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The Writing Life
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by Shaunna Privratsky
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You have a stupendous idea for an exciting tale. You think you should describe your characters first, or set the stage so the reader understands where the outstanding action is taking place...
Wrong! Pull your reader in with a provocative scene, dazzling dialogue, or a bewitching beginning. Never save your best writing for page seven. Editors won't read that far if they have to plod through twelve paragraphs about Bessie's flushed cheeks or how the cottage on the moors looked forbidding.
Hook your reader with your first line, your first words, your first scene. Think of your first page as if you were a fisherman trying to snag a fish. You dangle the bait and hope the fish will bite hard, no half-hearted nibbling. Just like fishing, you want the reader to be so hooked on your writing that they can't put it down.
The beginning is the most important part of your manuscript. This is especially true of fiction, but can also apply to creative nonfiction, poetry, essays or articles. A successful beginning pulls the reader in and makes them a part of the action. You can throw in description or back-story later, after things have cooled down a bit.
Use all of your skill and best writing in the first few pages of your manuscript. The more bewitching your beginning, the better your story will continue to be. Here are the first couple of paragraphs of one of my early stories:
'Oh no!' Chandra said when she saw the clock. She rushed through a shower and grabbed a piece of toast for breakfast. She rushed out the door with only five minutes to get to her hair appointment. She thought 'I don't want to be late for my own wedding!'"
This beginning would be more effective and intriguing if I cut the first paragraph entirely and begin with the second. It leaps right into the problem-Chandra oversleeping on a busy, important day. It also gives an added bonus of saving the "aha" moment for the end of the scene. 'Oh, this is her wedding day.'
Your story should start with a powerful scene, whether it's captivating, suspenseful, thought provoking or poignant. Get the reader curious by revealing just enough of the action or character to titillate their interest.
Another superior way to commence is dialogue. The reader is plunged right into the conversation and is drawn into the exchange. Dialogue can reveal a lot about the speakers through tone, action, their words, thoughts and dialect.
Maybe setting is integral to your plot. An alluring description told in an interesting way leads the reader into your story and sets the mood. Nature in all her glory can charm, amaze, or frighten the observer. Imagine a horrific storm at sea. Describe the churning waves hitting the ship like thundering blows of a giant's slap. Show how the ship seems to shrink before the towering ocean, the walloping waves falling upon the hapless ship. Let the reader feel the torrential rain and the inundating waves.
Then bring out a landlubber, an inexperienced sailor completely out of his element. The main character doesn't show up until the second or third paragraph, yet the reader knows the terrible peril he's in, at the mercy of the ocean's fury.
Look over your story. Try crossing out paragraphs until you reach the perfect "hook". Save everything else for a calmer moment, when the reader is content to be reeled in by the rest of your brilliant prose.
Start with a beguiling beginning and you'll have readers and editors hooked to the end. Speaking of endings, I have a question for you. Are you one of those incorrigible souls who peek at the final page or the ending of a story before settling in for a good read? Do you just have to know how it ends? Then you know the power of a compelling conclusion.
Why are endings so significant? The story needs closure, whether it is happily-ever-after or not. It should make the reader think back to the rest of the story and speculate on a deeper meaning.
Powerful beginnings will lead to a satisfying conclusion. Refer back to a word, phrase or image in the first few lines to bring the reader full-circle. Repeating or rephrasing a first line is a tried-and-true method of savvy authors. This works well even for nonfiction articles, to emphasize the point you're making or compel the reader to think.
By the end of your story, novel, essay, poem or article, the conflict should reach finalization. Here are some hypothetical endings for various scenarios. The heroine realizes her true love is the overlooked boy next door. A criminal is apprehended and the falsely accused hero is set free. A secret will is unearthed just in time to save the penniless orphan from a fate worse than death.
Every conclusion must logically follow the preceding storyline. Yet all stellar endings should resonate with readers and editors long after they turn the final page. A successful conclusion will move the reader in some powerful emotion, whether it is triumph, happiness, sorrow, displeasure or surprise. Many books that I love to reread move me to tears at the ending; this is exactly what you should strive for in your own writing.
A poorly constructed ending leaves the reader confused and disappointed. A brilliant story will fall flat if the conclusion leaves too many loose ends or cuts off too abruptly. Simply tacking "The End" onto your last paragraph or letting the action peter out will kill your story faster than a same-day rejection slip.
Reading and practice will help you develop an ear for satisfying conclusions. A fulfilling finale will cement your story in an editor's mind and compel her to publish it.
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Shaunna Privratsky is a fulltime author who juggles her time between writing, reading, caring for her family, and shoveling snow. Please visit The Writer Within at http://shaunna67.tripod.com and sign up for the free newsletters.