Nancy: And In the End…Elements of Strong Finales, Part I

I’ve been thinking a lot about story endings for the past few weeks as I near the end of the first draft of my Women’s Fiction WIP. But in truth, I’m always thinking about story endings – mine and others’ – from the first page or a manuscript or book, the first episode of a TV series, or the opening scene of a movie. (Cue PSA: This is your brain on writing.) But when I’m actually coming up on a final page of my own, I have an irresistible urge to procrastinate look at beginnings and endings of other stories.

This topic was an important part of the McDaniel course training of the eight ladies, and with good reason. The ending has so much weight to pull. Tie together disparate loose ends, but not too tightly. Illustrate the character arcs with subtlety and call-backs to other important moments in the story. Keep the story promise that made the reader/viewer join you for the story journey way back in the beginning when you were just saying hello. And then there’s the kicker that applies to every part of the story, but is magnified for the writer at the end of a WIP (often resulting in a frenzy of head-desking, second-guessing, and thinking that something else – anything else! – would be a better/smarter/easier use of one’s time than writing): there is no universally right ending to your story, only less wrong ones. For proof of this, you need only read online discussions and dissections of every movie and TV series ending that has occurred since the advent of the internet.

I’ve had many of my own moments of ‘Oh no, they didn’t!’ at the ends of books, movies, and TV series. Looking just at TV, I was annoyed and let-down by the end of How I Met Your Mother, and am wont to believe the story (rumor?) that the writers expected a much shorter run, and never really adapted their vision of the ending when the series ran for many more years than they’d expected. Don’t get me started on the Seinfeld ending. And – yes, I’m going to go there – I have mixed emotions about the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series ending, which missed a lot of obvious opportunities for emotional impact and story promise fulfillment, but that also got a lot right.

So over the past few weeks, as I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding my own ending preparing for the important task of writing a fabulous ending, I’ve revisited beginnings and endings of several books and TV series, and have broken them down into elements that set my little writer heart all a-twitter.

The Story Promise Revisited. When we here at 8LW studied story openings with our mentor Jennifer Crusie, we talked about the opening scene of our story being the invitation to the reader. Here’s the kind of party this is going to be, the type of people you’ll be meeting, the story questions you’ll be pondering should you choose to join me on this story journey. Done well, this will ensure that by the end of your story, the whole journey – including the final chapter – will resonate with those who enthusiastically accepted your invitation at the beginning. Lots of techniques can bring the story promise full circle at the end including revisiting settings/locations, calling back to minor issues and subplots that might not have been wrapped up in the big showdown scene, and even calling back to similar situations and language used in the opening scenes. When I rewatched the beginning and ending of the series Justified, I was blown away (again!) by just how well those writers did all those things.

Mirrors to Opening Scenes. This is often a pretty blatant reconstruction of where we started, but with changes. We might be in the same or similar places as we were in the beginning, but with a twist, a through-the-looking-glass feel. Events, types of characters, settings, and even language might show up again, completely recognizable, but turned on their heads. The Americans series finale, which just occurred a few months ago, did a great job of this.

Contrasts and Irreconcilable Differences with Opening Scenes. These endings often show not only character arcs and changes, but include a new world order, at least figuratively, although sometimes literally as well. This often occurs when such enormous, high-stakes events have happened that by story’s end, there’s no way to mirror early scene settings and events, because those places/people/happenings do not even exist anymore. Such was the case in the  Buffy finale, and this technique created a lot of the ending elements that I loved, as well as some I didn’t love quite so much.

As next Monday will be the first Monday of the month, I’ll be sharing my June accountability and July goals. But the week after that, I’ll be back with part 2 of my discussion about endings and a dissection of TV series endings I mentioned above (with the understanding that I’m bound to take some heat for my opinions about Buffy). In the meantime, what are some of your favorite endings, and why did they work for you? Anything stories I should not miss during my beginnings/endings binge (for research purposes, because I’m definitely not procrastinating!)?

Justine: Making Your “Alpha Male” More Like Nature’s Alpha Males

We all know what sort of man an alpha male is…strong, usually buff, definitely tough, and the one who gives orders, not takes them. He typically gets what he wants when he wants it, and if he’s threatened, he’ll go up against that threat, even if it means getting physical.

The trope of the alpha male is alive and well in many romances these days. But is that what nature intended when she created alpha males?

Enter Frans de Waal, a primatologist and ethologist from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, who has studied the behavior of alpha males in chimp societies. He recently gave a TED talk at TEDMED in Palm Springs, and what he’s found is that these alpha males display less bravado and machoism and more compassion and peacekeeping.

The term “alpha male” and “alpha female” were originally coined in the 1950’s by scientists studying wolves. “Alpha” denotes the highest-ranking male/female in a group. In every primate group, there is only ONE alpha male and female. The alpha is determined not necessarily by who is the biggest or the strongest, but by who can make everyone happiest.

See, primates, and chimps in particular, form what de Waal calls “coalitions,” or groups within the group. It is these groups that select candidates per se for the alpha, and are the ones who support the alpha once chosen. In one sample group that de Waal studied, the alpha wasn’t the oldest/biggest chimp, but rather a young one who did a good job at keeping everyone happy (and who had the support of the oldest chimp — a former alpha).

De Waal says that there are two primary things chimps must display convincingly in order to be deemed alpha. The first is strength (this isn’t unexpected — the alpha has to be able to protect his group). The second is more surprising — it’s generosity and compassion. Chimps vying for the alpha spot will exhibit very uncharacteristic behavior: sharing food, tickling babies (most males have no interaction with baby chimps), and currying favor with females, for example.

Obviously, the major benefit to being the alpha is the ability to have sex with the female chimps. But there are trade-offs. Alphas also have two major sets of responsibilities. Firstly, they have to maintain control and keep the peace. This means, in addition to defending their own position, breaking up fights between other chimps. Surprisingly, the alphas are remarkably good at not taking sides (i.e., picking mom/their mate over another group member). In fact, they will often support the underdog.

The other responsibility alphas have is to be the consoler-in-chief. Alphas do a lot of consoling, according to de Waal. He cites an example of a male chimp that had gotten into a fight…the alpha consoled the chimp by hugging him.

A good alpha will also earn — and keep — the respect of his group. de Waal told the story of an alpha who had gotten sick and lost his place at the top of the ladder…but that didn’t mean he was forgotten. Many members of his group would provide him with food and other comforts, such as bedding material, literally tucking it up behind him like a nurse (or a mother) would tuck a pillow behind your head. This demonstrates how characteristics deemed less “alpha” can actually go a long way in generating respect, even when they’re out of the top spot.

So…how does this relate to the alpha males we write in our stories? I think it leaves room for our guy to show a soft side, to demonstrate compassion, to stop fights rather than always start them, to solve problems with their brains and not their fists, and to tickle babies every now and then.

What do you think? Do any of these “natural” characteristics of alphas resonate with you? What do you look for in an alpha male? Or do you shun the trope entirely?

Michaeline: Wedding Stories Part 2: When They Don’t Work

1950s wedding scene with a female guest approaching the bride and groom as they cut the cake.

Remember when we were protesting the patriarchy, darling? And now, here you are, married and everything! To my boyfriend! Just imagine!(Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Last week, I talked about two of my favorite books in the world, and how they had weddings driving their plots. Then, I read a short story about a wedding industry worker who finds romance, and it didn’t work at all for me. So, I guess that while I love a trope, a trope isn’t going to do all the work of enchanting me into a story.

What exactly went wrong?

Well, first, the heroine was selfish and kind of whiny. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around that, because I do like a snarky heroine who knows what she wants. Where is the line? This one was delayed by protestors in delivering a cake, and thinks to them, “Hey! I have a business to run here!”

Intellectually, maybe I can give the author back a couple of points that I deducted. After all, when she wrote this a few years ago, protest and rallies weren’t a major part of the American national dialog. But today, in 2018? I could feel a little sympathy, but combined with Our Girl’s other character faults, it just came across as self-entitled.

Another trope the author used was “he was once my love, but I still resent him for dumping me” which isn’t a trope I have strong feelings about, either way. The author used the “his wife died of cancer” card, and I really didn’t like the sudden self-realization that flooded over Our Girl – that she was being bitchy to a guy who lost his wife to cancer.

“I got a girl preggo, then married her (even though I didn’t want to impregnate and marry you), and then she died.” “Oh, good, now I can feel sorry for you, instead of angry.”

First, I don’t like that he gets a pass because of personal tragedy, and second, I don’t like the way she feels she has to swallow her anger and feelings. But hey, it was a short story. We don’t have enough real estate to spare for a long reconciliation. This did the job, quick and dirty as it was.

We did, however, have plenty of real estate for TWO wedding cake assistants and description of high heels. I feel the pacing could have been sped up a bit.

The biggest problem, though, Continue reading

Elizabeth: Friday Story Time and Sprints

Happy Summer Solstice (depending on when you read this).  What did you do with all of that daylight?  I’d like to say I made good use of it, but the truth is I spent an extra-long day at work and barely got out while there was sunlight left.

Definitely poor planning on my part.

At least I was able to enjoy a pretty sunset and I’ll have all day tomorrow to make up for today’s lapse.  While I’m happy to see the arrival of summer, I’m less thrilled to realize how much of the year has already passed by.  I have a long list of To-Dos for the year from back in January and the arrival of summer means I better get cracking if I’m going to complete them all.

One of the To-Dos that has been languishing is finishing my current manuscript-in-progress.  While the other Eight Ladies all sound to be making excellent progress, I cannot say the same.  I’ll be doing my best to get my manuscript back on track tomorrow with a morning of coffee, croissants, and creativity (writing, that is).

Care to join me?

For those of you working away on a story (whether a first draft or a polished version on its way to publication), we’d love to hear a bit – whether it’s a scene, a paragraph, or even a phrase that you are especially pleased with and would like to share.  Seriously – feel free to share.  I’m going to keep asking until someone does. 🙂

If you don’t have a story in progress, or just want to work on something new, maybe today’s writing prompt will catch your creative fancy.   This week we’ve got a character to go along with our random words.

Ready?

Here is today’s writing prompt:

Write a story featuring:  a deserted island

And includes any (or all) of the following random words:

sand                current                azure                brush

wild                navigate              shadow            determined

dusk                ordeal                 future               damage

hunter            aftermath           scheme             lizard

Whether you’re sharing a bit of your current work or writing something fresh based on the writing prompt, we hope you’ll join us for today’s Story Time.

Happy writing to all!

Michille: A New Approach

HeronI am contemplating taking a new approach to my writing. I have a four-book series that I’ve been working on. I go to conferences and workshops and take online courses and I get excited about the revisions that are needed. And then I sit down to do them, start working through the list of what needs done and I get so overwhelmed that I just quit. In order to do A, I have to stop and hit D, L, Q, and P, and then come back to A. Repeat, repeat, repeat. And I stop.

In order to get my writing mojo back, my new approach is going to be starting a whole new story. The picture is a Great Blue Heron that I see when I hike at a park near my house. It’s my spirit animal so I’m keeping it close for motivation. Part of my motivation for this new approach is that I believe I am a good writer. I read. A lot. And most of what I read is crap, has crappy elements, or has my pet peeves sprinkled throughout. I’m going to write a book that I would like to read. My starting point is a list of what the story will have and a list of what it won’t. Continue reading

Elizabeth: Atlas of Emotions

A few weeks ago, in her post Your Empathy Quotient Jeanne talked about the role of empathy in crafting compelling, believable characters.  She also referenced Emotions Revealed, by Paul Ekhman, a book I talked about in a Discovering Faces post back when I used to watch the television show Lie to Me, which was based, in part, on Ekhman’s work.

Not only is reading other people’s faces/body language/tone of voice and knowing what those people are feeling is outside of my skill set in real life (as confirmed by the quiz on Jeanne’s post), but figuring out what words to use to show what a character is feeling in my writing, can often be equally daunting.

Cue the Atlas of Emotions. Continue reading

Jeanne: What Do You Look for in an Editor?

EditingMy journey toward publication has been loaded with new learning opportunities. One of the biggest was choosing a content, or developmental, editor. This is both because this selection has the most impact on the quality of the book(s) I will put out, and because it’s the single biggest expense in the self-publishing journey.

The problem was, I didn’t really understand what a content editor would do. I knew they weren’t the same as a copy editor, who would look for problems with grammar and wording. Content editors work at a more macro level—they’re concerned with characters and plot.

But I still didn’t understand exactly what that meant.

Were they just a glorified (and paid) version of the critique group I’d had for so long? Or something more? What should I expect? How would I even begin to tell a good one from mediocre one or even a bad one? Continue reading