Nancy: Echoes and reversals, beginnings and endings

Last week, a friend of mine, who happens to be a writer (quelle surprise!) posted in her Facebook group about being obsessed with beginnings and endings as she starts a new writing project. I’m in the same headspace right now for a couple of reasons. The first is that I’m about to embark on my own new writing project. The second is that my husband and I finally got to watch a proper ending for an HBO series we loved that died an unexpected death thirteen years ago.

We were Johnny-come-latelies to the prestige TV phenomenon of the series Deadwood. But after years of having the story recommended to us by trusted friends, we eventually watched the first episode. And we were hooked.

The very first scene* had a twist I saw coming but couldn’t quite believe would really happen. The first season introduced a community of characters who were sometimes repulsive but always magnetic, storylines that focused on character minutia but were simultaneously sweeping, dialogue that was vulgar while also Shakespearean. And as we watched the last episode of the third and final season, we realized with dismay what the show’s early fans had experienced in 2006–this amazing story, unexpectedly canceled after the third season had wrapped, never got a proper ending. Continue reading

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

Nancy: Shades of Gray

Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?

Marco and John: Where did they go so wrong?

Longtime readers of the blog know I like to binge-watch TV series (I’ve posted in the past about Justified and The Killing). My most recent obsession binge-watch has been the Netflix series Bloodline. Netflix has released two seasons of the show thus far and has ordered one more. The creators have said they have enough material for five to six seasons in total, so there could be even more coming.

Because I like to binge-watch series the way I like to read books – all the way to the end one time through, then returning to favorite episodes to analyze particular story arcs and writing techniques – it’s unusual for me to get sucked into a series so long before the ‘final chapters’ are available. But I’d heard good things about this show from different reliable sources, so I made an exception. The downside to this decision is that season two ended on not one but two cliffhangers, and I want to know All The Things right now! The upside is that there is enough crunchy writing stuff to review and digest that I can (almost) wait for the next season to be released sometime in 2017.

One of the crunchy writing aspects that has occupied a lot of my brain space for the past few weeks is the way the series has had two of the ‘good guys’ each do egregious things, pitted them against each other, and made us root for the one who did a Very Bad Thing over his now-antagonist who only did a Bad Thing. ***SPOILER ALERT***. To discuss what the writers did with this storyline and how they did it, I’m going to reveal some pivotal plot points. If you have any plans to watch the series AND you need to have your story come to you fresh and pure as the driven snow, you’ll want to take your leave now and go watch some adorable kitten GIFs. If you’ve already seen the series OR you’re willing to sacrifice some surprises in the interest of squeeing over good writing, join me for the rest of the discussion.  Continue reading

Nancy: Justified Part 4: The Lessons

Justified_2010_IntertitleOver the past month, I’ve blogged about one of my now-favorite TV series, the FX channel’s Justified. My husband and I started watching the series as part of our binge-watching approach to television because it had been recommended to us by a few different people whose TV and movie viewing tastes are similar to ours. I started rewatching episodes to deconstruct and analyze the writing because, from the very beginning, the approach to story writing resonated with me. Then I started discussing the writing elements with my husband who, though not a writer, is a good sport and enjoys talking story with me…to a point. Once I’d passed that point (identified by the way his eyes glazed over), I knew it was time to bring the discussion here and share it with other writers.

But I also knew my writer brain wasn’t just connecting with the story for the pure enjoyment of it. It was figuring out how I could use the story lessons in my own work. This week, I read over those last three posts, each of which focused on a writing lesson the series had reinforced for me, and considered how I’m using those lessons to improve my own WIP.

Lesson One: Open Strong

This is not new or earth-shattering advice. It’s not something that I or most writers I know willfully eschew. But it is something that’s so easy to inadvertently fall short of achieving. Continue reading

Nancy: Justified Part 3: My Enemy, Myself

Justified_2010_IntertitleFor the past two weeks, we’ve discussed elements of the TV series Justified, based on the Elmore Leonard short story Fire in the Hole. First, we looked at the inciting incident and how it introduced us to the story world and our protagonist. Last week, we looked at the ways the writers created hero empathy. This week, we’re looking at my absolute favorite element of the show: the relationship between the protagonist (Raylan Givens) and his nemesis (Boyd Crowder).

First, it’s important to establish the difference between an antagonist and a nemesis. An antagonist is an opponent. Throughout the series, Givens has a number of these, with one main antagonist per season. But a nemesis is an archenemy, a source of conflict throughout the entire story arc, in this case, the six seasons of Justified. And for our purposes, it’s also important to note that the nemesis character, as Michael Hague would describe it, embodies the hero’s inner journey. Continue reading

Nancy: Justified Part 2: Holding Out for a Hero

Justified_2010_IntertitleLast week, I told you about Justified, the TV series I’ve been binge-watching and loving, focusing on the way the writers used the opening scene to establish character and propel the plot forward with the first few minutes of screen time. This week, I’m focusing on another important aspect of the first chapter, or in the case of a TV show, the first episode: making the audience like and root for the hero from the beginning of the story.

That’s not to say you can’t write protagonists who are anti-heroes like the serial killer/ title character in Dexter, or unreliable narrators like pretty much every POV character in Lost. But if you’re going to ask an audience to follow a TV show for a season (or longer) or readers to stay with a book until the words The End, you’re going to have to get them invested in your lead character(s). One of the best ways to do that is to make them like, care about, root for, and even love the main character like an old friend. But sometimes, as writers who live with and fall in love with our characters long before committing their stories to the page, we forget to share that love with our readers. If you find yourself in this position, as I did recently (more about that in a few weeks), you might want to take some advice from Michael Hague, story consultant and creator of the Story Mastery workshops. Continue reading

Nancy: Justified (and Why That Prologue You Love Probably Isn’t)

Justified_2010_IntertitleI’ve spent the past month not getting very far on my own story, so instead of spending a post talking about my progress (dismal), I thought I’d talk about someone else’s story. Justified is a TV series based on an Elmore Leonard short story called Fire in the Hole. And when I’ve come home late at night, too tired to work on my own WIP or even to make much of a dent in my overflowing TBR pile, I’ve been able to satisfy my craving for good story by binge-watching this series (available through Amazon Prime, in case you’re interested in checking it out for yourself). I’ve been enjoying the writing on this series so much, I thought I’d spend some time here talking about the craft behind it.

First, the disclaimers. I haven’t read Leonard’s short story, and I don’t plan to do so until I’ve finished watching all six seasons of the series (I’ve watched the first three so far). Leonard was involved with the series, which I love because it means they’ve kept a lot of his original vision in the story, and the head writer/show runner Graham Yost has made a concerted effort to keep close to that writer’s voice. But I’ve heard there are differences, Continue reading