The indomitable K.M. Weiland is at it again with a new writing craft book titled Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story. We have on occasion posted on each other’s blogs and we like to retweet each other. Today I’m providing a new guest post from her that provides a bit of free wisdom from her latest book. I was given a preview draft of the book and was struck by what an easy read it is. K.M. brings to the book the skill she brings to her blog. It is well-organized, full of lists and to-do’s, the type of book you can pick up and put down as you please and still draw value from it. Without further ado, here’s K.M.
Perhaps the one thing that most distinguishes a book from real life is the fact that a book has a beginning and an ending. In real life, stories don’t end. Even death doesn’t end some stories. And birth isn’t so much a beginning as a continuation of the greater story of human life itself.
When we write a book, we must choose where to begin and end a story that presumably is continuing and will continue for years. For the most part, this decision will be guided by the story’s primary conflict. When that conflict heats up, we know the story will now have enough oomph to begin. When that conflict is resolved, the story will have lost steam and must end.
Most of us understand this. But what we sometimes miss is that beginnings and endings are not separate entities unto themselves. Rather, they are integrally related halves of a whole. If they don’t fit together perfectly, the entire book can’t help but suffer.
How to Choose Your Beginning
Your beginning is your hook. This is where you introduce your protagonist, the world in which he lives—and, perhaps most importantly, the stakes that will drive the central conflict. A good beginning needs to include each of the following elements (which I discuss in more depth in my book Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys to Writing an Outstanding Story):
- The hook (i.e., something that piques your readers’ curiosity).
- Your protagonist’s normal world (by way of contrast with what will happen to disrupt that world later on).
- An introduction to the main conflict (or a foreshadowing of that conflict, if it’s yet to really heat up).
- Your protagonist’s greatest need—and the lie he believes (which is holding him back from gaining his need).
- Your protagonist’s greatest want (which is probably different from his need, and which may even be at odds with that need).
- Your book’s dramatic question (a summation of the plot’s main thrust: e.g., “Will the undercover cop survive infiltrating and taking down the Mob?” as in Takedown by Rick Cowan and Douglas Century).
Take a look at a handful of the scenes you feel might be a good place to open your book. Which scene offers the best opportunities for including all of the above? Find that scene and you’ve found your beginning.
How to Choose Your Ending
Finding the proper place to end your book is often much easier than figuring out where to begin it. When a book is over, we just sense it. The conflict has been resolved, the protagonist has what he needs, and, frankly, our interest begins to peter out. But always double check your instincts by matching them against the following list of necessities for a good ending:
- Climactic moment (i.e., resolution of main conflict).
- Denouement (in which your protagonist reacts to the events of the climax).
- Tying off of loose ends and subplots (particularly those that involved characters not present in the climax).
- Establishment of new normal world (or comparison of new normal with old, or a final glimpse of old normal as the protagonist turns away from it).
- Proof of protagonist’s transformed life now that he’s found the thing he needs most.
- Demonstration of happiness now that protagonist has gained what he wanted (or demonstration of how his priorities have changed, if he did not gain what he wanted).
- Answer to the dramatic question.
You never want your book to run on too long after the main conflict has ended. Figure out what post-climax scene or scenes will allow you to check all these necessities off your list—and then go for it!
How to Tie Your Beginning and Ending Together
In tying your beginning and ending together, you’re going to want to pay particular attention to your book’s dramatic question. This question will provide parameters to help you keep the entire book on focus. But, even more importantly, it will also be the opening parenthesis that will join with the ending’s closing parenthesis to bracket your book. The beginning asks a question; the ending answers it. Simple as that.
Allow your beginning to introduce the elements that will be present in your ending. And allow your ending to answer the beginning’s plot and theme questions and reinforce its imagery. When we bring our stories full circle by creating beginnings and endings that work together as two parts of a whole, we will have created a stronger and more resonant book.
K.M. Weiland is the author of the epic fantasy Dreamlander, the historical western A Man Called Outlaw and the medieval epic Behold the Dawn. She enjoys mentoring other authors through her website Helping Writers Become Authors, her books Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel, and her instructional CD Conquering Writer’s Block and Summoning Inspiration. She makes her home in western Nebraska.