Best-selling author Jacquelyn Mitchard talks great beginnings, story structure, dialogue and great endings
On Friday, I attended Jacquelyn Mitchard’s writers intensive workshop as part of the SCBWI Southern Breeze SpringMingle conference. Mitchard is a New York Times bestselling author and editor of Merit Press, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Her novel The Deep End of the Ocean was Oprah Winfrey Book Club’s inaugural selection and was later adapted into a film. She has written over twenty books for adults, teens and children. She is also a faculty member at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Mitchard had me at hello. Her morning talk began something like this: In hard times, “writing will save your life.”
Her day-long workshop focused on great beginnings, structure, dialogue, and great endings. I have compiled the highlights in the following post.
Where and how should you open our story? As close to the end as possible. Start your story as close to the precipitating event as you can. This is where the exciting part of the story happens.
It’s not so much about going long but about going deep. Ask yourself, where is the meat of the story? Where is the meat of the events involved? Kurt Vonnegut was one of the first people to talk about this.
The best way is to start is to start with action, with a scene.
What most readers hate about reading, for example historical fiction, is the dreaded backstory. Things that inform the current behavior of the protagonist can slide into the narrative at strategic points — like uranium rods. If you don’t have them all in the reactor, the reactor won’t blow up. You have them in your story when the story demands it, when it is essential for the reader to know them.
What are the elements of a potent story?
What makes a story different is the fresh details, the author’s vision and the author’s voice. The author’s voice is the hardest thing to quantify. It means the authorial voice, the personality of the author, the way that you choose to present the information, the preeminence of the author and the way the writer makes choices about how to tell the story. The best way to do this is to decide what you are going to say and how you are going to say it. Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is an example of a book that has a very strong voice.
Where to start?
We don’t start with biographies. Write not what you know as the author, but what the reader needs to know as part of the story. Start with events that are compelling, that won’t allow the reader to look away. When you enter a story — the house of fiction — it has to be through a very narrow hallway. There is room to take off your coat, but not much more than that. You are quickly ushered into the story. If it is too dispersed it won’t last… it must start right in the middle of the mayhem. The distress happens right away. There is not an enormous amount of history and prologue. Resist the impulse to tell the reader about what they are going to read, this is a measure of your own insecurity. You can add the information to the book as you need it.
Don’t open your novel with:
-Crutches or gimmicks (ex. journals and letters)
Start with as much action as you possibly can. Start at the place where things are irrevocable.
The first words and first two pages are of extraordinarily importance. The opening salvo establishes a sense of control, purpose and authenticity.
First sentences are first impression. It is extraordinarily important to start with a good first sentence, even if it is very simple. It is your hook. The first time that the reader gets to experience you and the story. You spend a lot of time crafting it. It allows you to think the work is real.
The reader needs to feel intelligent at all time. They need to feel in on it, as though they are included in something that is very important. It should be engrossing, welcoming and draw them in.
Establish the character doing something. There is no better way to establish a character than to put him in a circumstance that reveals how that person will behave and who they are.
The best stories crackle with great dialogue and monologue. A few chosen words of dialogue can advance the story and connect us with characters in a way that nothing else does. It is the highlight reel of the narrative.
True Grit by Charles Portis is one of the best examples of realized voice in fiction. There is no need to identify the characters, Portis does everything with dialogue.
Speech in a story is not real speech. Real speech is filled with pauses and sounds, gestures, hesitations and peculiarities. Movie speech is accented by all the same things. In movies, you have camera angles and photography which also substitute the nuances of dialogue.
Books and stories offer a challenge in that the author must write dialogue with emotion that is embodied with action. Speech can draw a reader into a book with dialogue that is impossible to turn away from. It can also be a great ending if the seed was planted somewhere else along the book.
In The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold dialogue is the part that you remember. It’s fact based, narrative and lyrical.
Every story is made up of 8 to 10 major events. Structure is the way that the story is presented on the page — events that are consequences of previous events. Everything has a direct effect on the protagonist, even if it happens later. A major event produces a minor complication, that leads to a major complication later on. Until the end, which is a moment of grace or recognition.
There has to be a reason for every action. But if you end up with an over plotted story, you lose the intimacy. Sometimes you need to go deep, not long. You are talking about human connections and big emotional events, and each deserves space.
The events are interconnected, nothing happens for no reason. It doesn’t matter how the events are related to each other as long as they are interdependent. If you put a person in collision with circumstances, a great story comes up. For story pantsers, if after writing 100 pages you still don’t know where the story is heading, it has a birth defect and it is not heading for a healthy delivery.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald has a great ending—a beautiful and conclusive ending. Endings should be like the ending of symphony, a restatement of all that came before and something more.
In the 19th century stories ended in conclusive ways, they either got married or died, for example Jane Austen’s novels.
With the 20th and 21st century, endings became more inconclusive for example Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
There are many ways to end a story, but one of them is not to just have it stop. If the promise is not kept, the reader is left unsatisfied. You have broken the pledge you made to the reader at the beginning of the book.
The postmodern ending is not the ending of the individual story but the writers’ feeling of life in general. For example, in Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses a man eats an egg and leaves a restaurant — this is the last scene of the novel.
What you say at the end of the book is a good night kiss. The last impression you leave with the reader. At the beginning you and the reader have a great deal of hope. Towards the end, the writer is running out of steam.
Ask yourself as you end the story: Is there a great and final struggle at the end?
No incident that precedes the closing should be more exciting than the closing itself, even though the closing can be subtle. There has to be some confrontation in the end with the antagonistic forces. And every ending should contain some small element of surprise.
Not every loose end can be tied up in every narrative but it should resolve some of the questions raised. If the ending is a dud, it can disgrace the whole book — like a gymnastics’ routine that missed the landing.
The reader needs to belong to you by the end of the story. It is time to say good bye as gratefully and gracefully as you can.
Getting to that ending is your measure as a writer. You think about that ending at the beginning, and the entire book is a way to get to that ending. As the write, you know what you want the characters to experience.
Some writers start to think of the ending before the mid-point. Is there going to be a surprise or redemption? The best endings have an element of surprise and yet the seeds for that ending were planted somewhere else in the story.
The ending should be appropriate to the book and the type of book that it is.
Each book in a series should be read as standalone.
Even meditative endings like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, restores the order to the family life that had been ruptured.