NaNoWriMo: Getting Her Up the Tree, Getting Her Down
How to begin and end your story
An excerpt from The Lie That Tells A Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction by John Dufresne.
“If you’re writing a story and are confused about the end, go back to the beginning.” —CYNTHIA OZICK
Someone, but I can’t remember who, once said that the definition of a plot is: Get your hero up a tree, throw rocks at her, throw bigger rocks at her, then get her down. We’ll deal with the up and the down here, the beginning and the end, and leave the rock-throwing for another time. First things first. You have an idea, a story to tell, you begin to write, the character is described, encounters trouble, makes decisions, begins his quest, and here the story starts to peter out. Stories want to begin, but the beginning of the writing process, the first scratches in the first draft, may not ultimately be the best first lines for the story. You must catch the reader’s attention immediately or there is no reason to go on. And this goes double for your first reader—the editor. If the first line doesn’t knock her over, then her consideration of your story is finished. After all, if you can’t get the first line—which should be your strongest, most poetic line—right, then what are the chances that the rest of the story is any better? (A rather harsh sentiment, we might think, but one I’ve heard editors articulate.) Remember, there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of writers out there (more people writing than reading, it seems), and there are far fewer editors. If the editor doesn’t like the opening line, the work is easy to reject—there are plenty more where that came from. Every editor is looking for a reason to say no. The pile on her desk is too high; there are the weekend plans; she’s got her own novel to write. Don’t give her a reason to say no—be careful with your manuscript, your characters, and your words. Especially those first words.
“If you can’t catch the reader’s attention at the start and hold it, there’s no use going on.” —MARIANNE MOORE
A good beginning is full of intimation and assurance, the intimation being that here are characters who have something remarkable to tell us—you’ve never met people quite like these—the assurance being that something compelling, something surprising and unusual, something you just won’t believe, is about to happen. But don’t ever promise what you can’t deliver, and don’t initiate conflict that you cannot resolve, don’t load a gun that you will not fire or light a fire that you will not put out. And while we’re on don’ts, don’t begin your story with long descriptions, or indeed any description, without first establishing a point of view. Don’t write, as Snoopy would have, “It was a dark and stormy night on the heath. The wind screamed through the heather. Thunder resounded off the nearby cliffs.” Better: “The man pulled the jacket over his head, but the wind-driven rain beat against his face. He wondered how far he had yet to go to reach the doctor’s house. He waited for a stroke of lightning, saw the house over the second hill, stepped carefully.” Now we have point of view, voice, tone, character, theme, setting, trouble, goal, and not simply a vague and innocuous statement of time and place.
Don’t begin with an idea, begin with people, preferably people in action. (Ursula Le Guin writes, “Beginners’ failures are often the result of trying to work with strong feelings and ideas without having found the images to embody them.”) Begin with scene if you can, but don’t begin with some motiveless activity in a scene and then launch into a flashback. Like this: “Jeff drove his PT Cruiser into the Pollo Tropical parking lot and listened to the end of the Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil.’ He noticed the attractive young couple in the VW Beetle. He remembered when he and Ellen went to the junior prom in his Bug: ‘Do you think we’ll make it?’ Ellen had said. ‘I’ve got a case of oil in the trunk.’” If you have a flashback on the first page of your story, reconsider. Here’s why.
One or two things may have happened. First, you wrote your few sentences and realized that you didn’t know enough about your character to continue. And so you wrote some backstory—the night of the prom, in this case. You wrote until you were comfortable that you knew your character a little better, and then you returned to the parking lot. Well, you needed to write that backstory, but we don’t need to read it. Your plot, the character’s struggle, must happen in the present of the story, not in the past. Cut the flashback. The second possibility is that you found your real material. You began the story in the parking lot just to get your character doing something, just to get the narrative under way. You didn’t really know why he was at Pollo Tropical. Hunger, perhaps. He’s acting without purpose, we might say. And then you found that the real trouble is in the past, back there with Ellen, back in high school. The love of his life, the woman he lost. Well, now what you need to do is jettison the opening and get us back into the past. (Which becomes the present of the story.) In his wonderful book on writing, The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo says there are always two subjects, the triggering subject (in this case, the parking lot, the song, the VW Beetle) and the generated subject (Ellen and the prom). The generated subject is the one with the emotional intensity needed to carry you, your characters, and your reader through the story.
“Whenever possible tell the whole story of the novel in the first sentence.” —JOHN IRVING
Don’t introduce a story—just jump in. And don’t succumb to the imitative fallacy (as in “art imitating life”)—starting the story too early, when the trouble is nowhere in sight. “The alarm clock rang. Joe turned in his bed, reached for the clock, and punched it off. Six a.m. He rolled over and caught forty more winks. When the snooze alarm sounded six minutes later, he felt rested and not so resentful of his day.” The story starts much later than this, we hope—when he gets to work and discovers that he has been fired. So: “Joe knocked on Mr. Brind’amour’s door and wondered why the boss wanted to see him before he had a chance to finish the Collins report.” To this point, Frank O’Connor says that a short story begins when everything but the action is over. In other words, don’t start at the beginning, when everything is about to happen, when trouble only faintly casts its shadow. Begin in the middle of things. Start as close to the end as you can. If you have an alarm clock going off at the opening of your story, reconsider. Better to have your character wake up with two men standing by the bed. They tell him he’s under arrest. Waking up can be a dangerous time, as Kafka knew. Waking to an alarm, not to an alarm clock.
The first line of the story breaks the silence. All of us will read any first line of anything. But will we read the second? Think of yourself in the doctor’s office (nothing terrible, I hope) leafing through the magazines, reading the first lines of article after article until finally one first line for some reason compels you to read the second. The first sentence has to make the reader want to go on to the next. A good first line of a story, whether it charms, amazes, intrigues, shocks, or seduces you, has to do so quickly and must, in the words of Susanne Langer, tear you out of your world and drop you into the world of the story. And now it is impossible not to go on, not to want to know what’s up with these people.
“Start clean and simple. Don’t try to write pretty or noble or big. Try to say just what you mean. And that’s hard because you have to find out what you mean, and that’s work.” —WILLIAM SLOANE
A good first line is intriguing, energetic, immediate, unqualified. The leisurely beginning is difficult to pull off in a novel, nearly impossible in a short story. The first line should be striking and surprising. It should appeal to the senses. You’re trying to create a dream in the reader’s mind (as John Gardner famously put it) and you do so with vivid and significant details. Weak openings signal confusion. The writer, we think, hasn’t figured out what he’s writing about yet. When he does, we’ll read it. The first line has implicit in it the entire story. It ought to present specific character, specific incident, specific conversation, specific mood. Beginnings are not a time to generalize. Flannery O’Connor said: “If you start with a real personality, a real character, then something is bound to happen; and you don’t have to know before you begin. In fact, it may be better if you don’t know what before you begin. You ought to be able to discover something from your stories.”
Sometimes a first line is a given, a gift from the Muse, as it were, but it arrives only if you are there at the desk and are ready to receive it. (This has never happened to me. I hear a line, and it suggests character more than it suggests narrative. Like this one I heard recently: “I’m so short and the line is so long.”) More often, however, the opening line appears in revision. When we finish the draft, we read the story and see what it is we’ve said. And now we know where to begin. Then we can determine if we started too early, too late, in the right voice, with the appropriate tone, and so on. You might, in the process of drafting, write many lines looking for the one that works. Lewis Carroll thought there was nothing imposing in all this. He said, “Begin at the beginning, go on till the end, then stop.” Donald Barthelme, however, speaks for many of us when he says, “Endings are elusive, middles are nowhere to be found, but worst of all is to begin, to begin, to begin.”
Here are some people who began well:
“All happy families are alike, but an unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” —Anna Karenina/Leo Tolstoy.
Tolstoy gets right to it—we’re only interested in trouble. We don’t want to read about happy people in Blissful Valley. (Have I said this before?) This is a statement of theme. He’ll build his novel on contrast, we expect. And maybe he’s also saying that we’re all unhappy, dysfunctional families.
“My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone.” —The Dog of the South/Charles Portis.
The voice here is irresistible, as is the promise of an inevitable search and a wild and funny confrontation. Character and conflict. Guy Dupree—can’t you just see him already?
“All children, except one, grow up.” —Peter Pan/J. M. Barrie.
A provocative character description. Intimations of immortality. Of course we’ll read it.
“The Jackmans’ marriage had been adulterous and violent, but in its last days they became a couple again, as they might have if one of them were slowly dying.” —“The Winter Father”/Andre Dubus.
A brilliantly ironic and tragic statement. We’re most alive when we know we’re dying. A theme worth exploring. Here’s a writer who’s taking a chance.
“There was a summer of my life when the only creature that seemed lovelier to me than a largemouth bass was Sheila Mant.” —“The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant”/W. D. Wetherell.
I want to meet Miss Mant and the boy who admired her. This is a world I already feel comfortable in. I’m expecting to be a little sad. The kind of sadness that makes you miss your own youth, that makes you understand how precious our time is.
“What to know about pain is how little we do to deserve it, how simple it is to give, how hard to lose.” —“Widow Water”/Frederick Busch.
An eloquent statement of an important theme. We know we’re in good hands when the narrator can be so clear about what is so complex.
“Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging the grave and a Negro named Buford Munson who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent Christian way, with the sign of its Savior at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top keep the dogs from digging it up.” —“You Can’t Be Any Poorer than Dead”/Flannery O’Connor.
Humor, death, wantonness, religion, and a couple of beguiling characters—who could stop here?
(When you get some time or when you make the time, pick up Flannery O’Connor’s collected stories and just read the opening lines. All of them are quite wonderful. Study them, notice what she does each time. Pick up the stories of any writer you like and do the same.) One more:
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” —“Metamorphosis”/ Franz Kafka.
How’s he going to pull this off? More important, what’s it feel like to be a bug?
“At the end of a story or novel I must artfully concentrate for the reader an impression of the entire work, and therefore must casually mention something about those whom I have already presented.” —ANTON CHEKHOV
Okay, so you’ve got your story under way. Now your problem is, when does the story end? Well, we don’t need the resolution of the characters’ lives, you know that, just the resolution of their present difficulties. Take a look at Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog,” which ends with Gurov and Anna still meeting in secret, still married to other people, with the hardest part still ahead of them, but knowing they will be together—maybe not happily ever after, but together. And how does it end? Try to avoid what used to be called the O. Henry ending, the twist, the gimmick, the surprise. Surprise endings trivialize what came before, suggest that the characters and what should be the important thematic business of the story are only in the service of what amounts to a punch line. These surprise endings often depend on the withholding of important information that should have been revealed in the opening act of the story. Here’s an example. An undergraduate student I once had handed in the first story she’d ever written. (And it was well written.) It opened with a young hooker in her flat with her boyfriend/pimp. We get to meet her and learn a bit about her history. Her parents were divorced when she was a girl. She was raised by an abusive mom. (It was as if the author were excusing or apologizing for her character’s behavior, which is, of course, unnecessary, unimportant, and for now, beside the point.) Cut to a scene with her and a john. An older man. Not much conversation. When the sex is finished, we see the pair of them in her bed. We get an unwarranted shift in point of view to the john, who looks over at a photograph on the nightstand of the hooker as little girl. She’s on a swing in a playground. Her father is pushing her. You’ve probably guessed already—the man in the bed is her father.
“The desire at the start is not to say anything, not to make meanings, but to create for the unwary reader a sudden experience of reality.” —VALERIE MARTIN
Well, this is a letdown. That’s it? We end here with no repercussions? Better to start the story where it ends, don’t you think? A man realizes he has just had sex with his daughter. What does he do now? What does he think? How does he live with himself? Or write her story with the knowledge that she has slept with her dad. Not a story I would like to write, maybe, but one filled with trouble and consequence. Write this story and we might learn something (maybe something unpleasant) about the human condition. A twist ending is like sentimentality in that it is a form of cheating, of borrowing emotion from outside the story. Even as powerful a story as “The Lottery” suffers, I think, in this respect. You can only read it once. It’s stunning the first time, but because it depends on the skillful withholding of information, it is spoiled by familiarity. Significant stories, important and resonant stories, on the other hand, are enhanced by repeated readings.
I like to start a story or a novel quickly and to end it lyrically. Endings shouldn’t be loose, shouldn’t drift or dissolve. They have to make a statement. They can be dramatic, but more often are muted, subtle. The story has already made its point or it has failed. The ending cannot bail the story out, cannot impose a meaning that wasn’t already evident. A good ending must, of course, resolve what has gone before it, and must somehow rise above the story, must stand as an emblem of the story. You start your ending when you write the first line of the story. The ending should be inherent in the opening. It should not do more than resolve. We don’t need to be reminded about what happened. We don’t need to know what else has happened in the characters’ lives—the end is not a time to introduce new information. We don’t need a moral or a message. We only need the problem resolved. Don’t end the story, if you can help it, with a thought, an idea, a spoken word. Leave us with a compelling visual image of the central character, one that is so resonant and compelling that it stays with us when we close the book. Think about what DaVinci said: “An emotion, a state of mind, always finds expression in a person’s face and body. [And it’s the body in motion that we are more concerned with here in our ending.] When a man is angry, he shows his teeth and frowns; his eyes seem to shoot darts; he tightens his facial muscles and his whole posture, stiffening his neck and balling his fists. Such emotion may be a person’s face like an inscription in bronze; it becomes character.” What is it our character does here in the last frame that suggests her character and the change she has undergone?
And one more thing. The last line is as important as the first, if for different reasons. End the story on your best, or second best, line. Don’t write past it. This is the line that echoes in our mind when the story’s over.
John Dufresne is the author of seven books, including the New York Times Notable Books Love Warps the Mind a Little and Louisiana Power & Light. He teaches in the Creative Writing Department at Florida International University and lives in Dania Beach. For more, visit JohnDufresne.com.