Monday, January 31, 2011

Where to Start a Story, and Where to End It

My dear readers, don’t ever be as stubborn as I am.

A long while back, an agent told me to cut the first two chapters of my book. I didn’t, because I knew he was wrong. Instead, I tried to make the first two chapters better. When I was done, they were good – really good – but they just weren’t good enough.

I’ve agonized over this for three years. I swear, three whole years, people have complained about the beginning. I knew what to do all along: I needed to start the book where my main character gets initiated as a priestess.

After I stubbornly refused for three years to start with the initiation, I hesitantly decided to write the initiation-beginning just as an experiment. I even titled it “Alternate Beginning.” I figured I could show people why it wouldn’t work, and then they’d all tell me to keep the first two chapters.

Yeah… I cut the first two chapters permanently. My “alternate” beginning is now my real beginning.

Here’s What I Learned:

A book should start as late in the story as possible. If you start at a point that makes the readers say, “Wait, I don’t understand how we got here,” take a step back. Example: I don’t need to talk about how Tuccia was nominated to be a priestess and what her life was like at home. But if I started the book after the initiation, people would wonder how she became a priestess. The beginning should be somewhere in the middle.

I should have known all this because I have a similar theory on how to end a book.

Events set a story in motion, like a rolling rock. You know where the rock will roll unless there’s a change. When something happens in the plot, it makes the rock roll in a different direction. At the end of the book, the rock rolls in one place for all eternity. A reader will know, without reading further, what’s going to happen for the rest of the character’s lives.

The place to end a book is at the last plot twist that sets the rock rolling in its final direction. The second your readers know what will happen next, that’s the end of a book.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is an interesting example.

Spoiler Alert: If you've read the entire Harry Potter series, you can highlight the text below to read about the ending.
After Harry conquers Voldemort, the book fast-forwards to Harry and Ginny living happily together with their children. When I first read this I liked it because I was invested in Harry and I wanted to see him be happy. Then I realized how pointless it was. We know Harry will live happily ever after. We don’t need to know his children’s names to know how the story ends.

2 comments:

  1. I always wondered why nobody liked that epilogue. They would always say it was horribly written. I didn't think so, so I was contented believing I had a one of a kind opinion. But what you say makes sense.

    I like the rolling rock metaphor. I should live by that. And by live, I mean write. Thanks!

    -Julia

    ReplyDelete
  2. Ooh. I really like your metaphor.

    ReplyDelete

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