Saturday, February 26, 2011

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

(Hey, it looks like they're issuing a new edition of Nancy Kress's book, available on my birthday, March 21. Universe, are you trying to tell me something?)

Okay, so we've come to "The End." The culmination of the promise of your beginning and the gathering complexity of your middle. Nancy Kress: "We can just feel these forces gathering... Something has to give. Then a peaceful compromise is found and the story is over. Huh? Well, why? Aren't compromises sometimes found in real life?... Why can't a story end that way? Because your story showed us forces in opposition to each other. Forces we expected to see collide in some way: quietly in a quiet story, noisily in a more dramatic one. But a collision of some sort we surely must have. You promised."

This collision is the story's climax. Kress says the climax must achieve four things:
  1. The climax must satisfy the view of life implied in your story
  2. The climax must deliver emotion
  3. The climax must deliver an appropriate level of emotion (for e.g. a quiet domestic drama that ends with the character blowing out his brains won't work because it will feel contrived.)
  4. The climax must be logical to your plot and your story (and end not with the arrival of some new, outside force "deus ex machina"; nor with a coincidence.)
Here's her litmus test for the right ending: "Ask yourself this question: If my protagonist were a radically different person, would this story still end the same way? The answer should be NO." As she goes on to say, in a plausible climax, the "choice fits with the protagonist's character, not the author's plot needs."

After the climax comes the denouement, which Mark Twain referred to as "the marryin' and the buryin'." A successful denouement has three characteristics: closure, brevity, and dramatization.
Closure: give your readers enough information about the fate of the characters for them to feel the book really is over.
Brevity: "End while your reader is still affected by your big scene. Anything else will feel anti-climactic."
Dramatization "ensures that your denouement feels like part of the story, not a chunk of exposition tacked on..."

The rest of this part of the book deals with the "special case of the series book" ("Things can't be too thoroughly wrapped up... the hero dead, the town destroyed...") Kress also spends some time talking about two ways to end short stories, ("Resolution versus Resonance"); and also gives tips on "The Six Steps of Revision." Here's how this gem of a book ends:
"Writing is making sense of life," says Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer. Which is why each new story, no matter how many you've written before, is a new, unlimited promise--to yourself.


  1. 'Writing is making sense of life' - how true and this is why so many people find peace or answers by writing down the things that trouble or excite them.

  2. Ha! I just got the old version on Amazon. I hope there isn't too much added to the new one.
    Making sense...isn't that the universal truth that a story must have?
    What's the next book?


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