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Jun 16, 2011

Should You Start At the End to Reach the Middle?

Beginnings are difficult. Endings are difficult. But connecting them is the most difficult of all.

As usual, a few plot holes have opened up during revisions, a few broken bridges between the Beginning and the Ending. To fix them, to tie up the loose strings, I am writing from the outside in...from the beginning toward the middle, but also from the ending toward the middle, until the two meet.

To to this, I take each character's story arc and ask myself, Where does this person need to end up? Then I ask, where does this person need to begin? Then...in theory...it's just a matter of figuring out the steps in between. Generally I try to have each major character show up once a chapter, and supporting characters at least three times in the book. I have a lot of characters, so this in itself can be tricky. My main characters have one to three scenes per chapter.

Designing each individual story arc is not too hard, in and of itself; the tricky part comes when I juggle them. I have to make certain the logistics are feasible. Scene X logically must come before Scene Y. But I also try to coordinate the themes of each scene, which should contribute to the mini-story arc and theme of each chapter. (Each chapter has its own chapter theme, which contributes to the larger theme of the book.)

For instance, the chapter theme in the first book of The Unfinished Song: Sacrifice, is "Recrudescence," or the resurgence of a disease which had been dormant or cured. For a few characters, their recrudescence is literal, and they suffer a relapse of the disfiguring skin disorder they had when they were Shunned. For most of the others, however, the recrudesce plays out more symbolically. Kavio discovers an old enemy is back, in an unexpected position of strength. Brena meets the bear again and realizes her injury is getting worse. Gremo... well, I could go on, but I won't spoil anything by saying that Dindi also finds something won't stay down, so to speak.

Each scene focuses on a different character dealing with a relapse or reoccurrence of a problem or person who was supposed to be gone. The chapter as a whole contributes to the book's overall theme of sacrifice because the each person will realize in their own way that to truly conquer their problems, they have to do more. They have to give up more than they thought to gain what they want... possibly much more than they are willing to give.

5 comments:

Ted Cross said...

So far I have never known the ending of my book, either before starting it or during most of the writing. The endings always come to me as I get past the middle and start worrying about what will happen if I don't have a good ending!

Tara Maya said...

I have a dozen or more novels that go no further than chapter three. I wrote the beginning, inspired, but with no idea of the ending, I was unable to continue. For me, I have to have two things, (1) and ending, which really means an idea of the overall story arc, and (2) a theme, or the reason it's important to write the story. Otherwise, I lose my will to keep writing. I can't really flit from scene to scene. I envy you for your ability to let the story grow organically into its own conclusion.

scott g.f.bailey said...

"I have to have two things, (1) and ending, which really means an idea of the overall story arc, and (2) a theme, or the reason it's important to write the story."

I'm the same way, though I don't necessarily think about theme out loud. For me it's more the knowledge that I have a lot of ideas associated with the imagined story that I'm excited to bring into the narrative. The form the theme almost by themselves and then I strengthen them during revisions. Mostly I have to have the ending and a strong urge to write my way to it from the beginning.

Now a tangent: I also need to know that I have the skills to tackle whatever formal game I'm using when crafting that particular narrative. The book I'm writing now is in many ways a laboratory in which I work out the techniques I need for the book I'd actually wanted to write just now but couldn't figure out how. Beyond that book, there's a novel I've wanted to write for a few years but I still lack some of the craft I'll need. But I get closer with every book I write in the meanwhile.

I'm in the middle of my WIP right now. I have a lot of things in the air and I'm still a bit too vague on how to get them all lined up for the final push toward the ending I have planned. So in the meanwhile, my protagonist will talk about Immanuel Kant's ideas of synthetic a priori judgments. Honestly, it's important to the plot, themes and character of the protagonist. It's a philosophical detective story after all.

Domey Malasarn said...

I wonder if the resulting finished products are different as a result of whether or not the writer has the ending in mind when she or he starts writing. For a long time I assumed there would be a difference. Then, after comparing some work between Scott and me, I thought maybe there wasn't. But Scott (that very same Scott!) mentioned recently that my work often has an unexpected ending, like the story seems to be about one thing but ends up being about another. I wonder if that's because I try hard not to know my ending as I make my way through a story. This is all for the first draft, mind you.

In revisions, I'm often doing what you describe in the beginning of this post, Tara Maya. After seeing the ending, I go back and try to make sure the steps to get to the ending are all there.

As for theme, that's only something I've started to be very aware of with my last few projects. I've decided this is really important to have, whether you are aware of the theme or not. I think it holds the book together.

Tara Maya said...

@ Scott. You're right; knowing I have the level of craft to tackle the story is important to. In fact, I originally started The Unfinished Song series just to "practice" writing, because I wasn't ready for certain other projects I wanted to try yet. It grew as my writing ability improved.

I haven't written my Secret Novel yet for the same reason; I am still trying to hone my craft. I think I'm getting better. I like the idea of short stories or vignettes as study pieces.

My favorite math class ever involved reading a lot of Kant. (It was a math class aimed at humanities majors.) There was a great deal of discussion about a priori judgments and non-Euclidean geometry.

@ Domey. It's an interesting question...I suppose it would be like trying to tell if a story were written from an outline or from the seat of the pants. For myself, I can't tell. Some stories that I would swear seem so pure and simple they must have flowed straight from Mount Olympus it turns out the writer spent 10 years outlining on post-it notes. Other books, which seem complicated and involuted, it turns out were written during a two-week drunken binge.

I've been told my endings are surprising, and so are the twists and turns in the middle. In my case, I think outlining helps me avoid the more obvious cliches of my genre. Like Scott said somewhere, I find that if I write the first idea that comes to mind, it's almost always trite.

I think I only realized how important theme was to propelling my writing until I tried to write some stuff without it. Straight genre adventure, no big questions in the background. I just wasn't into it.