I would like to talk about how a story in book form is ‘constructed’. In a previous article, I mentioned that stories do not simply FLOW from the author’s pen, and actually, the best books begin as simple thoughts, and are repeatedly revisited, fine-tuned, honed and embellished. Thus, the nightmare you had last Wednesday and only vaguely remember, can become a modern-day War and Peace given time, care and attention.
Lewis Carroll’s King, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland put it best: ‘Begin at the beginning…and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’ It’s often easier to write the more exciting and interesting bits first, but there’s no avoiding it—no story can exist without Chapter One.
The beginning of a book is one of the most challenging parts to write because it strongly influences whether the reader will bother to move on to Chapter Two. Chapter One must establish the setting and nature of the book, introduce basic concepts, feature at least one character, and create a foundation on which the rest of the book will be based. It must be neither so boring nor so overly informative that the gentle reader wants to shuffle off to wash dishes rather than digest your magnum opus.
All books have this problem. At university, a psychology professor said of his own text book, ‘first chapters are always boring, even mine.’ A Great Tale must have a Great Beginning, capturing the reader’s interest and whetting the appetite for what is to come.
As a writer, it’s a good idea to have at least roughed out the final chapter as well. It helps to develop and shape the story, a sort of ‘destination’ for your narrative journey.
The end of a story has a second element of challenge. Some writers fail to provide a sufficiently exhilarating conclusion, and others finish too quickly. Some conclude their stories with something so esoteric that only they get the point. Others miss half a dozen opportunities to conclude, and leave the reader feeling s/he is endlessly circling the drain.
Now you know the beginning and the end. With the tedious bits behind you, the real fun begins—you get to write the middle. The first and last chapters are anchors. In the middle, you can do anything and go anywhere you like with your story. This is the part with the greatest flexibility, the greatest potential for exploration and experimentation, and the greatest room for imagination.
Writing a book is like hosting a magnificent banquet, and reading a book is like attending one. Chapter One is the Appetizer—it needs to taste good, but not be so filling there’s no room for the rest of the dinner. It’s meant to stimulate your appetite so you stick around for the fish and macaroni, instead of grabbing your hat and saying, ‘Must run!’
The other dishes in the feast fill and satisfy the most, and the courses offered complement each other. If you begin by offering shrimp puffs, crab cakes and pate, the next dish shouldn’t be a Sloppy Joe. Within that framework between first and last courses, myriad suitable options offer themselves and wait only to be chosen.
So it is with writing of the rest of the book. Experiment with characters and approaches to a particular point. Give your imagination free rein—sometimes the momentum of a single creative thought can carry you for chapters. Try to have multiple options from which to select the most appropriate and fitting continuation for your story, and for Heaven’s sake, have fun with it! People will only see what you publish, feel free to be silly. But do be consistent. In biographies, while it might make sense to write about the subject’s parentage, no one will be particularly interested until they’ve met the subject of the biography. The family tree can follow, but must not lead.
To conclude the banquet analogy: the last course is dessert, and if the dinner has been interesting and satisfying, the dessert should be too. My personal preference for a sweet, like a small sorbet, is rightly overruled by gateau, pie a la mode, or something soaked in brandy and set on fire.
Like the banquet, the book has to come to a conclusion; there has to be a dramatic (or at least interesting) event to bring the story to a close. A story that ends, ‘and they all went home’ is likely to leave the reader feeling unsatisfied. Therefore, you can write that He, who has yearned for She for ages, finally has worked up the courage to seize Her in his arms and, at long last, cover her pretty, upturned face with hot, burning kisses.
There’s no need to mention the restraining order that follows.
So, dear friends, welcome to the Feast!