Today’s post is from guest writer Dr. John Yeoman.
To succeed in a major writing contest – or even get published – you must give your story a strong sense of form. But why? After all, our everyday lives often have no obvious form or shape – and we want our stories to seem ‘true to life’, don’t we?
Yet, even if we’re writing a facumentary – a blend of fact and fiction – a story must show a powerful sense of direction and unity, simply to be readable. A wholly authentic story, told true to life, would be a ragbag of odd incidents going nowhere.
The hunger for form seems to be imbedded in our DNA. The first time we look up at the sky, as a naive child, we see stars as random dots. But we soon learn to connect the dots to make the Plough, Hercules, Cancer the Crab, and other patterns. And we give them names.
Perhaps the appeal of a good story is that it shows form at work in the world. We hunger for form to make the chaos of our lives meaningful. We want closure in a story, whether the end is happy or sad.
We know that life does not really have neat closures. As the old joke has it, a classical comedy ends with a wedding – but a tragedy immediately begins with one. Life goes on.
Total finality is not necessary in a great story.
Some fine tales end without any clear closure. John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman ‘ends’ by asking the reader to decide how the tale should continue. But do note: Fowles asks this question at the end of the story. An ending, of some sort, is still implied.
What’s the easiest way to achieve a strong sense of closure in a story? Try the Book End.
In the first section, you use a vivid incident, theme or phrase. The story then wanders down various byways. But at the end, it returns to that same incident, theme or phrase.
The ‘book end’ can even be an object.
For example, imagine that a story starts with a man climbing a mountain in winter snow. He has a big problem with his girl friend. He makes much use of his ice ax. The reader notes that it’s cold, ugly and hard – like the man himself. He drops his ice ax in a crevasse by accident and leaves it there.
More than a year later, the story ends with the man climbing the same mountain. But this time it’s spring. The ice has thawed. A lot has happened in his life in the past 15 months. He’s a changed man, more mature, more humane. He has become reconciled with his girl.
He sees his ice ax under the melted snow. He retrieves it. It’s cold, hard, ugly – just like he once was but now isn’t. He smiles. He throws the ax back into the crevasse.
With that symbolic gesture, the story closes. The Book End formula has given it a satisfying unity. That formula is a tested way to gain a prize in a story writing contest. It’s also a great way to overcome writer’s block.
Write the first paragraph then, at once, the last paragraph of your story. The last section can be very similar to the first, but give it a significant twist. The paragraphs don’t even have to be good. All can be tidied up later. The mind then persuades itself that the story has already been ‘written’. All that’s needed now, it tells itself, is to complete that trifling gap in the middle.
The Book End maybe a formula, but many of the novels in The New York Times bestseller list are based on shameless formulae. Try it! It’s a lot easier to complete a story that appears to be already half finished and well structured, with two strongly defined Book Ends, than to stare at a blank sheet of paper.
Dr. John Yeoman, PhD Creative Writing, has 42 years experience as a commercial author, is a former newspaper editor, and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight works of humor, some of them intended to be humorous.
John judges the Writers’ Village story competition and is a tutor in creative writing at a UK university. He has a free 14-part course in writing stories and novels for the commercial market.