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.   Continue reading

Michille: Narrative Structure

IMG_0039I’m a student of narrative fiction structure. I generally read any story with that in the back of my mind. 3-act, 4-act, prologue, etc. I’m reading an old Nora Roberts story – Rivers End. It’s separated into 3 ‘books’ plus a prologue. Olivia, Noah, The Monster. This conforms to Aristotle’s three-act structure in one sense (literally), but in another, it still conforms to the contemporary 5-act structure which is Freytag’s pyramid. Freytag’s five acts consist of exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. I believe most modern fiction follows this structure. Continue reading

Jeanne: Romance vs. Love Story

Matrix Analysis of Romance vs. Love Story

When I got The Demon Always Wins, the the first book in my Touched by a Demon series back from my editor, Karen Harris, she said my story didn’t know whether it was a romance or a love story.

I was mystified. A romance is a love story and vice versa, right?

Wrong.

Karen explained that romances always have happy endings, while love stories don’t.

As part of the general background she provided on how she analyzes story, she also explained that the issues keeping the couple apart in a romance might be internal to the characters, or their external circumstances. The same polarity exists in love stories.

Eight Lady Jilly and I spent the next couple of weeks puzzling over this and sending each other dozens of emails with examples, and where we thought those examples fell along the two continuums.

Then, of course, given my background in working alongside computer geeks and statisticians, it occurred to me that this conundrum really lends itself to a matrix analysis. If you make the vertical axis internal vs. external circumstances and the happy/unhappy ending the horizontal axis, you come up with a matrix like you see above.

Once I had the matrix set up, I plotted in a few well-known stories along the axes.

On the Happy Endings end of the scale, I plotted romances. At the top, where the issues keeping the lovers apart are primarily internal, I put a couple of books by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (It Had to be You and Nobody’s Baby But Mine) and Jenny Crusie (Bet Me).

As you move down the chart, external circumstances start to play a larger role. In Twilight, I treat Edward’s vampirism as an external circumstance–it was forced onto him from an outside agency. However, his controlling behavior and insistence that Bella can’t become a vampire, too, is an internal, character-based issue, and that plays a large role in why they can’t be together.

Most romantic suspense novels–think early Suzanne Brockman–fall into that bottom left quadrant–whatever creates the suspense serves to keep the couple apart, but generally, so do their own character flaws. At the very bottom of that axis, I put Princess Bride–Wesley and Buttercup would be perfectly happy to be together but circumstances force them apart.

Since happy endings are binary–they either are or they aren’t, there’s nothing in the middle of the diagram.

Over on the right, though, we have all the stories with unhappy endings. The issues keeping Rhett and Scarlet apart are internal (except when she’s married, and that never lasts long).

In Wuthering Heights, class-ism keeps Heathcliff and Cathy apart, but so does their wildness.

Still further down the axis, we find Brokeback Mountain. Ennis and Jack are held apart by the danger of being openly homosexual in a profoundly homophobic world, but also by Ennis’ commitment to his family.

At the bottom of the axis lies Romeo and Juliet,  another pair of teenagers kept apart by the world.

Do you agree or disagree with my analysis? If you write romance/love stories, where does you work fall on this matrix?

Michaeline: Start with the Windows

A view of the gardens and fountains from the music pavilion out the French doors. Many windows.

Music or books . . . who starts with the windows? And who starts with the basement? (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s a new month and a fresh start! I’m still playing around more on my ukulele than I am writing, but writing is always somewhere on my mind. I was goofing around on a jazz blog, and stumbled upon a post where the blogger talks about composing a song. He says:

1. Decide what kind of tune you are aiming for.
2. Choose a structure and a key.
3. Work out a chord progression on which to build. (You might prefer to start by inventing a melody, but for me that would seem like building a house by putting in the windows before laying the foundations.)

Well, I have to tell you, those three tips stopped me in my tracks. I ALWAYS start with the windows! That is to say, I’ve got a character, and I flail around for a conflict or inciting incident, and that naturally leads to another character in opposition to the first.

I figure I can stick the genre on later, and my structures feel organic – they feel like they grow straight from the character.

But then again, I wonder Continue reading

Michaeline: Crazy stories

Now here’s an example of structure combined with crazy — leading to an incredible body in motion. Strandbeest by Michael Frey, image via Wikimedia

We love structure and craft here on Eight Ladies – combined, we’ve spent thousands of hours on classes, and maybe tens of thousands reading about how to write, and listening to podcasts. Structure is important, and it makes a book great.

But . . . it’s not the only tool in the toolbox. There’s that big, blasted sword of Crazy that only shows up in this dimension when it wants to, and can disappear nearly as fast. It’s also only visible to certain readers, so whoever wishes to wield the sword of Crazy had better have a thick skin or numb ears: a lot of people are going to be telling the wielder that s/he is . . . well, crazy.

Crazy sometimes carries the day, though. I love Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series – adored them as a teen and imprinted on them, and even read them as an adult and still loved them!

Adams had a gift for funny ideas, and was skilled at winding them up and letting them run into each other at full speed. Structure was more hit and miss – he was more like a jerry-rigger than an architect of literature. The Hitchhiker’s Guide has not just one, but multiple prologues. The climaxes seem to come regularly, but not in any particular order. And the dangling threads? Well, apparently that’s why this trilogy needed four sequels instead of the usual two.

Still – look at Adams’ impact on culture. Anyone in the English-speaking world who has Continue reading

Michaeline: Fun Structures for Writing: Epistolary

A beautiful Persian woman writing a letter, while another woman is waiting outside her window. Consulting? The Messenger?

Letter-writing allows a story to be both intimate and public at the same time. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

As a reader, one of my favorite structures is epistolary writing – the friendly chat of a series of letters (or emails or texts) brings a certain coziness to a story, while preserving a definite curation of information. The writer is writing to a good friend (usually), but at the same time, WRITING (not talking – talking would be more spontaneous), and choosing details and trying to entertain.

Done well, it can be a great romp with a lot of meta. There are built-in layers, and the reader is invited to take part in discovering the bits that are left out because of the conceit that this is just between friends who share a history. (In practice, the good author or authors make sure the reader has the information to figure out just what is going on – the secrets require some work, but the burden upon the reader isn’t too onerous. Just enough pleasant exercise to make the sweetness of the unfolding story taste great.)

In addition, there’s a sense of Continue reading

Jilly: Craft Book Squee – Story Genius

story-geniusHave you had enough politics yet? If the answer is no, please check out yesterday’s excellent post by Michaeline, The Election and the Future of the US Writing Market. Plenty of insightful, positive, actionable food for thought there.

If you’re ready for a break from world affairs, let’s discuss creating quality stories to sustain us through the challenging times ahead 😉 .

Last Sunday in Storyteller v Smooth Writer I talked about judging contest entries and understanding the difference between polished writing and addictive storytelling. I said I’d decided not to take any more classes or buy any more writing books until I’d figured out how to make the storyline of my WIP as powerful as it can be.

Yeah, but no. A couple of days after I put up that post I bought a writing book and I’ve been glued to it ever since. I have not been this excited about a craft book, ever.

Continue reading