I love this quote from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice In Wonderland”, not because it tells us where to begin, but because it highlights one of the problems facing fiction writers, particularly writers of short fiction.
“The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please, Your Majesty?” he asked.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
I’ve always felt rather like the White Rabbit — a bit unsure where to begin. Even when writing a non-fiction piece, finding that perfect jumping-off point can be challenging.
In writing longer fiction pieces, a writer has the luxury of starting almost anywhere the ideas take them. Whatever interesting bit jumps out first. I enjoy writing action passages, so I will often write some of them first.
But whatever we create, however out of sequence it may eventually turn out to be, we can rearrange any section, chapter or paragraph to better suit our finished piece.
When writing short stories, flash fiction, or micro-fiction, we don’t have the same luxury. The leeway — the wriggle room — is so restricted.
And every word must be made to do almost triple duty. Every single one counts. Each word we choose must be the best-chosen, the most emotionally charged, the most perfectly nuanced.
Similar to how we treat words in poetry. Parsing them out to convey our singular and specific meaning.
This does not mean every word must be high-emotion. Quite the contrary. Writing with constant high emotion would soon pall.
It would be like shouting in our reader’s ear, or composing an email completely in all-caps. Our readers would be so deafened by the constant barrage, they wouldn’t be able to tell which parts were the most important.
It’s the careful blending of words which sells the feeling we’re trying to convey. The balance between the familiar and the new — the mundane and the exciting.
With nothing but constant turmoil and high emotion in our writing, we’d be like people habitually in crisis-mode — unable to appreciate what a storm is, because we’ve never experienced the calm before one.
But one of the best tricks for writing short fiction, is once we have a germ of an idea about our story, plan the ending first.
Plan The Ending First
As soon as we find our idea, our hook, start thinking in terms of where it all needs to go. Especially if we want to try a twist or reversal.
But plot-twist or no, this way, we’ll know exactly where we’re aiming. Having a general idea is great. But not quite good enough for short and micro-short pieces. For these types of stories, the writer needs to know exactly where they’re going.
From the first moment we introduce those characters to the final sentence of the story, everything that hits the page must aim the reader inevitably towards the ending.
Even if we hide the ending, or bring in a change-up, going in a completely different direction from where we seemed to be heading, everything must draw the reader through the denouement (the high point), and smoothly on to the finish line.
Not every story we write needs to have a plot twist or a turn-around. But it has to have a satisfying conclusion.
Every good short story needs the following basic elements:
- A Strong Beginning — a hook to draws us in to the story. A possibility with legs (the main thesis or idea). Legs which are strong enough to carry our story the whole distance, from start to finish.
- A Single, Clear Style which sets the tone for what is to unfold. Like the deceptively serene beginning of Daphne DuMaurier’s 1952 novelette “The Birds”. Serene until you begin to sense the dark and frightening undercurrents. The style shouldn’t suddenly change part way through. It needs to be maintained throughout the piece. If the story starts with casual, modern language, it shouldn’t suddenly switch to the idiom of a bygone era— unless we’ve time-traveled.
- A Clear Story Line — short pieces and flash fiction cover one tiny event in the life of our character. One key, important event. And fewer characters is the usually better choice. We can’t change horses in mid-stream. There isn’t time for side plots and extra people, except for a very cursory glance. If we can’t sum up a side-plot in a sentence or two and have it dove-tail perfectly, get rid of it. Stay focused. This is the important moment. Keep the reader in it. Keep them interested. If this moment in the character’s life isn’t important, and interesting, why on earth would anyone read it? And why would we write it?
- A Compelling Character Arc — Even if our story encompasses as bucolic a moment as the dory ride from “A Mill on the Floss” our characters must still have an arc. They must go through something, discover or rediscover something, face something. Of course their arc could be their refusal to change in the face of adversity, but even that is an arc, and carries consequences.
- A Satisfying Ending — this doesn’t necessarily have to be a twist. Plot twists are fun and make for some of the most memorable reads. But, if we have signaled quite clearly where we’re headed, and keep our readers interested through to the end, and our story ends exactly as we promised, or implied, then we’ve delivered the goods. An ending that is inevitable can be equally as compelling as any last-minute change-up.
Think about some of your favorite short stories. Why do you remember them? Sometimes you will recall a favorite feeling. A wonderful warm-fuzzy. Who will ever forget “The Velveteen Rabbit” once they’ve read it?
Because our brains are wired the way they are, we remember beginning and endings — the First and the Last Rule. Which is great for performers, too, because even if we forget the words of the song, or mess up a chord progression in the middle, we can still wow them with a big finish.
Not so great for writers, though. If our work gets soggy in the middle, most people will just stop reading. But they if they do remember our work, it will be because of the hook, the compelling character(s), and the finale.
So — to keep the path clear, to keep our writing focused and on point, write your ending first. Then go back and make sure our opening, our hook, fits with where we want to end up. And works for our story.
We may have to tinker a bit. Pick a new ending. Adjust the hook. And the whole plot may evolve and become clearer as we write. But everything else must fit in between the two.
Like any other tool in our writing kit, this one takes some practice. It won’t solve every problem that crops up and they always do. But it works a treat, once we get the hang of it.
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