Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Craft Book of the Month: February 2011 "Beginnings, Middles & Ends"

I have long admired Nancy Kress, whom I first read in the pages of Writer's Digest magazine. She writes lucidly and succinctly both in her columns and in our February book choice, Beginnings, Middles & Ends--part of the Elements of Fiction Writing series published by Writer's Digest books.

This book is very topical, given the fact that Nathan Bransford is just finishing up his Stupendously Ultimate First Paragraph Challenge on his blog (only a few hours left before the polls close, folks. And this time there won't be any of those hanging chads...) Over 1500 writers participated in this, and it is interesting to see the six Nathan chose as his finalists.

Nancy Kress delivers on her title, showing how to launch a successful beginning, craft a powerful  middle, and deliver a satisfying ending. This week, I want to focus on what she says in her first chapter: "The Very Beginning."

We all know that we have only a short window to interest a reader. Kress claims it's three paragraphs for a short story and three pages in a novel. Having read through half of the Bransford contestants, I know that my tolerance was even less. I knew who I was going to "hang with" after merely a sentence or two. Usually, this was a matter of "voice" married to subject matter (there was an awful lot of blood and gore happening in many of those first paragraphs.)

According to Kress, the most crucial concept of any beginning is "the implicit promise."
Every story makes a promise to the reader. Actually two promises, one emotional and one intellectual, since the function of stories is to make us both feel and think. The emotional promise goes: Read this and you'll be entertained, or thrilled, or scared, or titillated, or saddened, or nostalgic, or uplifted--but always absorbed.
There are three versions of the intellectual promise. The story can promise (1) Read this and you'll see this world from a different perspective; (2) Read this and you'll have confirmed what you already want to believe about this world; or (3) Read this and you'll learn of a different, more interesting world than this.
There are four elements Kress focuses on to make a first scene compelling: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility. Here is her introductory sentence for each:
Character: "Your opening should give the reader a person to focus on." (She does mention stories when this doesn't happen--e.g. the dust bowl in Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath--but old Steinbeck was a Nobel laureate. Most of us should stick to people first.)
Conflict: "The point to remember about conflict is that it arises because something is not going as expected. Your readers should suspect that as early as your first few paragraphs." (Not that every opening should start with bodies hurtling past a sixth-story window, Kress says; conflict can be subtle, too)
Specificity: "Effective beginnings make use of specific details." Her example is:
Not "Mary was an animal lover" but "Every night Mary fed her eighty-pound labrador retriever all the best parts of what should have been John's T-bone."
Credibility: "Even the most accurate and interesting details, however, will be undermined if your prose itself lacks credibility." She mentions correct use of diction, including not using cliches; economy ("credible prose doesn't sprawl;") sentence construction and sentence variety; and parts of speech ("credible prose is not overloaded with adjectives and adverbs.") Finally, there is tone: "Whatever the tone of your story--comic, serious, reportorial, ironic-the credible writer doesn't allow it to become self-indulgent. The focus should be on the story, not on the writer.

Phew! That's enough for this week. I will continue with chapter 1 next week, where Kress shows us an "opening that works," discusses the use of a prologue, and points to exercises we can use to fashion excellent first scenes. I hope you'll join me. Better yet, get yourself a copy of this book and read ahead! You won't be disappointed.


  1. Oh I am so glad I went back and found this mention of this book...which I shall get!
    I have gone and joined Bransford's blog...thanks
    wish I would have seen this earlier..I would have thrown in my two cents worth of opening hoo
    But Michael..tell me..haven't you read many a published book...where this didn't happen in the first three pages! or a short story that failed in the first three paragraphs?
    Very frustrating...but I guess it pays to listen to the experts anyway...they are mostly the gatekeepers aren't they?
    write on

  2. I like this craft book! has some ideas about how to craft the perfect paragraphs!


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