Beginnings, Middles &
Ends by Nancy Kress
By Valerie Comer
Copyright © 2008 by Valerie Comer, All Rights Reserved
Nancy Kress writes the most
approachable and intuitive books on writing of any author I know, and
this is my favorite. Why? Because she carefully lays out what elements
need to go into each section of a story in order for it to fulfill its
potential. At the same time, she realizes that information, by itself,
isnít enough to propel a writers forward, and so she provides assorted
exercises to help the writers to achieve their vision.
Iíve held both a discussion
group and a workshop at Forward Motion based on this particular writing
book. Let me show you what nuggets Iíve found within its pages.
Kress maintains that most
novice writers have a weakness in one of the three sections of a novel.
It takes a beginning, a middle, and an end to create a story, but many
of us donít excel naturally at all three. Therefore, she breaks down her
advice in order to pinpoint the major problems writers often have in
In the first section, Kress
explains that in reality, we have approximately three paragraphs to
catch the eye of an agent or editor. It doesnít seem like much. And even
if those persuade him or her to read a little further--the fourth, fifth
or even the sixth paragraph--a Ďyesí decision isnít automatic. How can
we catch their attention?
Kress looks at the
components of a strong early beginning: the implicit promise (What does
the story seem to be about?), the characters, the conflict, the specific
word choices, as well as basic punctuation and sentence structure. Thus,
the goal of these first few paragraphs is to pull the reader along,
encouraging them to turn that initial page and settle a little deeper
into their chair.
In what remains of the
opening scene, we are encouraged to make sure the situation changes in a
noticeable way: new information is revealed, a task is discovered, a
character arrives somewhere or meets someone new, or an event takes
place. Remember to close the scene with a sentence of power. Once again,
the goal is to have the reader turn the page.
She goes on to focus on the
second scene, offering three possible scene types: backfill, flashback,
or continuation of story time. Backfill explains what led to the
situation in the first scene and tends to slow the story down, so be
careful in its use. Flashback shows something in history that leads to
this moment, and also tends to slow the story. Either should be used
sparingly, and only when you gain more in depth and clarity than you
lose in immediacy.
The characters and conflict
need to be solidified and deepened in this second scene; Kress gives
advice and exercises to help develop these areas, as well as signposts
that will help you know if you have created a strong beginning. She also
provides help in choosing to start the story again, in a new way.
In the section on middles,
Kress gives advice on staying on track, choosing the order of scenes,
and even picking and choosing which scenes provide the required material
for momentum. She asks three questions: Whose story is this? Who is the
point-of-view character? What is the throughline?
She explains how to motivate
the characters through the storyís middle--both the good guys and the
villains--and how to evaluate and allow for conflicting motivations as
well as those that may not make sense to the reader at first glance.
The most important function
of a middle is to set up the climax, creating a plausible and satisfying
ending to the story. Kress provides a chapter on helping the writer to
become unstuck should the ideas for the middle prove to be inadequate to
carry the story.
The writerís job in the
ending is to deliver on the promise set out in the opening paragraphs as
to what type of a story this is going to be. If done well, the middle of
the story builds expectations about the type and scope of the conflict
to come. What is the inevitable (yet not too obvious) ending that youíve
been writing towards? Kress points out that this is the key to nailing
the perfect ending.
She provides as much
attention to the closing scene, closing paragraph, and closing sentence
as she does to the beginning, which are more vital in a short story than
in a novel. Either way, the ending needs to resonate with the reader and
the expectations that have been set up. She gives exercises and advice
for finding that sweet spot.
To close the book, Kress
offers insights for the path of revision. And when I come to this spot
in her excellent writing help book, I feel that I have a better grasp of
the steps I need to go through in order to analyze, complete, and fix my
own stories. I believe her advice will resonate with you, as well, if
you are seeking for writing wisdom.
Beginnings, Middles & Ends (Elements of Writing Fiction)
by Writers Digest Books (1999)