It’s the End

In my last two posts I explored two parts of a story’s structure:

  • The beginning, where we encounter main characters, the setting, and the challenges the characters face.
  • The middle, where things become complicated for the characters and tension mounts.

Now we’ve reached the end.

Like the beginning, the end is a relatively short, but for a different reason. Whereas the beginning hooks readers and draws them in, the end resolves the conflicts that carried the reader along. Actually, let’s qualify that. Some conflicts may be resolved in the middle. But the primary conflict can only be resolved at the end. Often a few lesser conflicts stick around until then, too, particularly in a novel. Short stories may only present a single conflict, but longer works will have more.

By definition, the resolution of the primary conflict is a story’s climax, it’s most important and exciting moment. All the tension built up through the middle is released in the climax. In action/adventure stories, this moment is the point when the threat posed by the primary antagonist becomes overwhelming. If the protagonist doesn’t succeed right here and right now, an irreversible catastrophe will result. The terrorists will blow up the building or the aliens will take over the world or the meteorite will crash into the Earth, triggering a mass extinction. In a mystery, the climax often pairs the resolution of the principal crime with mortal danger for the detective or for someone close to them. In a drama, the climax could even be triggered by the protagonist’s own flaws; if they fall victim to their failings, they will loose something important or others will be hurt. In all cases, the climax is the biggest, baddest, most danger-fraught moment in the whole story.

The story’s lesser conflicts can trigger moments like this, too, but generally they are less critical, less intense, and therefore not climactic. They can therefore be resolved in the middle of the story, but if so are usually replaced by larger conflicts or an intensification of the main conflict. The author can give the reader a moment to breath, but only a moment. Tension can’t decline for long, or the reader will wander off in search of a sandwich. But what happens when a lesser conflict persists right up to the climactic moment? Must it be resolved before the main conflict, or can it wait?

In some cases it can and indeed should wait, but order is important. Bear in mind that once the tension is gone, the reader has no reason to keep reading. Conflicts that persist beyond the climax have an inglorious name: “loose ends.” They must be tied up, but because the principal source of tension is gone, they must be tied up quickly. When the business of tying up loose ends drags on, readers rightly get bored and feel that the book should have ended sooner. In the worst case, they may suspect the book was “padded” to make them pay more for it–a feeling that also arises from middles where too little happens for too many pages. Conversely, a book that suddenly ends after a strong climax may leave readers feeling like they were dropped off of an emotional cliff. The less intense resolution to a loose end or two affords  us time to “come down” gracefully rather than plummet. On the other hand, the author of a series might leave something unresolved as a “cliffhanger,” a way of inviting you to the next book in the series where, one hopes, the remaining conflict will eventually be resolved.

You may sense a theme here: writers play on your emotions through story structure. The good ones do it so well that you’re left clamoring for their next book!

By way of illustrating these concepts, I’ll invoke my novel The Fibonacci Murders. Therein, a series of murders takes place, with tension ratched up through an increasing body count, the cryptic nature of the killer’s notes to the police, a mathematical switch he pulls mid-stream, and the discovery that his final crime must be one of horrific proportions. Along the way, a second series of crimes occurs. Less severe than the murders, it nevertheless causes a PR nightmare for the police and is resolved only when the murderer kills its perpetrator. That’s one conflict removed, but it hardly decreases the tension–just the opposite. And then a new wrinkle develops: Tom Kaneko, the mathematician who has been assisting the police, privately devises a plan to find the killer and strikes out on his own, unwittingly placing himself in mortal danger. The killer captures him but must execute his final crime, so he trusses Kaneko up and dumps him in the woods, planning on dealing with him later. Now the climax arrives: the killer is stopped mere seconds before committing a mass murder.

End of story? Not quite. Kaneko is still out there in the woods, injured, bound, and gagged. That’s a loose end: I couldn’t leave him there. Moreover, the detectives had a couple of loose ends of their own to tie up. Keeping Kaneko in hot water until after the killer is foiled allows the tension to drop somewhat less than precipitously and transitions towards resolution of the other, lesser, loose ends. The result, I hope, is that when you’ve read the final sentence, you feel that order has been restored and all is right with the world.

The end.

Up the Middle

In last week’s post, I talked about story structure–beginning, middle, end–and specifically about beginnings. A beginnings is a short thing. Once the main characters arrive on the scene, the setting is established, and people run into problems, it’s over. Then the characters plunge into the story’s middle, where they spend the bulk of their time.

In the middle, the characters seek to resolve whatever their problems are, but it’s never smooth sailing. Things have to get worse before they can get better, because if they didn’t there wouldn’t be much of a story. Tension equals interest. To avoid loosing the reader, tension has to be not only maintained but increased until the point when matters are resolved and the story ends.

Tension is generally increased through complications, unforeseen occurrences that make life harder for the characters. By way of illustration, let’s jump from literature to film. In the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones is faced with a formidable challenge: find and recover the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis do. An oversimplified review of the plot shows several key complications:

  • As soon as Indie finds and recovers the Ark, the Nazis take it from him and seal him underground with his old flame, Marion.
  • As soon as Indie escapes, he learns the Ark is about to be flown to Germany.
  • As soon as he demolishes the airplane, he learns the Ark is about to be taken away by truck convoy.
  • As soon as he recaptures the Ark and gets it onto a ship, the Nazis intercept in a submarine and recapture it, taking Marion with them.
  • As soon as he ambushes the Nazi procession on their way to open the Ark and demands Marion’s release in exchange for not blowing up the Ark, his nemesis Belloq hits him in his weakest spot: he refuses to release Marion and dares Indie to destroy the artifact.

Tension escalates through this sequence of events. Although not easy, neither is it excessively difficult for Indie to recover the Ark in the first place. But once it’s been taken from him, he only recovers it through a major fight. And when it’s taken from him the third time, it’s hopeless. He ultimately succeeds through divine intervention.

Moreover the stakes are upped each time it’s taken from him. With each reversal of his fortunes, the Nazis move closer to their goal. The first time he loses the Ark, Indie and Marion are left to die. The second time, Marion is captured as part of the prize. The third and final time, Indie and Marion are both captured.

Along the way, a series of other events play out. New characters are introduced, both helping and opposing Indie. Smaller conflicts play out, including the conflict between himself and Marion. Crises arise and are resolved, but each time relief is short lived; another, larger crisis looms to take the place of the previous one.

These subplots play several roles. They help define the characters in ways that the main conflict does not. Without Marion and Marcus and Sallah and Belloq, Indie would be very two-dimensional as he battled the Nazis for possession of the treasure. Moreover, smaller conflicts and complications help sustain interest while the main conflict builds and when it falls into its inevitable lulls. The humorous interaction between Marion and Indie on the ship sustains interest between their escape with the Ark and the appearance of the Nazi submarine.

We’ve been examining a film, not a written story, but the principles are the same. The differences are largely of complexity: a film offers much less space than a novel, so novels are almost always more complex. That’s why a film based on a novel inevitably leaves out a lot of material, even when faithful to the book. The same can be said in comparing novels to short stories, which often don’t offer room for subplots or much character development. In all cases, however, the middle of the story maintains and increases the tension, which builds through a series of events until it reaches its climax.

And then it’s time for the end.

In the Beginning…

Have you ever read a story that completely failed to engage your attention? Probably so. How long did you stick with it? Fifty pages? Ten? Five? My personal low was two pages when reading an old science fiction novel my dad owned. I think I started that book three times over the course of several years and never made it past the second page.

Why does this happen? Basically, it’s a structural failing. You see, every story needs a structure, and that structure can be stated very simply: beginning, middle, end. As straightforward as that may seem, writers don’t always figure it out. When they don’t, the result can be a story in which nothing seems to happen, and when nothing happens, readers quickly get fed up.

So what is this beginning, middle, end thing, anyway? Well . . .

The beginning is where main characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the principal conflict is set up.

The middle is where most of the events play out. Lesser characters may be introduced and additional conflicts may arise. Throughout, the tension increases, the stakes get higher, the challenges become tougher. Even if the characters meet with small successes, things generally get worse for them.

The end is where the main conflict is resolved and loose ends are tied up. Compared to the rest of the work, this part is relatively short for one very good reason: resolution of the main conflict removes the tension and, thus, most of the interest.

Reread that last bit. No tension equals no interest. Books that fail to engage your attention are likely books lacking tension, or at least books with tension well-hidden. Maybe the writer spent the first ten pages providing background before presenting the main conflict. Maybe the initial conflict wasn’t much of a conflict. Or maybe it’s just you. After all, different people have different tastes and interests. Decades back my wife recommended a novel to me that, upon reading, I found stultifying. She couldn’t believe it. One of the main characters had suffered a serious injury and spent most of the novel at death’s door! How could I not be interested? Unfortunately, I didn’t care much about that character for whatever reason, and nothing much else seemed to be happening while he was busy almost dying. Oh, well.

Personal tastes aside, a story’s beginning has an important job to do: it must draw the reader in. To that end, writers employ what is called a hook. The hook is simply something interesting or unusual or dramatic that makes readers want to find out what’s going on. It’s what carries the reader past the first paragraph of a short story or the first page of a novel. It isn’t necessarily the main conflict, although it could be. It provides the vital infusion of tension without which readers won’t become engaged.

If I may, I’ll use my own writing as an example, since I know it so well. The Fibonacci Murders opens with a statement from a key character, mathematician Tomio Kaneko, about why he was involved in a murder investigation. In the course of this short passage, he states that had he not become involved, he would have been spared injury. The main conflict (a sequence of murders that take on a serial killer aspect) doesn’t start immediately and Kaneko’s involvement comes well into the novel. But I needed to get him onto the scene early because of the key role he plays. So I decided to introduce each chapter which a personal statement by him. The opening statement injects some menace because the reader knows that he’s going to get hurt. That point only happens near the end (technically, in the late part of the story’s middle), but its foreshadowing creates an element of tension that (I hope!) draws the reader in.

In True Death, I handled it a bit differently. We first meet a guy sitting alone on the porch of a run-down cabin out in the mountains and through his musings find out that he regards himself as dead. Clearly something tragic has happened to him, but just what will only become clear late in the novel. At the outset, we don’t even know his name. Ice on the Bay opens with an actual crime being committed, a botched robbery at a veterinary clinic. You’ll read that something has gone horribly wrong, but you won’t immediately find out what.

These three examples, different as they are, share a common theme. You meet someone to whom something bad happens, but you don’t get any details about what it was. With any luck you want to know the details, and that’s what pulls you into the story. As the old writer’s addage puts it, “Shoot the sheriff on the first page.” To which I might add, “But don’t reveal who shot him. Or if you do, don’t let on why they shot him.” Give the reader something to worry about, then keep them worried. That’s tension. That’s what keeps them reading. That’s a good beginning.

But, of course, that’s only the start . . .

The offiical website of author Dale E. Lehman

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