Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Beginning to End--The Story Arc

I responded to a fellow writer's blog post yesterday, and her response to my response threw out a challenge. Determined not to let another two months pass before posting here, I want to take up that challenge. Joyce Alton, group moderator of the Speculative Fiction Group over at Agent Query Connect, talked about the importance of not overworking the beginning of your novel before you've finished the whole draft. Her excellent post is here.

The discussion about overworking the beginning before you really know the full and final shape of your work-in-progress had me thinking about the importance of knowing the ending before you can really craft your beginning. Each depends on the other. In writing any kind of fiction, we discuss the importance of arcs--character arcs and story arcs. Without those arcs, there is little drive forward and little satisfaction if, getting to the ending, we aren't fulfilled by the promise given at the start. And how can you know just what to promise you're going to deliver before you actually know what it is that you have delivered?

There are as many ways to approach writing a novel as there are writers. We tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum from "pantser" to "planner," from those who begin with an idea and just ride with it to those who outline the entire story first. I fall closer to the pantser end of the scale. I have to have an idea, main characters, an antagonist, and a fairly clear idea of where I want the story to end. But I know from others who plan nearly every plot point and twist, that no matter how much or little we plan before we start, as we work our way through, our characters will tend to surprise us. Events will occur that we didn't foresee. A surprising twist will take us to a place unexpected, and by the time we reach the end, though it may be just where we wanted it to go, in getting there we may have created something that has changed in tone or brought in aspects that we didn't know would happen when we were laboring to get that killer opening. So don't. 

Getting the ending right, of course, is just as important as the beginning. Well, and everything between, too. But we're talking about that arc, the big arc, the story arc. The opening of our books are a promise to the reader. In a few sentences, a few paragraphs, a few pages, we're showing the reader what we are going to give them. We have very little time to grab and hold them, and that first impression had better be right on the mark. It had better nail the tone of the book, introduce a character and an enticing problem. And it had better have hints of what's to come. That's what will keep the reader reading, make her want to take your book home. But you'd better deliver on that promise made, or you'll have a disappointed reader who won't be back. And how can you make that promise before you know just what, over the length of your manuscript, up to your oh, so satisfying conclusion, you will have delivered? I promise, no matter how carefully planned, it won't be exactly what you thought it would be when you began. So before you sweat that beginning, get to that ending. Sweat that for a while.

Ah, the ending. Whether happy or sad, explosive or quietly thoughtful, it must deliver. This is where the reader sits back with that last page open for a second or two and has his "Ahhh" moment. All the ends have been tied up. All the characters (in my own case, it would be those who survive) have gotten what they deserved or realized what they needed to learn. Promise fulfilled. Easy enough, right? Well, after about ten versions of my last chapter, I realized how many variations were possible before combining and polishing to what felt satisfying. And you know what? It made the beginning I'd worked on, but thankfully had not dwelt on too much, not right at all. It lacked the tone. It started in the wrong place. It meandered where it needed to punch. It needed the ending, the feel of the ending, to get it right. In other words, before I knew, really knew, what the whole scope of the novel would be delivering, actually did deliver, I couldn't really make that promise. 

So, as they used to say, don't stop to polish, polish, polish, wear out your beta readers, and stall your progress--keep on truckin'. Get to the end. You may think you know the arc your story will take, but you don't know until you get there exactly what you will have delivered on the promise you made. Then you can go back and make sure that promise is just what it needs to be to deliver that final "Ahhh."

The story arc--don't make promises you don't keep. But each of us has a different way to get there. What's yours?