Your Story: How to End

Darker PagesA few weeks back, I wrote an article about where to begin your short story or novel. The article asked you to visualize your story as a party. My point was that you can create the most amazing shindig ever—full of awesome character arcs, strong tension, and engaging dialogue—but if you don’t invite anyone, no one’s ever going to read it.

But just as you must invite the reader, so too should you be a gracious fiction host and thank the reader for their time.

The Thank-You

So, let’s assume your invitation works, and the reader comes to your fiction fiesta. You’ve given them a hell of a good story, and they’re on their way out the door. As their host, it is now your job to send them a thank-you note—a way of extending your gratitude for reading.

This is the job of your story’s ending: to thank the reader. It’s the pay-off. Now please don’t confuse this with a happy ending. I’m not saying that your readers should walk away with a big dumb smile on their face. Not at all. But a solid story ending will satisfy the reader in other more substantial ways if it has, in most cases, three elements:

1) Transformation. Your protagonist has faced whatever conflict you introduced in your opening paragraphs and in the course of that struggle she has been forever altered. Since that conflict was rooted in some character flaw, ideally she also overcomes or resolves that flaw. Maybe she swears learns that she doesn’t really need peanut butter cups to be happy.

2) Victory and defeat. Let your ending be a mixed mag. Life offers us very few solid wins. Likewise, neither should our fiction. Most readers understand this on a primal level. So, if your hero triumphs, make sure she also loses something vital. Or if she loses, make sure she walks away all the better for it. Maybe she gets all the chocolate in the world, but learns that she has an allergy to peanut butter.

3) The final lines are rooted in sensory details. Don’t leave the reader swimming in the depths of your protagonist’s head. Give them a solid image—a concrete thing—to visualize at story’s end. Maybe it’s the smooth center and crinkled edges of an uneaten peanut butter cup.

Do these three things, and your readers are almost guaranteed to come clamoring back for more. So, be a gracious host. Invite your readers to the story with a strong beginning and thank them afterward with a satisfying ending. And if all else fails, bribe them with peanut butter cups.

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Your Story: Where to Begin

Your Story: Where to BeginSo, you’ve written a short story, rewritten the story, edited the story, re-edited the story, and eliminated all those tiresome but’s, then’s, and so’s that clutter up tight writing. You’re ready to submit your story to some solid markets, right? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Before you hurl that sparkling gem into the Interwebs or the old-school postal streams, ask yourself one important question: Does my story have a beginning that invites the reader, and does it have an ending that thanks them for their time?

Okay. Maybe that’s two questions.

Regardless, here’s my point: think of your story as a party. You can create the most amazing shindig ever—full of deep character arcs, riveting tension, shocking twists, and snappy dialogue—but if you don’t invite anyone, no one’s ever going to read it.

The Invitation

The opening couple paragraphs of your story serve as an invitation to the reader. Make those precious few words count. Entice the reader. Lure them in. Get them excited. Start with a bang, not a whimper. As soon as possible, you want to introduce three things:

1) Conflict. Backstory or deep scenic description isn’t going to attract the reader, but teasing them with danger or slapping them in the face with tension will. Drop the reader immediately into a scene with external conflict. It doesn’t have to be a life-and-death machete attack, but it should be tense. Maybe she’s running from the police.

2) Protagonist. Give the reader someone to care about. Maybe she’s a thief with a good heart.

3) Problem. Introduce some internal flaw in the character—greed, impatience, loneliness, or an enduring addiction to chocolate peanut butter cups—directly tied to the conflict in the opening scene. Maybe she’s running from the police because she stole some peanut butter cups.

That’s how you invite people to the party. So, take a look at your story. Where does the conflict really start? Is it in paragraph six or seven? That’s probably too late. Cut right to the chase. That other stuff can come later.

In a future post, we’ll talk about how to end the party–by crafting a finale that thanks the reader for stopping by.


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Putting Life into Setting: Comparing the Wolfman from Screen to Page

Last week, I read Jonathan Maberry’s movie novelization of 2010’s Wolfman remake, based on the screenplay by Andrew Kevin Walker and David Self, which was based loosely on the original Wolfman motion picture written by Curt Siodmak and starring Lon Chaney, Jr.

Full confession: I freaking love Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman. The film holds up as one of the best Universal Monster pictures, and Chaney’s performance is spot-on. It’s moody, fun, and sad. When I saw the remake in the theatres back in 2010, I was underwhelmed by the flat story and overuse of CGI. So, when I recently learned that Maberry had written the movie novelization, I was pretty excited. After all, as much as I love werewolves, solid lycanthropy tales are hard to come by!

Maberry didn’t let me down. Contained in those pages was the story that the movie should have been. As viewers, we missed out on a great tale. Fortunately, as readers, we can still be immersed via Maberry’s writing in a brilliant tragedy with great characters, intense action, and enduring themes.

The funny thing is, the core plot points don’t vary widely between the book and movie. Still, there are many reasons why the book tells a more satisfying tale—better pacing and more believable characters, among them. But the one I want to focus on today is setting.

Wolfman 2010 Poster

In the novel, Maberry paints a wonderfully vivid picture of the Talbot Estate and its surrounding wilderness. We are immersed in a world rich with history, myth, and lore. As Larry returns to his childhood home, we can imagine the adventures and tragedies that he faced there. When he hunts the werewolf (or later, as the werewolf) in the countryside, we prowl with him in an ancient land, where the moon is a powerful force and extinct civilizations long ago erected a kind of mini-Stonehenge to track the comings and goings of the Goddess of the Hunt.

In the movie, though, the Talbot home has as much depth as a wooden theatre set. Likewise, the woods are just props—the standard moody fog, creepy trees, and glowing fake moon. There’s no life in these settings. They might as well be made out of cardboard. And the mini-Stonehenge just comes off as a conveniently creepy setting with no real context.

And here, I think, is one of the strengths of the written word. There’s that old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, that may be, but a few hundred words can paint more than a picture; they can tell a whole story within that picture.

As writers, we have the opportunity to make the settings of our stories as vividly alive as our characters. Just like a good protagonist, a home can be welcoming and reassuring. Or like a wicked villain, a wilderness can taunt and haunt our characters. How do we do this? Of course, rich description is important, but in addition a place has to have stories. Be it the stream where young Larry played with his brother or the mini-Stonehenge where ancient peoples paid homage to the moon, a place needs history. It needs backstory.

That doesn’t mean you have to necessarily tell all of those tales, but with deft description you can hint at them. You can make reference to a place’s history and let the reader fill in the gaps. Just give the reader a hint of depth, and their imagination will do the rest of the work for you.

And this isn’t just a tip for genre fiction. Another great example of a brilliant setting coming alive in a book and falling flat in a movie is the city of Savannah in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In John Berendt’s novel, Savannah is a quirky yet gritty town with all manner of history and culture. The city is as much a character as anyone in this wonderful novel. But somehow, the book didn’t quite translate to the screen, and I think a lot of the reason has to do with the screenplay not effectively portraying the city as a character. The viewer could see the city on the screen, but couldn’t feel it… couldn’t know it.

So as you craft your stories, give your characters real settings—places with depth and history—in which they can flourish. The characters and the setting will take new life, feeding on each other like a ravenous Wolfman.

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Ending Chapters with Anything Other than an Ending

Darker PagesAs a writer, the last thing you want to do is give your readers an excuse to put your book down. Be relentless. Think of your chapter breaks as commercial breaks. You don’t want the reader to walk away. You want them to dive right into the next chapter.

So, how do you accomplish this?

For one, end a chapter mid-scene. Don’t wrap everything up with a nice neat bow. If a scene consists of Randy entering a kitchen, getting attacked by a werewolf, and killing said werewolf with a silver spatula, then your chapter break shouldn’t be after the werewolf dies. No, it should be when the werewolf first lunges. And then the next chapter break should be when he realizes the dead werewolf is his brother Ronnie.

Poor Randy.

Chapter breaks don’t always have to be so dramatic, of course. Another effective device is to end the chapter by recalling an image or metaphor that’s been used throughout the scene.

So, maybe in the wake of Ronnie’s death-by-spatula, Randy makes himself a cocktail. Maybe that drink becomes a metaphor for his relationship with his dead brother. It’s sweet but it’s also mighty strong. It’s cold but it burns going down. Maybe the chapter ends with him downing that drink and tossing it against the wall. Glass shatters. Ice falls to the floor.

The chapter closes with Randy picking up the pieces. The scene might be over, but its emotional momentum carries the story forward. The reader turns the page, because they want to see what Randy will do next.

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