November 1st, 2010


Preventing a Kick in The Rear

Writers and readers talk about opening lines. No, not pick up lines.  Although, my personal favorite is: “Did it hurt?  When you fell from heaven?”  I mean, how can you not stare in disgust…um, awe…at the person who uses that line?  But I digress.  My point was to make sure you’re thinking about first lines of a story.  We all have favorites: “Where’s papa going with that ax?” from Charlotte’s Web; “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” from Anna Karenina.  The list goes on and on and . . . Writers sacrifice hours, consume inhuman amounts of chocolate or coffee (sometimes both), and beg the gods, as they toil to uproot the perfect opening line. A line so powerful it seduces the reader away from the grays and browns of real life, leading them to a vibrant escape. It is a lot of pressure. Shucks, our own jongibbs  has a contest designed to find and celebrate the best opening line.


As important as opening lines are, they aren’t everything. I mean, if all I needed was a great first line, I would have been published at the age of eight when wrote: “Sarah Ann got eaten by a chocolate chip cookie when she was seven.”  Yep, the opening line to my first story.  As great as that line was, the story lacked a very important part of storytelling anatomy.  A part, I only recently learned how to create.  A part that gets the short end (no pun intended) of the analysis, even though all stories have it…good ones, anyway. What is this piece of storytelling anatomy?  The rear end. 


Sure, we grumble when the end stinks.  But we seldom talk about what pleases us.  I think you and I know what makes a good ending. Yet, I keep reading books that...well, make me want to put on boots and deliver a kick to the rear. So I'll start the conversation...


It is present:

There is nothing worse than a flat rear.  The end must be part of the greater story, but distinguished by its definitive structure and curve.  A reader experiences the tension of the climax and a pleasurable release as characters meet their just end.  The dénouement returns characters, now altered by their experiences, to a place of normalcy. 


It is firm:

The climax and the dénouement are clean and concise, possessing only the elements that the reader consumed prior to the ending.  The point of view(s) used in the beginning of the story remain consistent throughout.  By the third act, the reader gets answers to the questions introduced in the first act.  If questions remain, they are inconsequential to the greater story.  Yes, this goes for books that are a part of a series.  I enjoy cliffhangers, but I LOVE having answers to the major questions.  On the flip side, the story tells the reader only what is needed, avoiding diarrhea of the mouth.  (Diarrhea eclipses everything, even a brilliant climax.)


It is real:

The characters respond to the events in the climax in a way that is consistent with their personality, and the alterations to that personality based on events in the story. Meaning?  If a character has claustrophobia, s/he cannot climb a mountain at the end of the book unless there have been events gradually exposing said character to achieve that goal OR the character is demonstrating A LOT of stress, almost debilitating stress, as they face that fear.  


It gives you something to talk about:

The last page or pages possess words or create an image that lingers, ghost letters on your heart or in your mind.  The words stir emotions.  Sometimes it is a phrase or motto from a character.  Sometimes it is a mirror of the opening line.  Sometimes the writer leaves the ending open, allowing the reader to write the ending.  Whatever it is, you want to talk about IT with your friends.


What did I miss?  OR What books do you think have great rear ends?