Finding the end of the story.

Kitty, arrives at the class with three pages of writing.  She’s created a feisty main character with an interesting dilemma.  ‘I know exactly how it will end,’ says Kitty.  ‘I’ve just got to work out the bit in the middle.’

‘So,’ I say, ‘you’ll finish it for next session.’

Kitty fiddles with the pages of her notebook and looks away.  ‘Maybe not,’ she says.

street artBeneath her fingers are three other projects that she has started with great energy and abandoned at the half-way point.

‘Could it be,’ I suggest, ‘that you’re thinking too far ahead each time?’

I have two problems in pre-plotting endings.  The first is that my character might not decide to go in the direction I need them to, and so I am continually placing them in situations that haven’t evolved naturally.  The second is that because I’ve already worked the ending out there’s no sense of excitement about my writing.

This does not mean that planning is wrong.  It works for a lot of writers.  There are plenty of planning styles for big projects, ranging from the paper-based versions, such as postcards pinned to a wall or shuffled into order, to sophisticated computer programmes that can either lead you with prompts, or be used to store your ideas.

‘What if,’ I suggested to Kitty, ‘you write up that ending you’ve anticipated, and put it aside.  It can be your back-up, but also, because you’ve written it, you can let go of that idea.

Then you can pick up the story from the point it is at now and let your main character work out what happens next.  Don’t think about an ending.  Let it happen.’

‘I could try that,’ said Kitty.

I said, ‘What have you got to lose?’



*Photo by Leon Keer.

Are you thinking of writing something for Halloween?


Detail from 'The pit and The pendulum', by Arthur Rackham

Detail from ‘The pit and The pendulum’, by Arthur Rackham

In my early teens I went through a craze for reading ghost stories by torch light under the bed covers, long after the rest of the family had fallen asleep.  I don’t remember much about those short stories now, what I remember is the effect of them, and how when I was alone in the house, or baby-sitting on dark nights, the atmosphere of them would creep up on me until I had to rush for light switches.  Then, even after I had closed the curtains and checked the locks, how I would be straining not to hear the noises you only notice when you are alone.

The stories that I have not forgotten are two of the older ones,The Monkey’s Paw, by W. W. Jacobs and The Amorous Ghost, by Enid Bagnold.  What’s interesting about them, from the writing point of view, is how little ‘ghosting’ they actually contain.

Take, The Monkey’s Paw.  Strictly speaking, this is as much horror as ghost, but it’s often anthologised in ghost collections, so who am I to be picky?  What I’m interested in is why this 1902 story has endured.  Rereading it I’m always surprised by the events described.  It turns out to be, largely, a domestic story.

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

Detail from triptych of the Temptation, by Bosch

There are few graphic descriptions of the supernatural to make our flesh creep.  Here, instead, is a character study.  The horror evolves naturally when the dynamics of a close family are tested.

Jacobs opens with the classic, ‘dark and stormy night’.  That’s a tricky one to carry off successfully, but he does it economically, neatly demonstrating what is meant by show don’t tell.

After that, tension is raised gradually.  We are not left room to disbelieve, but the characters are:

“Morris said the things happened so naturally,” said his father, “that you might if you so wished attribute it to coincidence.”

There are no coincidences in this story.  Every event builds on from the previous one, apparently naturally.  From the moment the three wishes are mentioned, our sense of the inevitability of their journey towards darkness is established.  One wish leads to another, despite the warnings about interfering with fate, and despite the examples of what happened to the previous owners who ignored them.

This is good story telling.  Dialogue and description, action and report are interwoven so neatly that the story races along.  My mind shouts no, don’t, but they do, and I turn the page, and then another.  And the real horror?  It’s not in the writing at all, its in my mind.

The ending is the final touch of genius with this story.  I dare you to read it and not be affected.

On the other hand (no pun intended), once you begin to look at how the structure works, doesn’t it make you feel that it might be fun to try and write one for Halloween?  There should just be time to come up with something suitable for a candle-lit reading.

When it Works

Rosie tells me she likes a good book, with a good ending.  We’ve struck up a conversation while standing at the bookstall at the local fete.

As a regular, I’ve seen a lot of the selection before. Some because they have been religiously returned to the village-hall storeroom after each event, others because at some point I had bought, read and then donated them again.  Some of the bindings are disintegrating, many of the pages are fragile, crumbling at a touch.  All of the regulars carry a patina of storage, a kind of dusty texture that forms on books that are rarely used.

The village fete bookstallA lot of my past is embedded in this stall, and each year I spend time re-reading sections of old friends.  They are books that rarely make it to the heap of books I plan taking home, space on my shelf is short enough, but I’m glad to meet them again.  Most have long since disappeared from libraries or even charity shops, they’re the sort of pulp fiction that was published in the 1960s and 70s.

Where do books go when they fall out of favour?  The bin, I suppose.  Call me romantic, but I like to think most at least get recycled into new books rather than mouldering amongst the general landfill.  Meanwhile, the magic of the village bookstall is that you never know what might get turned out of someone’s attic.

Rosie and I compare our bargains and talk fiction.  She likes historical romance.  Her finger marks a page at the back of a novel.

‘Is it any good?’ I say.

‘I liked her first one,’ says Rosie.  ‘It was about pirates.’

I gesture at the workhouse scene on the copy she’s holding. ‘You haven’t read this one?’

She had not. ‘I’m just checking the last two pages,’ she says.  ‘I wont start it unless it ends right.’

‘In case someone gets killed off?’

‘A bit that, but mostly that it feels right.  It’s complicated.’

It is.  An ending is such an important part of the writing.  It is the last impression, the flavour that lingers as you are walking out of the restaurant.  Later, you can clean your teeth, or buy something powerful enough to over-ride the taste, but that was not what the chef, or writer was aiming for, was it?

Rosie had read the cover.  Everything about it, picture, title, author and text told her that the subject was one she could enjoy. Reading it would give her a good feeling, but what Rosie knew was that reading isn’t just about the moment.  A story, long or short, with a strong ending, resonates.  We might carry the mood of it out into our life.

Reading as a Writer: The Queen’s Gambit

I’ve just been reading The Queen’s Gambit*, by Elizabeth Fremantle.  I volunteered to review it for the bookselling site,

 I’m posting the review I’ve sent them here, but with a few additional thoughts I had on reading it as a writer.

I like historical fiction.  When it’s done well it is armchair time-travel.  This one is well thought out and nicely written.   The opening hooked me straight onto Katherine Parr, the main character.  The prologue shows her caring for her dying second husband, John Neville, Lord Latymer, who describes her as, ‘his dear, dear Kit.’  We see that she is thoughtful, practical, caring and clever and that he loves and trusts her.  I trust her.  She is not a great beauty, he tells us, but she has charisma.  It is this charisma that drives the main strand of the story, because here is a Katherine Parr who can be asked to cross unspeakable boundaries, if circumstances demand.  Who knows what else a woman will do, if she’ll risk her eternal soul to save a loved one from suffering…   

The novel’s secondary character is not King Henry VIII, but Katherine’s servant girl, Dot.  Here is an equally rounded character, slightly scatty, but caring and curious.  While Katherine is progressing along her political road, Dot is learning.  Her questions and curiosity allow Fremantle to provide a broader picture of Tudor life and expectations. There is no need to pause for explanations; Dot’s journey illuminates the period.  She watches, listens, questions and learns, and has her own romance to pursue.

This is not a heavy novel.  It only spans six years of Katherine and Dot’s lives, but in that time, both are drawn into the dangerous religious and political intrigues of Henry’s court. Through their extraordinary stories Freemantle provides an accessible and vivid picture of women’s lives in Tudor England. 

How can you put your reader on the edge of their seat when writing a fiction based on a historical figure?  I suspect that most readers will know how the marriage of Henry and Katherine came to an end.  Even if they have not seen one of the many celluloid, ‘Lives of Henry VIII’, then the old, ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, alive’ rhyme is probably jingling along at the back of their minds as they turn the pages.

Fremantle’s solution is to give us access to Katherine’s thoughts, memories and feelings, so we can see her tensions.  Katherine is no longer a middle-aged and plain woman who was good at ducking domestic missiles when Henry’s gout was bad.  (Oops, wasn’t that from a Carry-on film?) Instead we have a woman who is sexual attracted to one man, but forced to marry another, and that man is notorious for the way he has disposed of four of his previous five wives.  Our sympathies are engaged, our curiosity is raised, how did she do it? Why? What would that have been like?

For suspense, we have Dot, faithful to the point of reckless, and Huicke, royal physician, whose homosexuality puts him at risk.   

Dot is particularly interesting, because she is the character who grows in this story.  Dot is a servant, and therefore trained to serve invisibly: she should be neither seen nor heard, we are reminded several times.  Well, that’s not so in Katherine’s household.  When Dot enters the story, in the prologue, she is apparently a secondary character, almost invisible to us, the reader, too.  But she is in Katherine’s thoughts when the chapter ends.

So what? You may say. 

I say, if beginnings need a good hook, endings require bigger ones on the same fishing line.  Chapters don’t just fade away, they generally leave us with a question designed to maintain our attention. Sometimes it is a cliff-hanger, ‘what next?’ often it’s a, ‘why, how, where or who?’  

So when Chapter 1 ends with the suggestion that the daughter of the house thinks of her servant as a sister, I wonder, Why? and turn to the next chapter.

And there is Dot, asking questions, not only for herself, but us too.  Like the side-kick in a detective duo, her purpose is to allow Fremantle to draw our attention to significant details.  But more than that, the areas of Dot’s ignorance are as revealing as the answers she is given.  She is a historical reference point.  Education, we are shown, is available only to certain people at this time.  Dot embodies the expectations and experiences the serving classes might expect, whether by acquiescing to them or defying them.     

But Dot’s other big function in the story is that she is not a major figure in history.  When the scandals and intrigues hot up, and Dot is drawn into the centre of them, we have no idea whether she will survive them, let alone how.  It is Dot who carries the real tension of the story.  While we may hope that our author will not kill off a major character, we cannot feel confident.  After all, Dot is a servant, she is expendable.  So if Dot has developed into a character we can care about, and has been drawn into perilous situations, then the author has us on the edge of our seats despite what we know about Katherine.      

  *The Queen’s Gambit is published in early March 2013