great novel is one that grabs your attention at the beginning and keeps a firm hold on you until the very last word. Although successful authors may vary on the techniques they use when writing, one thing is certain, they like to keep the reader fully engaged and wondering what will happen next.
Janet Evanovich in her book, How I Write, says, “The beginning is the most important part of the book. It must capture the reader immediately and force him to keep reading. So, as fast as you can, describe the situation, the characters, the setting, and the potential conflict.”
Many writers struggle not only with creating a good beginning, but also with building tension in the middle and knowing when to end the story. The result can be a boring book or can lead to a writer giving up and not writing at all. One way to prevent this from happening is to go to the source. Talk with successful authors and see how they do it.
Through interviews, published authors will share with you how they work through the challenges of writing a strong story, hopefully giving you new techniques and strategies to add to your writing toolbox.
“Regardless of the method, it is important to have some direction—right from the beginning.”
In The Beginning
Most authors have some kind of plan before diving into the writing. For some, that may mean a paragraph about key plotlines in the story; for others, that may be ten pages of a detailed outline. Best-selling children’s author, Debbie Dadey, believes one of the biggest mistakes new writers make is not planning ahead. “I know how my story is going to end before I write the first sentence. I outline. I do character sketches. I think it helps.”
Regardless of the method, it is important to have some direction—right from the beginning.
Cozy mystery author Cricket McRae believes starting in the middle of a scene is a way to instantly hook the reader. She will often write the beginning of the book, then cut the first five or ten pages in order to dive right into the action, sprinkling in any of the necessary details later. “As long as there is a hook and immediate questions that readers want to know the answers to, they’ll keep reading. For example, the first line of Lye in Wait is ‘That Thursday morning had been going so well until I found the neighborhood handyman dead on my workroom floor.’ (Chris Roerden quoted this as a hooky first line in her book, Don't Murder Your Mystery).”
YA author Laura Resau agrees. “I often open with a short section, paragraph, or prologue that suggests the voice, tone, or themes and then jump into a scene where there is either action or dialogue to pull readers into the moment.”
Once a writer gets the readers lured in with a great opening, you want to create the perfect backdrop. Readers want to put themselves in the world they are reading about, so creating a believable one is essential for a good story. But how much is necessary at the beginning?
Subtlety is the key says Dadey. “Kids know what a school looks like; so unless it’s unique, little description is needed. For historical periods, I like to tell the story and then go back in and see where I can put a few details to make the setting come alive.”
City of Ember author, Jeanne DuPrau, has a more sensory approach. “Be sure you can see the world you’re describing in your mind. See it, hear it, smell it, know it as thoroughly as you can. Make a map of it. Draw sketches.”
Writing a compelling opening to your story is great; you want to make sure to lead readers in enough, so they want to continue past chapter one.
Best-selling author Jodi Picoult says, “I think that the trick is not giving away everything YOU know as a writer, but pacing the information and leaving on a cliffhanger.”
YA author Amy Kathleen Ryan wants questions to pop up for her readers. “Someone is more likely to stay with your story if you have some kind of ‘smoking gun’ in your first chapter. It can be an irrational behavior on the part of your character, an odd conversation, or any kind of action whose outcome is potentially dire. You withhold the bit of information the reader is most likely to want and mete it out little by little.”
Resau agrees with getting readers to ask questions in her books, but she also asks herself questions as she reads over her drafts. “What is my reader feeling here? What is the question that my reader wants answered? What is motivating my readers to turn the page?”
“The middle should be like a locomotive gathering up speed as it travels through low valleys, over high peaks, and into dark tunnels while the characters stoke the fire.”
Holding up the Middle
The middle of a story should be more than a meandering pleasant path leading the reader from the beginning to the climax at the end. The middle should be like a locomotive gathering up speed as it travels through low valleys, over high peaks, and into dark tunnels while the characters stoke the fire.
Ryan likes characters to lead the way. “The best fiction, to my mind, is the kind where the characters cause their own misery, create their own messes, and then have to find a way out.”
Picoult says, “The characters need to be allowed to voice their opinions. Don’t force them into behaviors that seem unnatural; just hang onto the reins and go along for the ride.”
Along with a strong cast of characters, maintaining tension in the middle is essential for creating a page-turning story.
In order to keep the middle from sagging or slowing down, DuPrau says, “Make sure something interesting is happening all the time...a danger, a discovery, a surprise, a new character, a scene in a new place, an argument, an accident, a death, a chase, a secret. Something. Avoid long stretches where your characters are pondering and worrying.”
McRae believes smooth pacing keeps the middle strong. “That means leaving out a lot of boring stuff, including lots of dialogue, keeping descriptive detail short but telling, and using scene breaks to move the action along.”
Ryan always keeps tension at the forefront of her mind. “Your story is a pressure cooker, and your climax comes when the top finally blows off the pot. The more tension you can create in your readers, the more they're squirming in their seat because they can’t wait to find out what happens.”
“A good ending leaves readers satisfied and keeps the story lingering in their minds even after the last page is read.”
Nailing the Ending
A good ending leaves readers satisfied and keeps the story lingering in their minds even after the last page is read. So, how do successful authors ensure their story endings don’t fall flat?
Women’s fiction author Katie Cushman said she didn’t have an easy answer for this question. “My endings almost always change from the first draft to the final one. For me, the answer to this is to be willing to do the work needed to make the story better.”
DuPrau feels the same way. “I just have to keep writing and rewriting the ending until I finally get one that feels right. I want the ending to be an organic outgrowth of the story, something that totally fits; but at the same time, I want it to be surprising or unexpected in some way. This paradox is one of the major hard things about endings.”
McRae and Dadey both agree that the loose ends need to be tied up, bad guys need to be caught, and questions need to be answered. All of this should take place as close to the end of the book as possible.
Ryan wants the ending of her books to resolve the problems but feels it should even go beyond that. “The worst thing you can do in any ending is make it too pat. If we assume that novels imitate life, then our endings shouldn’t feel like endings. They should feel like a new beginning for the characters. I think readers are most gratified by an ending that allows them to imagine at least some of the characters moving on from the grand events of your book.”
Best-selling suspense novelist Jonathan Kellerman has a more organic approach to his novel endings. “I immerse myself in the story...live with it, sleep with it, dance with it. If it’s been structured properly beforehand, the ending seems obvious.”
A good ending wraps up the book and lingers in the reader’s mind. When asked how she wants her readers to feel when they finish one of her books, Resau said, “I want them to feel deliciously satisfied, uplifted, and inspired to travel, explore, have adventures, and connect with other people on a deep level. I want them to see themselves, their lives, and the world differently. I want them to feel a little sad to be leaving the fictional realm of the novel...and then I want them to head to the library or bookstore to immerse themselves in one of my other books.”
By implementing the advice from these authors, writers will be able to create stories that seamlessly meld the beginning, middle, and end together, allowing the reader to embark on an amazing journey that can only be found in a book.
Kerrie Flanagan is the Director of Northern Colorado Writers (NCW). The 6th annual NWC conference is March 26-27, 2011 in Fort Collins, Colorado. She is also a freelance writer with over 120 articles published in national and regional publications.
To learn more about Kerrie and NCW visit: https://www.NorthernColoradoWriters.com
(Photo of Kerrie by Desiree Suchy.)
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