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06.07.2011 17:26    Comments: 0    Categories: Fiction Elements  Fiction Writing  Writing Beginnings  Writing Craft  Writing Middles  Writing Endings  Writing Tips      Tags: dull beginning  sagging middles  lame endings  

Dull, sagging and lame. Who would want a life like that? Who would want to be like that? Yet, it's amazing how many stories sitting in slush piles around the world seem to have been modelled, at least partially, on this the ‘Dull beginning, sagging middle and lame ending.'


When you sit down to read a new story, you expect to be drawn in from the first page or so. You expect to be entertained. The last thing a writer wants to do is give off ‘hold-on-a-moment-I'll-be-right-with-you' signals. If your reader loses patience, you lose your reader. To hook your reader from the first page, it's a good idea to start your story where the main character's problem/dilemma/conflict starts, or just before. You can make your back story wait until later, but you can't do the same to your reader.

Editors going through slush piles get tired of two types of beginning:

1. the protagonist is on a journey contemplating the journey's end and what is in store there. Editors often cite this as an example of a dull opening. If what's in store is so interesting, start your story there. Even if it isn't so interesting at least you'll only have to write about it once.

2. a one-liner, often ending in an exclamation mark, that is uttered by the main character. This is not so bad in itself aside from the facts that we have no context, no idea how the voice is supposed to sound and it can make the author's desire to make an early impact a little too transparent. No, the real problem is that 80% of the rest of the stories in the editor's slush pile will use the same device. In light of this, it's a good idea to wait until you are an established writer whose stories soar high over slush piles directly to the editor's desk before you kick off with this one.

As a rule, it is a good idea to come up with a couple of principle questions that your story is going to answer, then pose them, or encourage the reader to pose them, early on.


The middle is crucial. You are going to send your protagonist down a path that will test her strengths and exploit her weaknesses to provoke a meaningful change. The story should reach a crisis point within the framework you've set up and lead to some form of closure. This ‘closure' is an important plot device. It is one of the reasons novel reading is such a popular pastime. There is little or no closure in real life. Processes rarely end and results are rarely final. The kind of closure you can find in a storyl can provide a very welcome relief from reality - so much so that it has become ingrained into the structure of the novel and is often the key to evaluating how satisfactory a story is.

Again, the trick is to pose the right questions. How are you going to challenge your main character? What elements of the external plot are going to have a direct bearing on the protagonist? How central to the story is the resolution of the main character's internal conflicts (tip: it should be pretty damn central)? How are the protagonist's weaknesses going to hinder her attempts to resolve the crises of the external plot, and how interesting can you make these attempts?

In short, the middle is about putting the main character on the rack. As the Guardian wrote about McEwan's recent novel ‘Saturday,'

‘Since his debut collection of stories, First Love, Last Rites, McEwan's fiction has always dwelt at the heart of places we hope never to find ourselves in: the vacancies left in lives by the kidnapped child or the lost lover; the mined no-man's-land that follows extreme violence or sexual obsession. His subject has always been damage and the way the darkest events in a life will drain the rest of love. For McEwan, happiness has rarely gone unpunished.

‘Thus, when Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon, wakes from his bed before dawn, feeling ‘alert and empty-headed and inexplicably elated' and sees a plane coming down over the Post Office Tower, trailing a fireball from its wing, it seems a portent every bit as doom-laden as the sighting of comets in Shakespeare. Worse, Perowne's world is, on this Saturday morning, entirely sure on its axis. McEwan quickly establishes him as a man of profound competence and one who never stops counting the blessings of a loving marriage and a pair of beautiful and talented children. You can hardly bear to watch.'

‘Saturday' is a great example of a novel with a feisty middle, where the man on the rack is extremely likable and the rack is given a few extra twists. Of course, the ‘rack' is just an analogy - you don't have to torture your main character, but you do have to put them through something that is important and life-changing. Raymond Carver once said something like, if you're going to write about a moment in a person's life, you'd better make damn sure it's one that matters. Far from sagging, your middle should soar.


Consider a faith-challenged priest. In the climax he solves the murder of the bishop and gets the cardinal hauled off to jail. But if the book ended there, we'd only have the answer to the external story question (who killed the bishop?). The internal story question (will the priest regain his faith?) has been left hanging.

The end scene should show, in an actual or symbolic way, what has changed because of the events of the story - specifically, how the protagonist has changed. Our priest will have regained his faith, or become convinced the loss is permanent, or in one way or another found his own answer to that internal story question. The more this scene is focused on providing the answer to that question, the more closure the readers will experience, and as we've already seen, closure = satisfaction.

The final scene, however short, should restore the world of your story to some semblance of equilibrium. For instance, the priest might attend the investiture of the new bishop, a humble and holy man, and experience in the ancient ritual his own return to faith. The priest's world has not been thrown permanently off-kilter by the crisis and the protagonist's courage in facing the conflicts has prevented a cataclysm.

You need to illuminate the changes, or the story will seem meaningless. A story is a dynamic sequence of events. It goes somewhere, often goal-directed, and leaves many ripples in its wake. It is not a static picture, and it should never be an inconsequential series of events.

What is the theme of your book? The ending ought to reinforce that theme, especially if the climax did not. For example, say the theme is, ‘We must create our faith anew if we lose the faith that was given to us.' The climax, reached as the priest solves the murder inquiry, is external to that theme. We need further resolution - an additional scene to shed light on how the process of solving the murder (external conflict) has changed the protagonist's understanding of faith (internal conflict). Maybe after the investiture, the priest, fighting his doubts, walks to the baptismal font and re-baptizes himself, showing that he is trying to create his new faith.

If, on the other hand, the internal issue was one of guilt and not lost faith, the priest could go to the confessional instead of the baptismal font. If the worldview is a cynical one, presenting the proposition that all those in power are likely to be corrupt, then the new bishop could be greedy and hypocritical instead of humble and honest, and the cycle of deceit, murder and revenge would begin again.

A great ending will show a tangible gesture or action that illustrates how the internal conflict has been resolved and what significance it carries beyond the story's end. It is often a small event, one that closes the story rather than opening another one - you wouldn't want your priest to walk out of the church, meet a woman on the steps and think, "Hey, all this celibacy just isn't right for me after all..." Your final event should have emotional resonance, leaving your readers feeling what you have crafted your story to get them to feel - peace, empowerment, sadness or outrage.

The ending is the last experience your readers will have of your book, so make it a memorable one. Resolve the conflicts, restore the world's balance, reinforce the theme, reflect the protagonist's growth, and give the readers the final emotion they need to look up from your story feeling satiated. Make sure you can type ‘THE END' in good conscience, knowing that you've provided an ending that is much more than an anti-climactic afterthought.


© Chris Lee Ramsden,  All Rights Reserved.




Chris Lee Ramsden is the managing editor of Edit RED and ScribblE ResourcE. He is passionate about contemporary fiction and fascinated by the new avenues of expression available to the modern writer. Visit ScribblE ResourcE for articles, interviews with editors, agents and authors, and resources aimed at helping writers prepare, publish and promote their writing.

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