Almost all stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Not necessarily in that order, and sometimes there are more than one of each. Each one is as important as the other.
The vast majority of advice I received about novel structure was focused on the opening, and it was all about getting published: your opening needs to be vivid; it needs to be engaging; that engagement must be immediate. The reasons given being that these things help get you past the slush reader and/or agent and/or commissioning editor to the desired goal of acceptance, contract, and publication. Yay!
This made me wonder about who the audience actually was, especially for newer or less well-published writers. Was it yourself (you should always, always write for yourself), your (prospective) agent, your (prospective) publisher? Where were the people you were really writing for? Sometimes it feels like a readership is a long way away but it’s also worth remembering that any reader is free to put down your story, and when a submission reader, agent, or editor does that your story proceeds no further down that particular path.
One thing a good beginning does is make a series of promises: this is where we’re going, and why; we’re going with these characters; this is their world. Of course not all promises need to be kept, but they should never be dishonestly broken.
Geoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song has a superb, beautiful and engaging beginning. As a writer I still remember thinking ‘Why do I even bother? I shall never be this good.’ As a reader I was compelled and excited to read on, the promise of a good book was terrific and it led me deep into:
There’s also much advice on how to get through the great swampy middle, where plot wanders in circles, tension withers and dies, and characters stand in empty rooms and discuss what they should do next. When that happens I believe they are not really talking to each other, they are asking the writer for directions.
Often I’ll put a book like that down, or skim to the end. More rarely I’ll keep reading because the quality of the writing keeps me engaged. Then, even more rarely, all that seeming wandering turns out to be deliberate, it draws into sharp focus, and you realise the writer really did know what they were doing. The brilliant The Old Ways, by Robert MacFarlane, a book about the ancient footpaths of Britain, is a very good example. Truly, not all who wander are lost.
Usually though, it’s best not to wander. Where is tension, where is pace and forward movement? An agent once wrote that they could not remember ever having put a book down because it had too much tension. This is top advice, and really is worth paying a lot of attention to. Without it your reader may never reach:
A good ending is essential but I’ve not read much advice on how to do that, or even what one is. An ending needs to be as good as you can make it for several reasons and a key one is that a reader remembers how they feel when they put your book down. And that determines how they talk about it, and even if they will ever read another book by that author. Word of mouth is incredibly important – I once had a long fantasy series recommended to me on the basis that ‘after book three it gets quite good’. Reader – I never started.
I’ve read many reviews of books in series that complained about how the end was not an end, just a pause in the tale, and how disappointing that was. I seldom had the impression they were giving up on the story, and actually, it’s wonderful that the reader continued to trust the writer. Or maybe it was just hope, because clearly the story wasn’t over. I too hate to leave a story unfinished.
The End depends on the Middle and the Beginning.
If the beginning is about making promises to the reader, then the middle is about trust, and the end is how you reward that trust. An ending needs to pay back in some way on the promises you make to the reader in the course of the story you have told. Whether your ending is full of blood and thunder or quietly introspective, whether those promises were directly kept, or subverted, the end should summon memories of the journey we’ve shared, author, reader, and characters. In a word, it should be satisfying.
I remember the tears in my eyes finishing Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky, the ‘sensawunda’ of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, and the open and unresolved end of Zelazny’s Jack of Shadows. I am sure you have your own favourites.
I think this is important enough to say again – People remember how they feel about a book when they put it down. Ideally this should be at the end.
(This is an edited version of a post that first appeared on the Milford SF web site in April, 2019. )