This one’s a bit of a ramble, but I get there. Almost all stories have beginnings, middles, and ends. Not necessarily in that order, and sometimes there are more than one of each.
The vast majority of advice I ever 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, and immediate, because that is what will get you past the slush reader and/or agent and/or commissioning editor to the desired goal of acceptance, contract, and publication. Yay!
For me this raises an interesting point about who your audience actually is, especially for newer or less well-published writers. Yourself (you should always, always write for yourself), your (prospective) agent, your (prospective) publisher? Sometimes it can feel like a readership can be a long way away. Of course that’s who your real target audience is but it’s worth remembering that any reader is free to put down your story and when a submission reader, agent, or editor does that it goes no further.
Geoff Ryman’s The King’s Last Song has a superb, beautiful and engaging start. As a writer I still remember thinking ‘why do I 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.
There’s also a good deal of advice on how to get through the great swampy middle, where plot wanders in circles, tension withers and dies, and characters stand around in empty rooms and talk to each other about what they should do next. I think they are not really talking to each other about this problem, they are asking the writer for help.
We’ve all read books that meander in the middle and plot drifts like a rudderless boat on a sluggish river. Sometimes 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 and use of language keeps me engaged and then, even more rarely, all that seeming wandering about draws into sharp focus, the writer really did know what they were doing, and it is brilliant. The Old Ways, by Robert MacFarlane, a book about the ancient routes of Britain, is a lovely example.
An agent once wrote that they could not remember ever having put a book down because it had too much tension. I think that is a statement well worth paying attention to, especially when writing fiction, and in particular if you worry your own story may be adrift in the swampy middle.
I’ve not read much advice about how to end a story but it, like the rest, is essential. Not only because in the end it all needs to be as good as you can make it, but mainly because what you remember as a reader is how you feel about a book when you put it down. And that determines if you will ever pick it up again, or read another book by that author.
I have read many reviews of books in series that complained 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 how wonderful that the reader continued to trust the writer, though it doesn’t help. Readers want to read and if they are like me they hate to leave a story unfinished. I still reserve the right not to start – I once had a long fantasy series recommended to me on the basis that ‘after book three it gets pretty good’, but that’s another story.
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 have made to the reader in the course of the story you have told. Whether your ending is full of blood and thunder or quietly introspective, it should also summon memories of the journey we’ve shared, author, reader, and characters. In brief, it should be satisfying.
For me Roger Zelazny is a master of the poignant and open ending. His Jack of Shadows is an odd, fascinating book about the collision of the worlds of science and magic, and the man who tries to unite them. It’s not his greatest work – that is Lord of Light – but the ending is perfect and shows brilliantly one way to do it. I’m not going to tell you what he does, you should read the book.
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.
David Gullen was born in South Africa and baptised by King Neptune at the equator. His short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies, including New Scientist’s ARC, Albedo 1, and the Sensorama anthology from Eibonvale. David lives in Surrey, England, with the fantasy writer Gaie Sebold and too many tree ferns. His SF novel, Shopocalypse, is available from NewCon Press. He has been a judge for the Arthur C. Clarke and James White Awards, and is the current Chair of Milford SF.