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Finding Your Beginning in “The End”: The Importance of Finishing Your First Draft

Friday, October 31, 2014

If you know the ending of a story,
you’ll know the beginning,
but if you know the beginning,
you won’t necessarily know the ending.

–Steven James, Story Trumps Structure
(p. 34)

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You know my mantra: Above all else, FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT

More than going to conferences, more than reading how-to books to help you learn about the craft of writing, more than anything else you can do, finishing your first draft teaches you how to write. It also lets you know what you need to go back and change in the beginning of your manuscript.

In other words, writing “The End” teaches you what needs to go in The Beginning.

We’ve spent a lot of time looking at what to do/not do when writing openings. But none of that will matter if you never get a complete draft written. Instead of going on and on about the importance of finishing your first draft, I’ll refer you to another post dedicated solely to that subject:

Writing Tip #1: FINISH YOUR FIRST DRAFT


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Finding the Beginning in “The End”

As I’ve mentioned throughout this series, your opening scene needs to tie in with your last scene—in tone and in theme. If your ending is going to be serious in tone, your opening needs to be serious. If humorous, then humorous. And so on.

Your opening scene also needs to set up your last scene. Sol Stein tells us to “excite the reader’s curiosity” (Stein on Writing). Les Edgerton calls it creating a “Story-Worthy Problem” (Hooked). What they’re saying is that your opening scene needs to make a promise that you keep in your last scene.

Nancy Kress in Beginnings, Middles & Ends puts it this way:

      Every story makes a promise to the reader. Actually, two promises, one emotional and one intellectual. . . .

      The emotional promise goes: Read this and you’ll be entertained or thrilled or scared or titillated or saddened or nostalgic or uplifted—but always absorbed.

      There are three versions of the intellectual promise . . . (1) Read this and you’ll see this world from a different perspective; (2) Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about the world; or (3) Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this.

      By the time she’s read your opening, your reader knows what you’ve implicitly promised. A satisfying middle is one that develops that promise with specificity and interest. A satisfying ending is one that delivers on the promise, providing new insight or comfortable confirmation or vicarious happiness. Even when it’s surprising in some way, the ending feels inevitable, because it fulfills the promise of the story. And—this is important—the ending feels satisfying only because the beginning set up the implicit promise in the first place.

      (Kress, pp. 7–8)

Again—your first and last scenes must be consistent with characters, conflicts, themes, tone, problems, and tensions. There’s nothing that will frustrate a reader more than to get wrapped up in a story, desperately turning pages to see how your established characters will solve the problems you’ve thrown at them—only for you to bring in the cavalry out of the blue to rescue them and solve all of their problems. If the cavalry is going to swoop in for the rescue at the end of your novel, the cavalry needs to be established in the beginning of your novel.

When drafting your opening scenes, remember that the rest of your story has to live up to whatever you include in your opening. If you open with a car chase/crash scene, the action in your story needs to escalate from there. If you open with a car chase/crash scene just to set up the meeting between your hero/heroine (she’s the firefighter or doctor who saves him), but there aren’t any additional action scenes in the story, you’ve made a false promise by generating false conflict/tension. If your opening hints at conflict to come and then you shy (or veer) away from that conflict, you’ve lost your readers’ trust and they will shy (or veer) away from picking up books you’ve written ever again in the future.

Your ending scene should be a direct result
of the consequences of your opening scene.

At its beginning, a story makes the kind of implicit promise we’ve discussed throughout this book. In the middle, the development of both characters and conflict extends that promise by arranging forces in opposition to each other. We see, through skillfully chosen patterns of events, various problems and tensions come closer and closer to collision . Then comes the ending. It must use those same characters, conflicts, problems and tensions to show us the collision (the climax).

If the ending tries to use different characters (such as the cavalry riding over the hill at the last minute), the story will fail. If the ending tries to switch to some other last -minute conflict, the story will fail. If the ending tries to evade the promised collision (by, for instance, a peaceful compromise in which no one loses anything), the story will fail. You cannot, in other words, promise apples and deliver oranges. The middle of your story—how you’ve developed the implicit promise—determines your ending. This isn’t to say that there is only one possible ending for any story. There may be more than one. But the ending chosen must complete what has been promised, not violate it.

(Kress, p. 105)

__________________________________________
Works Cited:

Edgerton, Les. Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. Print.

James, Steven. Story Trumps Structure: How to Write Unforgettable Fiction by Breaking the Rules. Blue Ash, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2014. Kindle Edition.

Kress, Nancy. Beginnings, Middles & Ends (Elements of Fiction Writing). Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1993. Print.

Stein, Sol. Stein On Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of Our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Print.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Friday, October 31, 2014 10:40 am

    Thanks for the tip!!

    Like

  2. Friday, October 31, 2014 11:31 pm

    Reblogged this on Miquel Shaw and commented:
    On the eve of NaNo this is good insight as I struggle to write the words.

    Like

Trackbacks

  1. Quelling my desire to outline | datanode.net
  2. Writer-Talk Wednesday: Beginnings, Middles, and Endings | #amwriting #2017WritingGoals | KayeDacus.com

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