You may be eager to get on with writing the defining dramatic scenes that are playing out in your head, but allow time and space for the climax to unfold, to develop and expand—don’t rush this section. Take a deep breath and pause. The critical highpoint should take at least one, if not two, chapters. Picture the ultimate confrontation as a slow-motion sequence and explore it fully. The climax in action & adventure/fantasy will frequently be a battle of opposing forces; in crime and mystery, the injustice is corrected; and in romance, the misunderstandings are resolved. This is where the pieces of the puzzle you’ve been laying out slot together. You do not want to zip through this, and leave people feeling cheated.
The denouement comes after the climax when your protagonist has overcome the challenges they faced. For example, the film High Noon doesn’t end when the bad guy hits the ground after the shootout on Main Street. The tale concludes when Marshall Will Kane climbs aboard a wagon, and he and his wife depart. But after the principal conflict is settled, you have to tie up minor subplots and any loose ends quickly because, if your audience is anything like me, they know it’s over and are already thinking about the next read. A satisfactory denouement should let the reader breathe out in relief and deliver that extra bit of fulfillment—like coffee and mints following dessert.
One of a novelist’s many tasks is to provide closure to a series of events which, in theory, began before a book started and continues after it finishes. In a closed ending, there is no confusion about what happens subsequently. Cinderella marries the prince and they will live happily ever after. This type of conclusion fulfils expectations, and readers can put down the book, satisfied that all is well—and this is what they enjoy.
An open ending is one which confers a sense of satisfaction, yet still leaves some aspects unresolved. Leaving questions unanswered—where does the hero go afterward?—can result in a story that lingers in the imagination for longer. People may speculate about the ramifications of the closing moments you’ve given them, besides wondering what happens next.
Today’s audiences are also accustomed to true-to-life outcomes with the possibility of a more emotionally complicated finale. At the end of J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield’s future isn’t clear. Has he recovered from his breakdown? Has he come to terms with his brother’s death? What is his attitude toward his new school? We aren’t presented with these answers, and it's left up to readers to hope he has a better future. (As a side note: this tale starts and terminates in the same location—the sanitorium where Holden went after his collapse—creating an interesting cycle.)
1. Think about the last few books (or the last book) you read and analyze the endings. Were they open or closed? Did you like the way the story ended? Did you have any questions afterward?
2. Define which kind of ending you envision for your story and outline an alternative ending. If you prefer a closed ending then think about the effects on the characters (and readers) if you wrote an open ending. If you prefer an open ending, then see how that changes with a closed ending.
My dear friend, Dee, very kindly asked me for an interview for her website where she promotes indieauthors. Click the link and check it out!Stay well, stay safe and keep reading!
The second act is the longest section in a novel, and it's where your protagonist, having passed the first plot point and entered into a new situation, meets increasingly difficult challenges. There is one important point during act two which is crucial to moving your narrative forward: the midpoint.
The midpoint in The Martian comes when Mark Watney finds out the supplies he’s expecting are delayed, forcing him to take responsibility for staying alive until his provisions arrive.
In Ender’s Game, the midpoint change comes when Ender finishes his training and finds himself in charge of a group of low-achieving students. Instead of being told what to do, he has to take charge, command and train them.
When we open a novel and step out of our own lives into the fictional life of another, I’m sure that you, like me, have certain expectations. However, if after a great beginning, that fictional life becomes monotonous, we close the book and find a new one that fires our imagination.
Act two, where your plot builds, subplots weave in and out, writers can find themselves bogged down in those selfsame subplots or following plot threads that lead nowhere. This is known as the saggy middle. One way to stop readers falling asleep during this section is to use variety.Although the dramatic arc is depicted as a line of rising tension, varying the pace in your scenes and chapters increases the drama. Instead of running straight up the mountain, you can rachet up the reader’s involvement by taking two steps up, then one step back, or one step forward and pause to catch your breath. Each forward movement takes you higher than before, but dashing up a mountain not only leaves you exhausted but you miss what’s around you as you climb. By creating variety in the pacing of your scenes you allow your reader to catch up with where you’re taking them.
There are multiple ways to create drama in a scene that on the surface appears calm but which is actually filled with conflict. If your heroine is sipping tea with the wife of the man she’s having an affair with, a writer can find plenty of opportunity for drama. Does the wife know? How much inner conflict will be revealed? Two elegantly attired women, false smiles for the benefit of onlookers, yet talking in low voices as one confronts the other doesn't have active phsycial movement but is filled with tension. Make them best friends or sisters and you have the potential for a real battle. Static scenes can be used to delve into suppressed emotions or hidden conflicts, and they’re excellent opportunities to show, rather than tell, the reader what’s happening.
However, these apparently quieter scenes aren’t merely gap fillers between the dramatic action. They provide contrast and prevent a spill into the melodrama that non-stop action presents. Characters and readers alike need to catch their breath. Static scenes offer respite, a change of pace and a chance to provide details that would be difficult to place elsewhere; they also provide space for conflicts to build. Nevertheless, they’re not frozen tableaux and shouldn’t stall the forward momentum of the narrative.
When you combine a series of increasingly intense actions with more private moments of equally important revelations, you can approach and pass the midpoint, bringing your audience with you. The end of act two takes you to the second plot point, which signifies the beginning of act three—the climax and the resolution of your story.
Exercise 1. Using the book you’re currently reading or another you finished recently, figure out the midpoint, its effect on the protagonist and how it changes the story going forward.
Exercise 2. Using your own story, think about the midpoint: have you created a situation for your main character that will result in a different attitude toward his situation, one where she/he must now take responsibility for how they will deal with the problems facing them? If not, spend some time figuring out how you can adapt what you've written (or write a new scene) to give your story a midpoint transformation.
Exercise 3. Consider what kind of scene you prefer to read—one where action takes place or where the tension is less tangible and more descriptive. Examine your own work and see if there’s a dominance of one or the other.
Exercise 4. Using different colored highlighter pens (or font color), take a few chapters, color your scenes accordingly (red for dramatic, green for static) to create a visual depiction and study the balance between the two. This exercise lets you know where you might need to make changes to achieve a good rhythm between drama and stasis.
The Martian by Andy Weir: 2011 (self-published); February 2014 (Crown)
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, 1985, Tor Books.
Photo by Simon Hattinga Verschure, Unsplash.
I'm not talking about how to be inspired or how to stimulate your imagination—the universe has an infinite number of sources—but we are getting deeper into the nuts and bolts of the craft side of writing. So, lets get on with it...
If you think of your novel as dining out at a restaurant (an outing which you may or may not have planned), imagine you have eaten the apéritif (the hook) and you are about to dive into the main course. In terms of writing, you are about to embark on a journey of dramatic incidents that will escalate until you reach the climax and resolution of your book.
The plot is the backbone, the spine of your tale, and is made up of a chain of events, also known as plot points. There are plenty of events going on in a novel, although they are not all equal; some have more impact than others because they alter the forward movement of the narrative.
The first act has two happenings of note: the inciting incident and the first plot point (FPP). The FPP is the more important of the pair.
As you lead your characters through their difficulties and successes, bear in mind that drama comes in different guises: a disgusted look that leaves a woman wondering what she did to upset her lover can be as significant as someone finding out their best friend is having as affair with their wife or the first attack of an invading army.
In the fairy tale of Cinderella, the inciting incident is when the Prince sends every eligible young lady in the land an invitation to the ball as he is looking for a wife: everyone in the house, including Cinders, is excited. In The Hunger Games, it is when Katniss’s sister is chosen for the reaping. By the time the inciting incident takes place, we have already learned quite a bit about both these personalities, their background and the daily challenges they face.
The inciting incident has an impact on your character but doesn’t yet change their lives or set them on a fresh path. It’s advisable to give some space between the inciting incident and the FPP to allow both the principal character and the reader to absorb what is happening. People get caught up and wonder what comes next, so you have the opportunity to build on that expectation.
Some writers have the inciting incident happen before the book starts or leave very little space between it and the FPP. The rule for writing is do what works for you, although when you start out, it’s worthwhile to learn the rules before breaking them.
The FPP in Cinderella is when her step-mother tells her she can’t go to the ball. Cinders decides she wants to go more than anything she has ever wanted and must overcome a series of obstacles in order to succeed. In The Hunger Games, the FPP occurs when Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place, changing her life and opening up the way to death or victory.
The FPP fulfils several functions apart from initiating a new direction for the protagonist: it introduces the major conflict, indicates the challenges, heightens the investment in winning and mentions the price of failure.
Note the word introduces, because you are showing reasons why people should continue reading by sketching out the general development of your story arc and offering views of challenges (internal and external) they will face. The audience understands and can identify with the central character’s goals and recognize there is a story to be told. As she/he commits to seeing through the challenge, so does the reader.
You can think of the inciting incident as an event that relates to the individual and the FPP as relating to the dramatic arc. The inciting incident touches your protagonist, but the FPP results in a shift from their life before and propels them toward an alternative course of action.
In fiction, action includes thoughts, emotions and observations as well as physical movement. It can be range from remembering something relevant to charging into battle, but it has to transform the status quo.
By now your character is living in your reader’s imagination and they’ll continue to read because, otherwise, they're quitting the table before the end of the meal; and who wants to miss out on dessert?
Exercise 2: Analyze the first act of your novel, scrutinize your inciting incident and FPP, see how you can improve on what you have written and make changes if you need to.
Stay well, stay safe and keep writing— no matter what!
I was born in Reading and grew up in Berkshire where my parents taught at a boarding school. I come from a large family and was very fond of climbing trees, cycling and playing endless games with my sister and our large collection of dolls. For the most part I enjoyed school, particularly English, Art and History.
2. Did you always want to be an actress and what drew you to the performing arts as a career?
I was always in school plays and loved performing in general as a child, but for years my great passion was ballet. I loved the music and the costumes, but most of all I loved the storytelling. It was as a teenager that acting took over as my primary interest. I knew then that I wanted to act professionally, and never seriously considered any other career.
3. When did you first perform and where did you train?
As an undergraduate studying English at the University of Bristol, I was heavily involved in the drama and music scenes. Later, I went to Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, where I studied for two years. My first professional acting jobs were in 2014.
4. Who are your influences?
I have drawn inspiration from many people over the years, from family members to school teachers. My greatest professional influences have been certain members of staff at drama school, and, more generally, actors ranging from Samantha Morton to Emma Thompson to Joyce Grenfell. I am influenced by any great piece of theatre that I see.
5. What do you do to prepare?
It depends on the project but generally speaking I jump straight in with the script, and do any research that needs to be done as I go along.
6. What are your strengths as an actor and how do they contribute to the style that makes you unique?
I have always been confident with language, and my English degree has been an enormous help to me. I am good at spotting the rhythm of a line and knowing how to deliver it effectively. This is useful in both comedic and serious roles, and I always try to be a performer who can pass seamlessly between comedy and drama at the drop of a hat.
7. What fears/anxieties do you have about your work?
Actors always worry that they are not getting enough auditions, and I am no exception! In this line of work, financial stability is never guaranteed, so that is sometimes a concern. I am also worried about the way this industry has historically treated women, although I do think that it is improving.
8. What has been your greatest accomplishment as an actor and what impact did that success have on you?
My greatest achievement is that I am still working and making my living in this industry six years in! Probably my greatest specific achievement was successfully learning to walk on stilts, from scratch, in only six days, for a theatre role. It definitely made me more confident about learning new skills and gave me more faith in myself that I could rise to a challenge.
9. How does recording an audiobook stretch you as an actor and what was the biggest challenge you faced in recording The Serendipity Game?
Recording audiobooks is unlike any other form of performing since you do it alone without fellow cast members to inspire you and buoy you up. ‘The Serendipity Game’ in particular has a large cast of characters. Flitting seamlessly from one voice to another was probably the greatest challenge.
10. What did you like about Casey in The Serendipity Game?
Casey has had a difficult childhood and has come out of it as a very independent and spirited woman. She is loyal to her friends and stands up for herself. These were all great aspects to bring to her character.
11. If you had the chance to perform any role in any play or film, who would you choose and why?
There are far too many to choose from, but it’s probably a toss up between Eliza Doolittle in ‘My Fair Lady’ and Cruella de Vil in ‘101 Dalmatians’. Eliza is a richly comic part but also a nuanced character who goes on an incredible character journey, of a kind which is hugely rewarding to play. Cruella is a straightforward, larger than life, insane, bloodthirsty villain (with fantastic costumes) – who doesn’t love playing one of those?
12. Who do you look up to?
I love the work of directors like Josie Rourke, Emma Rice and Vicky Featherstone. The actor I most look up to, in terms of her range, emotional clarity and career choices, is Lesley Manville.
13. What is your next project?
I am working on another audiobook called ‘Hello’, a psychological thriller, and I am in rehearsals for an outdoor concert performance of Sondheim’s musical ‘Into the Woods’, playing Cinderella.
14. Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
Still acting! Hopefully with a rich and varied CV, having made many more wonderful friends.
15. What do you do when you’re not performing or recording audiobooks?
I have done various other non-acting jobs over the years. At the moment I am doing some online tutoring, as well as writing and performing some comedy pieces for a podcast. Outside of work, I sing with a chamber choir called Vivamus, spend time with my family and friends, drink copious amounts of tea, and see as much great theatre as I can.
16. What does your perfect Sunday afternoon look like?
Probably a longish walk ending up at the pub followed by watching a movie on the sofa with friends.
If you want to find out more about Monica you can contact her via her website: https://www.monicanashactor.com/
The start of a story where you introduce the protagonist and the setting, referred to as the exposition, is the door you open for readers to step through and sample what kind of world you’re taking them to. You have a few minutes to tempt them if you don’t want them to leave and move on to the next author. The hook is a challenging event, an appealing description, a compelling character, something that grabs the reader’s interest, inviting them to continue. As the first act can take up to 15 to 25 percent of your narrative, you will also have space to provide some relevant background information and key events from their past.
When a reader begins a book, she/he puts aside their normal understanding of the world—known as suspension of belief—and you want them to know where they are without delay, so the initial sentences should plant clear clues for the reader to orient themselves in the world they’ve entered. You present the protagonist, showing the audience a glimpse of who they are and a problem they encounter in their day-to-day existence.
The first sentence tells us Jimmy is nervous. The second lets us know this isn’t the first time he’s been in this situation and his expectations are low.
The train picks up speed as it leaves Stuttgart. He grew up here, amid long shady streets footed in ancient cobblestones and gardens bright-spotted with afternoon light, but it is no longer the place Anton knew when he was young. (1)
The location and mood—reflective and melancholy—is clear as the character remembers the past and compares it to the present. The chapter heading, Fatherland, September 1942, lets us know this is Nazi Germany.
My working relationship with Lucifer began on a rainy Monday. I’d just settled down to a long afternoon of watching the holovid soaps and doing a little divination, spreading the cards and runes out on the hank of blue silk I’d laid out, when there was a bashing on my door that shook the walls. (2)
Here the speaker is at home, relaxing when an ominous (door bashing and walls shaking) visitor arrives. Although a bright sunshiny day might have given a greater contrast to the action taking place, the choice of ‘rainy’ (gray, overcast) foreshadows the trouble that’s arrived on the doorstep.
All three indicate mood and describe the setting, and we are well equipped to venture farther into this new dimension as we know who, where and when.
Another method of pulling people in is to start in medias res, (from the Latin) which literally means ‘into the middle of things’. This term comes from the Roman writer Horace who, when defining the perfect poet in Poetic Arts, stated: Nor does he begin the Trojan War from the egg, but always he hurries to the action, and snatches the listener into the middle of things.
In medias res sidesteps exposition which is later given in another way, generally through straightforward accounts of the past or flashbacks or dialogue. With in medias res you open with a bang but slow down afterward to fill in the blanks. Instead of 1, 2, 3 you do 3, 1, 2 or 3, 2, 1—whatever works in your particular tale. Movies often open with an action scene as film directors aim to grab the audience’s notice straightaway.
None of the heat and bright luster of the mid-afternoon sun bathing the city of Tropolis reached Lower Level Park Four of the multi-storied downtown parking lot. The erratic flickering of the fluorescent light bulbs created uneasy shadows, and the air was rank with the stink of old seaweed, rotten cabbage and sewage stirred into the mix. It was a stench that slunk along the ground like a dense November fog off the river—the stench of goblin.
As the elevator door slid shut behind them, JB turned first to Nikki, indicating she should go to the right and block the exit ramp. He signed he would head in a diagonal line toward their quarry before sending Gemma straight ahead. They padded off with guns raised, making little noise as they eased closer to their objective. A dark indistinct shape blurred across the back wall.
This is the opening scene of Sorcerous Deeds, the second in my Adept Solutions series of urban fantasy novellas about a private detective agency. Here JB and his team are tackling a bounty hunting job.
They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time. No need to hurry out here. They are seventeen miles from a town which has ninety miles between it and any other. Hiding places will be plentiful in the Convent, but there is time and the day has just begun. (3)
Although we haven’t yet met the ‘they’ in question, the introductory sentence grabs attention, making it impossible not to read on further to find out what occurs next. This is the opening paragraph of Toni Morrison’s Paradise and a masterclass example of in medias res.
‘It’s official,’ Harley said. ‘They killed the Berliner two nights ago. You’re the last.’ Thereafter a pause: ‘I’m sorry.’
This opening is from Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf where we learn of Jacob Marlowe’s dramatic situation at the same time he does. We’re also made aware of his world-weary character as despite this shocking news his thoughts turn to easing the aftereffects of his recent werewolf shift rather than how to combat his upcoming demise.
For example, don’t let little Jimmy go up to Mabel and ask can he join in her game if, later on, she has no relevant role to play. Readers become invested in what happens to your character(s). Chekhov's message is, don’t lead people down dead-ends.
Whichever way you choose, if you’ve done your work, your audience is connecting with your character, you’ve drawn them into the world you’ve created and they will continue to follow your hero’s journey.
Exercise 2: Look at the book you’re currently reading and analyze what choice the author made. If you have an ereader, go through half a dozen books or so doing the same. Think about your reaction to what you read, what you like, what impresses you and and what you can learn.
https://www.goodreads.com/shelf/show/in-medias-res has a good list of books starting in media res. You can check out any that interest you by going to Amazon and using the ‘Look inside’ feature.
Stay well, stay safe and keep writing—no matter what!
(1) The Ragged Edge of Night by Olivia Hawkins, 2018, Lake Union Publishing, Seattle.
(2) Working for the Devil by Lilith Saintcrow, 2005, Hachette Digital, London.
(4) The Last Werewolf by Duncan Glen, 2011, Cannongate Books, Edinburgh.
2: James Patterson is a master planner. You can watch the video or read the transcript. Whether you read his novels or not, you can learn from this revealing insight into a successful writer’s method.
Sending lots of positive thoughts and prayers your way.
Until next month, best wishes
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