that what makes it so much fun?
(P.S sorry I’m late — I couldn’t quite finish the blog-post yesterday, so now it’s early on the 27th and I’m a day late. Follow the blog-chain for some more thought-out and punctual posts.)
September 2014 blog chain prompt/schedule:
Prompt: “What are your favorite book beginnings and/or endings?”
8th – http://zarahoffman.com/
15th – http://miriamjoywrites.com/
and http://teenscanwritetoo.wordpress.com/ (We’ll announce the topic for next month’s chain.)
- Disclaimer: these are not direct quotes from the novel.
On Wednesday, I wrote a short story for a past exam paper question, in preparation for my end-of-school exams in October. The goal was to practice quickly writing a good story, as well as to produce something I might be able to adapt for my actual exam. The story I wrote, however — together with a Quora answer I read yesterday — did more than that. They taught me something very important about changing between points of view in a story, and about story-telling in general.
The question I attacked on Wednesday was this:
“Romanticism — a revolutionary search for feeling.” Using two imaginary voices, illustrate this concept.
Can you imagine opening your exam paper and finding yourself with just one hour to come up with a story for that question? Fortunately, for this practice, I was able to spend a good deal of time thinking about my story before I actually sat down to write. Nevertheless, I ran across a difficulty I had not anticipated. I found that changes in viewpoint character are really, really hard.
Before I tell you how I found it hard, let me tell you about the story I wrote. My story was set in Germany during the Napoleonic Wars (at which time the country was just a collection of un-unified states). A father and his son are passionately nationalistic and want to fight, not only to expel Napoleon, but eventually to unify all German-speaking peoples. However, a problem arises. Just as they are about to leave, the son falls very ill. The father leaves without him, and the son is left ailing at home. The story switches back and forth between the two characters (who take turns narrating in the first person) as they struggle to come to terms with the fact that the son won’t be able to fight.
So: how were the POV changes hard? Well, they were hard in that I found it very difficult to keep the story flowing through the changes. With each change, the story seemed to grind to a halt. There didn’t seem to be much reason for the narrative to keep moving.
Let me show you how I ended the son’s first turn of narration, and see if you agree:
“For now [for the time-being], I would observe the subtle beauties of the German country, and feel the pain, as great as the pain in my chest, that I could not fight for its unity.”
Now, leaving aside the fact that it’s a terrible sentence — really sappy, and clichéd, and boring, and all the rest of it — what’s wrong with that? Well, to me it sounds like the end of a story. It smacks of resignation. Everything has happened that will happen, the character has made all the actions he can make, and now he’s just resigned. Nothing is happening. There is closure.
That, I think, is exactly the problem — there is closure. The fact is, there shouldn’t be closure at this stage in the story.
There should always be unanswered questions, or problems that require not resignation but an active response. Resignation might be an alright emotion to finish up with (depending on the story), but it’s not an alright emotion to leave a character with if you ever mean to come back to him. If you want to come back, there has to be something happening for you to come back to.
So: right before you change POV, make sure something happens to your viewpoint character — something that demands a response. Don’t leave him sitting quietly in a garden.
Now, that would have been the extent of this post, if not for a brilliant answer I read on Quora yesterday which suggests that this applies much more broadly than just to POV changes. The question (which can be found here if you have a Quora account) was “How does one become a better story-teller?” and the brilliant answer I read was given by one Marcus Geduld. He gave many different tips in his answer, but two sections in particular related quite specifically to what I’d been thinking about. The first section was entitled “What happens next?” and the second was “Keep the mystery ball in the air”.
In “What happens next” Geduld points out a critical ingredient in story-telling — an ingredient that novice story-tellers (including me) often leave out. That ingredient is the creation of questions, and the delayed revelation of answers. To illustrate this concept, let me quote a section of his answer:
The number-one ingredient for a story is the tension of an unsolved mystery. Stories set up questions and delay answering them. The simplest example is a question in the first sentence with the answer delayed until the second sentence:
“You know who Bob’s favorite singer is? Meatloaf!”
That’s not a very interesting story, I know, but compare it to this:
“Bob’s favorite singer is Meatloaf.”
The first version evokes (just a little) tension. The second doesn’t.
Just a short snippet there, but the implications for story-telling are profound. It causes me to think, really, that the word “story-telling” is one big misnomer. You are not, in fact, telling the story — at least, not in the plainest, most straightforward manner. You giving the reader teases, little bites — inviting them to question what happens next. You are making them interested by not telling the story, and thus arousing their curiosity.
In his next section “Keep the mystery ball in the air”, Geduld expands on what he has said. This questioning, this evasion of directly telling the story, should continue throughout. From beginning to end, the story-“teller” has to engage the readers’ curiosity. So with every question that is answered, a new question must be asked. With every POV change, a mystery must be created surrounding the character we just left. With every moral dilemma solved, the character must be presented with a new moral difficulty. When there are no longer any questions, the story is over.
Going back to my practice short story — I was so disgusted with my first attempt that I went back two days later and tried again. This time, I mostly remembered to invoke questions at the POV changes. It’s still not a great story (and I was yet to read that Quora answer at this stage), but it’s an improvement. And I think the biggest improvement is the POV change I showed you before. The second time round, rather than having the son sit resignedly thinking about nature, I had him set off to join his father — despite his sickness. This is how I ended the segment the second time round:
“My breath comes sharp and painful. The ground swings crazily up to meet me with each step. My vision blackens. What is this? I wonder. Is this a weakness that can be overcome? My vision blacks out totally. Is this what dying feels like?”
Obviously, this still isn’t perfect. You can still tell that I’m writing at top speed, and that the story really lacks polish. But don’t you think it’s a much better way to leave my character than sitting resignedly in a garden? Which segment-ending would you rather come back to?
So story-telling, I think, is largely getting your reader to ask one long series of questions. Engage their curiosity. Ask: “You know who Bob’s favourite singer is?” “Is this what dying feels like?” Don’t give them closure until you’re done.
This is a very short post to inform you that the estimable Liam Wood has just given me a guest post on his blog, This Page Intentionally Left Blank. Feel free to spend your day how you wish, but I would suggest the following: (1) head over and read my post in Liam’s blog (2) comment on my post (3) stick around on Liam’s blog a while longer and read and comment on lots of posts because Liam and his blog are awesome.
In the late 1920s, the talkie films were born. This was the new age. Suddenly, many of the old great silent actors couldn’t compete — all that miming and slapstick wasn’t much use any more. Others, who may not have had Charlie Chaplin’s propensity for silly faces, could now charm the audience with the power of their voice.
Dialogue is a tricky thing. Some people get it, others don’t. And it’s not just a challenge in talkie films, it’s a challenge in fiction writing.
Lately I’ve been thinking a good deal about dialogue. What role should it play in my writing? How can I get it to play that role? If I want to write good talkie novels (which I do) it’s essential that I get the hang of this. Today I’ll focus on that first question: “What role should it play in my writing”. Here are some of my thoughts.
To start with, I’ve realised that dialogue needs to serve a purpose. Well, duh, you say: everything should serve a purpose. And yet, too often, my dialogue serves no story purpose at all.
So what’s the goal of dialogue? I don’t want to box us in and create imaginary rules, but it seems to me that most of the time, dialogue serves one (or more) of three main objectives: to portray character, to advance the plot or to create a certain effect.
- The importance of dialogue to portrayal of character is difficult to overstate. In a well-written story, a character’s speech tells us so much about them. For one thing, their accent and grammatical choices can tell us about where they are from and about their socioeconomic background. We’ve got characters like Hagrid in Harry Potter whose accent tells us that he is rustic, outdoorsy and perhaps hasn’t had a high level of education, which seems to fit perfectly with his role as Hogwarts gamekeeper. (And I’m sure someone with a greater knowledge of Britain’s accents would be able to more accurately place his geographical heritage). But dialogue can be used to show so many other aspects of a character. Are they outgoing or shy? Are they smart or foolish — or smart in some areas and foolish in others? Are they friendly and caring for others or are they selfish? Are they “talkers” who say things they don’t really mean (think Isabella Thorpe, in Northanger Abbey)? Do their actions contradict their words (think Brutus, in Julius Caesar)? Do they have superstitions (think Basta, in Inkheart)? All of these aspects of character, and more, can be shown effectively through dialogue. So when you write dialogue, don’t let it just be random words that could have been said by anybody — use it to create a powerful image of a particular character.
- Dialogue can also be handy in advancing the plot. This is usually because it allows the characters to discover new information — information that radically alters the course of the story. Think of Radagast arriving in An Unexpected Journey and telling the company about the evils in Mirkwood. Or Gale’s words to Katniss at the climactic close to Catching Fire, providing the plot-twist that catapults us into the final book. If you can advance the plot through dialogue, do so. (Nevertheless, not all plot advancement needs to — or indeed, should — be precipitated by dialogue).
- A final purpose of dialogue is to create or perpetuate a particular effect that the author wants their story to possess. In some stories, this is a sober, chilling effect — think of the The Dark Knight Rises: “it will be very painful… for you”. In other stories, the author wants to go for a humorous effect, and dialogue is an important means of creating that humour — think of Harry Potter, where jokes told by the likes of Fred and George go a long way to providing welcome laughs in a pretty dark story.
These three objectives are each, on their own, very important in a story, but dialogue can be used most effectively if it helps us meet multiple objectives simultaneously. Sometimes, the sole purpose of piece of dialogue is to develop character, or advance the plot, or create humour. Most great dialogue, however, will do two of those, or even all three. If you’ve read Catching Fire, think again to the ending: that last piece of dialogue doesn’t just catapult us into the final book, it also shows something about Gale’s character — and it perpetuates the grim, suspenseful tone of the series.
Now — and this, I’ve realised, is important — though dialogue should always serve a purpose, the fact that it does serve a purpose doesn’t meet it belongs. Sometimes, all of the things accomplished by dialogue can be accomplished even better without it. I learned this lesson in the short story / novella I wrote this year. At one stage, I tried to introduce a new character, together with an associated plot-point, through dialogue. The dialogue served the purpose of character development and plot advancement to an extent, but after a while I realised it still wasn’t the best thing to do. In the end, I decided to use narrative exposition to introduce the character and the situation, both because it would make things clearer for the audience and because it would contribute to the darkly reflective tone of the story.
In the end, then, for dialogue to be successful, it needs to serve a purpose and it needs to serve that purpose better than straight-out exposition, or any other means. This seems like a no-brainer, but I think too often I rush into writing dialogue without considering whether it’s necessary. My goal is to be more discriminatory in my use of dialogue, and while this won’t happen overnight (certainly not in my first drafts — and I’m okay with that), hopefully in time I’ll perform this discrimination subconsciously. Talkies are tough, but I don’t want to be a silent actor.
This has been Talkies, Part 1. Come back in a week or two for Talkies, Part 2.