by Annette Lyon
About writing a good story, Lewis Carroll reportedly said something like:
"Begin at the beginning and go on to the end: then stop."
Nice advice, but it's harder than it looks. How do you know where to begin and when to end?
Here's a good place to look: uncover your major story question.
Sure, your book will have subplots and conflicts along the way, but there needs to be one over-arching question. It needs to be posed, or at least reflected, in the first chapter. It'll then be answered in last chapter.
Sometimes the story question might be just hinted at in the beginning. For example, in The Wizard of Oz, the main question is: Will Dorothy will ever get home from Oz.?
In the opening sequence, she's not in Oz. But she is unhappy at home and tries to run away. She wants to be anywhere but home. So that sets up the ultimate question: by the end, she wants to be home more than anything else. So by the time we get the question, "Will Dorothy get home?" we all want the same thing for her. Everything she does is aimed at that one goal.
After she returns to Kansas, the movie has a brief wrap-up ("You were there. And so were you!") and it's over. The credits roll. We don't need to see her interacting with her aunt, where we see how much better things are now. The question is answered.
Often you can identify the kind of story question your book should have based on the genre you're writing in. For example, a mystery's question is who committed the murder? and a romance asks, will the boy and girl ever get together?
Some books have easily identified questions:
- Will Harry defeat Voldemort?
- Will Lizzy and Darcy get together?
- Will Montag stay true to books and escape with his life?
- Will Langdon solve the puzzle before the bad guys do?
- Will Poirot find the murderer?
- Will Luke destroy the Death Star?
With your own writing, it's important for you to know what your story question is, for two reasons:
1) It tells you where to begin.
2) It tells you when to stop.
Without a good beginning, your reader (or editor or agent) won't get past page twelve (or, realistically, past page three).
And without a satisfying ending, they'll never pick up your next book (or this one will never get published).
It's not uncommon for me to see beginning writers' work where they're obviously not sure of the major story question. I can tell because the chapters flounder around with back story dumps, characters who aren't quite themselves yet, a plot that meanders without a clear conflict (or a conflict that's too thin), and a story that doesn't end when it's supposed to.
There is a reason that The Da Vinci Code ends where it does: the puzzle is solved, the characters are safe, and the bad guys are caught. All the story questions are answered.
It would be silly for Dan Brown to have continued the story so Langdon goes home, takes a shower, makes himself breakfast, and then realizes that he's rather troubled by the events of the last while and he needs therapy. And then we watch him go through therapy.
Ack! That's a new story, with new story questions. It's also a new genre. We'd no longer be looking at a symbology-based thriller.
This may be an over-the-top example, but the point is valid. Do you know when your story is over? You might not know the details of the final scene, but do you have a general idea that when X happens, it leads to Y, which answers the story question, so the story ends?
It's hard sometimes to write that last page. We love our characters, and sometimes we know what comes next, so we want to write it. But if that isn't part of the story you were originally telling, don't include it.
Maybe you can write a sequel to tell the next part . . . so long as you start at the right place and end when that story is over!