End Well

The end of your story, that is, the third act, is easy if you’ve done your job in the first and second act. There you’ve set up an ending. Just do something different that fits the clues and your golden!

The greatest problem with an ending is when it’s predictable. But the opposite problem is also detrimental… the ending that comes out of nowhere.

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Cue music, swap out the lens! It’s the living end!

Your third-act job is to give the reader the ending they expect in a different form than they expected. Sometimes that’s just giving the end a twist. In a romance, for example, you might set up that the heroine is going to jilt the guy and marry the fellow next door. Instead, she discovers something she didn’t understand about the first guy that makes her want to keep him.  In a thriller, the bad guy turns out to be someone other than who we thought it was.

Alternatively, as the writer, you hold back a critical piece of information from the reader that skews the expected ending to one more apt.

As important as the conclusion is, it’s always the setup that’s important. When does the end begin? When your character is fully outfitted for the fight. Whatever character flaw is addressed, whatever relationship is mended, whatever weakness – internal or resource – is fixed or acquired. In act one and two, the hero is no hero, by the third act, the hero IS the hero (use the term lightly; your main character may be a creep, but he’s the creep on the right side now).

All the conflict of the second act adds a plate to the hero’s armor, refines character, increases the stakes, offers red herrings and reversals, and narrows the story to its conclusion.

It’s tempting to achieve the ending too fast. Conflict and surprise need to be part of the process, something that puts the reader in doubt of the expected ending, but the last thing that should happen is that the hero’s plan actually works. Plans fall apart; character and improvisation makes it work. Short third acts are common in today’s fiction. Don’t fall prey to the idea that the first and third act should be roughly the same size. Sometimes dropping of the cliff (a short third act) is ideal. It’s only rushed if it feels rushed (my first novel’s ending is a bit rushed. We write, we learn.)

Classically, there are two endings: Comedy, where things end well for the hero, and Tragedy, where things end badly for the hero. (There are also tragedies that end up working out for the hero… he loses the girl, but she’s not what she seemed…) There is a lot of wiggle-room in those classifications. True tragedies are rare today, but they can still work.

After the pay off, we then need to see the cool-down phase after the ending. The sigh of relief, the French story term I can’t remember how to spell that sounds like day-num-wa (I’m so pitiful sometimes). It can be right after, or days or even months/years after. It’s a time of implied reflection, a taste of the new normal.

A final comment in reflection of the Amazon pool of reality and POD: Your story doesn’t have to be 90,000 words. It can be just about any size now (at least 25 pages for POD printing). The terms novella and novel have little meaning anymore. In printing, 200 pages was necessary for a good price-point. Not so anymore. All that to say, end your story when it’s ready to be ended. Is it “too short” but feels satisfying? Then end it. If it doesn’t feel satisfying keep working on it.

Who doesn’t love endings? It’s all downhill and craft at that point. You’re almost done!

The PushmePullyou of Story

Do you get bogged down in the middle of your story?  Do you have half-finished novels on your hard drive? For me the answer is “yes” to both questions.

Yeah , but how do they… Overthinking, overthinking…

The key to driving through the middle is the PushmePullyou of story: Goals and Motivation.

Goal is the “what” of the story.

Motivation is the “why” of the story.

You’re probably thinking I’ll use Dr. Dolittle as the example here, where the PushmePullyou two-headed llama comes from, but instead I’ll fall back on my standby example, The Wizard of Oz.

Once we get through the black and white beginning and into the second act in color, Dorothy’s goal is to get to the Emerald City and the Wizard of Oz.

Her motive is also her chief characteristic. She’s worried about Auntie Em and wants to help. Dorothy’s driving characteristic is her desire to help and it’s key to understanding why she ran away. On the farm, she has chores, but no one to help. To help Toto, she runs away. Her concern for her Aunt drives her from the Dr. Marvel’s wagon back to the farm through a tornado, which doesn’t (or does) turn out well for her.

Glinda gives Dorothy her goal, which sets her path, conveniently on the Yellow Brick Road. Soon, where anyone else would be terrified of a living Scarecrow, she quickly helps him. Then she goes against Scarecrow’s advice and oils Tin Man. She comes to their aid when they’re attacked by a Lion, then to his aid when he’s found to be cowardly.

In fact, whenever things get slow, a problem requiring her help appears. And something else happens, her expectations of Oz are constantly confounded. Apple trees are alive, animals talk, inanimate objects animate… She learns that perhaps she’s also failed to see what was always there back home.

That’s what she had to discover by finding her way to the Emerald City… that there is no place like home.

When I saw this as a kid, maybe 6 years old, I couldn’t understand why she’d go back. My dad said, “Because they’re no place like home.” I looked around and said, “I’d stay in Oz.” I hadn’t learned that lesson.

In the book, Dorothy was 12. In the movie, Dorothy is 16, so staying wouldn’t be unthinkable. So why didn’t she?

It’s important to recognize that Dorothy was flawed. It isn’t obvious. She has a skewed belief, not recognizing the value of home. She’s naïve and has much to learn.

A movie is generally paired way down. There is much more going on in a book; more story lines, more flaws, greater depth. Goals are what the character wants and that may be a counterpoint to what others want, producing conflict. Goals keep the story on track. Motivation is why a character wants what she wants. It may be an untrue or underdeveloped motivation, or it may be something that needs to be changed or completely left behind. It drives the fundamental characteristic. Dorothy was all about helping. Your character may be about solving puzzles, winning at all costs, being liked, getting drunk.

If you’re bogged down in the middle, ask yourself if your character is flawed enough, if you’ve discovered her driving characteristic, if you know what needs to be changed, learned, or left behind. How do you illustrate that change? What problems push learning? Perhaps a conflicting character is needed.

In Save the Cat, Snyder calls the second act Fun ‘n Games. It isn’t, though. Your second act is a finely crafted obstacle course designed to sharpen motivation, change character, correct flaws, and gain what the character needs to enter the third act.

Why does your character do what she does; what is she supposed to achieve? Establish these in the beginning and demonstrate them in the middle.

Next week, Endings.

In the Beginning…

I’ve just finished the Alienist, which was a good read, but about 200 pages too long, so I wanted something short and breezy for my next read. I won’t tell you what it is, because I’m going to trash it.

The book is 4th in a series. I haven’t read the earlier installments, and now I don’t have to, because the character, in the first chapter, summarized the last book for the reader: the whole plot and the resolution, for, as far as I can tell, no reason. Then a cop from the last book dropped into the main character’s office where they small talked and he got permission to scout the hero’s property.

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Beginnings are often written last because it takes the story to find the seed that must be planted.

That was chapter one, where if I didn’t actually know the writer, I would have stopped reading. The chapter was 80% exposition, half of it was unnecessary, the other half could have been handled in the coming chapter where they find something they didn’t expect to find.

Maybe the second chapter would be more interesting.


Set in the past, two guys get instructions from the superior, more exposition, and nothing happened.

This writer made several mistakes in the beginning…

  • If you’re writing a series, every book must stand on its own. Certainly, the reader who’s read from the beginning gets a flavor the non-sequential reader doesn’t, but if you recap you prior books in the series, the non-sequential reader doesn’t need to read those books.
  • He didn’t start as late in the story as he should have. Thrust me into the action! Barring that, give me something to visualize as the characters talk. One is doing something, the other is trying to break in, or perhaps a third character is in the way. In short, ADD CONFLICT.
  • Exposition should rarely be dropped in bulk. Some is necessary, and there are occasions where you do have do a bulk-drop, but not at the beginning!  (This is done well by some writers, be sure you’re one of them if you do this).
  • That entire first and second chapter could easily have been slipped into the action of the later chapter. Ask yourself: Do I need this scene?  If there’s no conflict, probably not. If the instructing character is never seen again, lose it.
  • No emotions were engaged. They talked about a lot of stuff, none of which mattered, but even the emotions they talked about (!) would have been better shown.

Your beginning should start as late in the story as possible. The reader should be shown the hero’s character, not told, ideally through conflict (it doesn’t have to be dire conflict, it may just be irritation); we need to explore the hero’s current “normal” briefly and poignantly, ideally while dealing with something that threatens that normal.

The second chapter should ramp up the energy; Motives and Goals begin to form, if not already begun in the first chapter (Motives and Goals of all characters drive the middle of your story as they clash).

It’s worth talking about foreshadowing. There is a difference between subtly hinting at future events, but if a chapter is telling me a future chapter is going to happen and that’s all it tells, I don’t need that initial chapter.

To sum up: Show me the existing normal through conflict (why? Because we’re our true selves under conflict ((again, not necessarily mortal conflict. It could be dealing with a child or a fussy assistant when trying to do something else… and that something else must contribute to the story)).

Reveal your character (don’t tell us), reveal the existing normal that is going to be severely shaken up later. Give me a hint what the story is about.

For example: In my book, Do Angels Still Fall? the narrator guardian angel is taking his human charge from death to the heavenly courts (his normal), the man asks the dramatic question, and the angel doesn’t know the answer (conflict comes from the man acting contrary to expectations). He then goes to the court of angels (his normal) and is given his next assignment, but his human isn’t a baby, it’s a pre-teen boy (his normal threatened), and he can reveal himself (totally against norms!). From there he meets his new charge after a moment of mistaken identity. Once he reveals himself to the boy, it’s new territory, where, in the end, our angel may fall and his human lost. That’s three chapters, which in this book constitutes the beginning.

Normal, normal challenged, against norms, dramatic introduction of the main characters. That’s a beginning.

Some writers say they view their drafted beginning as a means to figure out where to actually start. Many throw the first couple chapters out once the story resolves.

We’ll get into Motives and Goals in a future post, promise.

(I’ve read a bit futher in the book; plot is interesting, poorly told).

As for you, what are your “in the beginning” pet peeves?

Discourage Discouragement

Speaking to a friend who embodies confidence, it took me by surprise when he expressed discouragement. “I don’t think anyone’s interested in what I put out there.”

My inner critic is bold all the time. Pssst, the lion is the critic, the lion is you. Live like it!

I went through a fit of discouragement recently. At work, something I built from nothing was taken over by others. Hard not to take that personally. The same day, I looked at my book sales and found them… tepid. Discouragement took my breath away. It was short lived. I told myself it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and refused to accept the emotion (you can do that, you know).

A few days later, a friend gave me an encouraging word. “Aren’t you excited about what you’ve done for others?” She didn’t know of my bleak moment, but I think she guessed it when I blinked at her comment and stammered a response. You can refuse to accept emotion but it can still linger in the green room of your thoughts.

In Aron Osborne’s book, So Many Mountains, Which Ones to Climb?, he has an entire chapter devoted to Encouragement, that is, “to give someone courage.” He has many wise words in that book, take a look.

You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t face discouragement, often during the writing of the book, certainly after, and again when it’s for sale. Funny isn’t it? You can have 20 great reviews, but it’s the 1 negative that gets you down, isn’t it?

One of the reasons I started Prevail Press is to encourage people. I’ve found that when you’re discouraged, you can overcome it by sincerely encouraging others.

Another method is to understand the truth of what we do is a long-haul proposition, there are no shortcuts. A snapshot of a lifetime is no insight to that life. “Count your blessings” can be trite, but it is also true. Everyone has them, even if it’s just drawing a ragged breath each morning.

What you have to say is important. Learning any craft is an emotional roller coaster. My latest book, Creativity Wears Boots, describes the creative process. Knowing where you are in your pursuit can help dispel the monsters.

Building a Murder… uh… Story Board

You’ve seen them in TV shows, typically crime procedurals. The detective slowly builds their understanding of the crime on a cork board with photos, strings connecting them, events described or pictured, and eventually, as things link up and holes filled in, the crime is solved.

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This is from LIFE, a well-written show with an outline for a half-dozen seasons that ended in just a couple, so they wrapped up everything way too fast. Loved that show.

Authors can do the same with a story board to help visualize your ideas. It’s a great way to figure out who’s missing and who isn’t needed.

Whether it starts at the bottom of the top is up to you. Either way, start with your ending. Who (the bad guy) gets burned? Who burns him? How?

Next, figure out who was involved. Your main character probably doesn’t have the tools to win from the beginning (that’s why it’s good to have flawed characters). What events does she go through to learn and grow? Are they events of design or accident? Who are the players? Put them on the board.

Here you begin to discover holes. If your middle is threadbare, you may be missing characters or character traits. Your hero, sidekicks, villains, and thugs should be crashing around in organized mayhem. (Note: This is true of any story, not just crime, adventure, or sci-fi; househusbands can be heroes).

Is your middle too involved? Can characters or events be combined or cut entirely? Can some characters drop out or be lost?

In your beginning, with insights from the board, you can now figure out how to start your story.

Scapple is an inexpensive program that makes building a board easy. https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scapple/overview

In the next few posts, we’ll be looking at beginning, middle, and end. Check back each Wednesday, or better yet, subscribe!