Open Your Story at the Start of the Ending

by Intermittent Rain ~ March 13th, 2019

“Begin at the start of the ending” is a writing aphorism. Open your story there and you set yourself up to easily carry through without losing the reader’s attention.

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During a Twitter discussion on the use of literary devices, I said that I use flashback because I tend to start near the end and I need flashback to get at the history of the character and situation. One person assumed that if I’m starting near the end, then I know the ending before I begin writing. She was envious.

But I almost never know the ending when I start writing. I don’t even know what I’m writing about until much later. All I have is a situation and/or a character or just a character trait, or perhaps a technique to try or a restriction I want to play with.

My ability to craft prose has become quite decent and I can improvise off a small vision or idea for a few hundred words without difficulty. I do this by feeling around inside the situation hoping to find where it wants to go. Then I wait to see if the character or voice or situation inspires me to keep going. This I refer to as seeing if the story “has legs”.

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So how am I starting near the end? When I don’t know the end?

I think it happens naturally. If the material has enough tension and cohesion to continue (ie. if the story has legs) then it doesn’t take too many words to write to the resolution of that tension.

These are 1,000 to 5,000 word stories, though in one case it became a 23,000 word novella. That one took 23,000 words because of the complexity of the situation. A lot of backstory and context was required —  some flashback, some internal narrative, as well as the POV and narrative and interaction of multiple characters — before I could explain how this all came to be, even though the primary story timeline is only six or eight hours long. Still, the story from middle to end is the resolution of those opening tensions. When the story opens the endgame has just begun, only none of the characters realize this (and neither did I, when I was working on early drafts).

This is slightly different for novels. My novels open with tension and situation and voice but the material feels more open-ended. The tension for a novel is a fact of life for the character rather than the one-time event or limited applicability condition of a short story, and it’s gonna take an entire novel to explore the different situations that the tension will affect.

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So in a short story, if you open with tension and work towards its resolution, you will have started near the end. If instead you explain the situation, describe the characters, and then write the history to get to the moment with the tension you might start far from the end. And if that set up lacks interest, you may lose your reader before you get to the important parts.

As a reader for a publication, I see this problem all too often in submissions. Yes, especially for science fiction we need to know the world that you’ve built, in historical fiction we need to know the time and place, but don’t bore the reader by dumping it all at the opening. Describe it in a fascinating way that whets the reader’s appetite, or hold on to parts and tuck in snippets at natural points in the narrative.

Differences between reality and fiction

by Intermittent Rain ~ February 14th, 2019

Writing a story is not the same as experiencing reality.

For one thing, fiction is more interesting than 99% of most people’s reality.

Even creative non-fiction and memoir take reality and reshape it for presentation so it’s not boring, doesn’t include irrelevant moments, and has a coherent story or point.

There are some basic differences between good writing and reality, and reasons why those differences exist.

 

Dialogue

Fiction or even creative non-fiction rarely use actual dialogue. Too many ‘um’s and shortcuts and unclear wording.

A fictionalized version carries dialect and character traits and is clear when the character is intending to be clear and obtuse when the author needs the character to be obtuse.

Setting descriptions

When you walk into a coffee shop you carry a plethora of background or assumptions. What country are you in? City? Time of day? Previous times in this location? Previous experiences in this chain? How do you know what you want? Where is the menu? You expect the smell of coffee, display cabinet of snacks, sounds of canned music, or do you? Are they there, or are they missing?

The writer needs to give the reader some of the details that the writer may not think about when they walk into a coffee shop. The reader is not actually there and needs extra description to compensate.

Use of the seven senses

I’m not very Zen. I pay little attention to the feel of my clothes, the sound of my shoes on gravel, the flavor or temperature of my coffee, the smell of my toothpaste, the spin around our spiral staircase, the change in air pressure from 100 meters above sea level at my home to almost zero where my office is, the taste of my food. As long as these experiences are close to my expectations or previous experiences, I barely notice.

If you walk in the snow you sense the softness under your foot, hear the crunch, feel the cold, but if you were in this situation yesterday, why pay attention? The reader does not come into a situation with your expectations and background and previous experience. They need the information that you take for granted to help them understand, to help them to be there with you.

Time

Time is pretty constant unless you are an astronaut traveling at significantly different velocities than the rest of the planet.

In stories, time is presented at different speeds: important moments have lots of words, some internal narratives exist almost outside of time, and large chunks of irrelevant time brushing teeth, opening doors, driving, are skipped entirely. Most writers don’t have too much difficulty with this, though the balance between words allocated to crucial and less important moments is something that we all struggle with.

Detail

Two lines from a draft of a memoir read, “We stopped at Normandy, where my father had fought in the war. It was an emotional experience,” and then goes on to talk about the next stop. This is either an example including material simply because it happened even though it plays no part in the point of the story, or, more likely, an example of the writer failing to understand the difference between what they experience as they read the words to what the reader gets from those words.

As a reader, what do you sense is missing? Description of Normandy, past and present? Backstory about the father? Actual things the author saw, heard, thought? Explanation and description of the emotions so the reader can understand and experience them?

Now, try to get into the author’s head and understand why this writer wrote what they wrote. For them, all the missing context and backstory and memory of sights and emotions are conveyed by the words as given. ‘Normandy’ brings up sights and experiences. ‘Father’ and ‘fought in the war’ have many meanings and stories. ‘Emotional experience’ sums all the feelings their depth and flavors the sentence with it.

It’s all there. For the author.

But for no one else.

 

Goldberg Variations as NaNoWriMo

by Intermittent Rain ~ October 15th, 2018

I am now trying to identify elements of fiction that equate to harmonic progression as well as possibly key and form (matching the series of canons). Number of bars is likely not a big concern as it comes out of the repeated harmonic progression, meaning, retaining the chord progression requires the number and sequence of bars because you cannot extend or shorten one or more chords without destroying the balance and flow, and Bach is all about balance.

(The Goldberg post was going on and on through numerous revisions and additions over many days so I opted to split it into two posts. I started thinking about this in early October and am keen on working my way to the point of being able to execute it for this year’s NaNoWriMo project.)

The harmonic progression is not unlike the 12 bar blues that is the basis of many jazz, blues, and early rock and roll songs. Or the 32 bar A-A-B-A form of I Got Rhythm by George Gershwin, which is the other classic jazz form and chord progression. Like these, the Goldberg progression is strong, complete, malleable, and capable of supporting many melodic inventions.

But it is also subtle. In most theme and variations forms the theme is the melody and I’m not sure the individual variations are capable of standing on their own or being listened to sporadically the way the Goldberg variations are. A bus stop or particular table in a coffee shop might offer the variety of stories but would not be as subtle.

And might time of day be similar to key? There are only twelve keys and if you progress in a sequence (semi-tone or fourth) through all the keys you end up back at the beginning, just as moving through twenty four hours will take you back to the same time of day. The ancients did believe that each key had its own personality but that was before the development of well tempered tuning.

Bach was a proponent of the well tempered tuning system, so I suspect the stasis of key is more a function of technical ease for the performer and ease of adjustment for a dozing patron, and maybe to eliminate any idea of hierarchy or relationship between the variations that might otherwise be implied or interpreted. I think Bach might have liked to use more than one key but unless he did exactly one, two, or three in each of twelve keys there is the risk of implying a relationship between the variations that I think he did not want. And since he had already done all twelve keys twice (the two books of The Well Tempered Clavier) there was no need to go there again.

So for fiction, finding the equivalent of the key is less important than making sure there are no implied hierarchies or relationships between the stories. And maybe use some staid element to help negate such.

So what are elements of fiction that I could reuse? Plot; no. Plot is like melody, too identifiable. Characters? No, because then the reader will look for connection and development. Setting? Maybe, though that’s more identifiable than harmonic progression, meaning obvious. Unless there is a means of disguising it the way Bach uses different meters and composition techniques and textures. Emotion? Again, too strong and too easily identified and connected. I could use the ‘theme’ of grief, for example, but it would be too easy to see how each story is related and collectively it might be perceived to be some wider statement about it. The same applies to a concept, say ‘inequality’.

But maybe that’s not bad. I’m no Bach; I’m no master at the peak of his creative abilities, and really, what I’m after is material. A couple NaNoWriMos ago I ended up with two short stories and a character which I may still develop into a novel, as well as the start of what turned out to be a 22,000 word novella.

So I could use location or a concept, but location would have to be flexible for multiple stories and styles, and something that promotes action, else I risk constantly having to struggle with dialogue heavy talking heads. A gym is too limited in its action, a playground too limited in its users. An event location like an arena which might have sports, concerts, ceremonies or trade shows would have the flexibility. A large city park with sports areas, kids play areas, picnic tables, hiking trails, ponds might have enough variety, but then most stories would have to be set outdoors. Of course, something larger like a city or even small town is almost limitless.

Concept is probably automatically more flexible than location, but it would need to be 1) a concept with sufficient facets to allow multiple approaches, and 2) a concept I’d be happy living with for 30 days straight.

Another step removed from emotion -> concept might be an object; say, a cup, so every story has in it somewhere a cup. But that might be too subtle and artificial. However, because it could be subtle, then perhaps I could *add* it as well; every story uses the concept, *plus* has a cup. The cup becomes the key, (G major/minor) and the concept substitutes for the harmonic progression.

And what about time of day? That’s fairly plastic as well; all sorts of things can happen at the same time of day, or, I could cycle through different hours of the day. Or I could keep the time of day and change time zones.

Cycling time of day is interesting in that Bach specifically did *not* change key, but, I have 24 hours to work with and he only had 12 keys, plus he’d done 12 keys before. 24 is close to 30, and I don’t have to write them sequentially, I could be flexible, label the general time of day and figure out the specifics later. Especially if they are to be presented in sequence. And I probably need more help than Bach anyway. Time of day might be the equivalent of the series of canons, the only thing that connects the series.

And time of day is flexible; I don’t have to decide what specific time of day for most, and I don’t have to label them even in my own mind until I’m well into it and decide that it’s going to work for me.

So, we have:

  • concept,
  • and / or location,
  • object,
  • possibly time of day

Now, I need come up with potential concept, location, and object.