Vision: A Resource for Writers

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Book Review:

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 each area.

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 Nancy Kress

Published by Writers Digest Books (1999)

ISBN: 0-89879-905-8