Daily Archives: June 3, 2011

Begin at the Beginning, End at the End

I mentioned yesterday that I came across a great article by Kristen Lamb about the importance of using conflict and antagonists to further a plot. While the entire article was interesting (and will no doubt give me further thought), there was one particular part that stood out for me:

In the Pixar film, Finding Nemo, what is the story goal for Marlin (the Clown fish father and protagonist)? Find his only son. How do we know when the movie is over? When Marlin and Nemo are reunited and safe at home.

I think that Kristen’s point here was in defining the end point of the movie or book. A story is not a soap opera. If it feels like the last 5 chapters belong on Days of our Lives, it’s probably gone too far. I think that’s a valuable thing to remember. But this statement actually hit a completely different chord to me. It helped me grasp the concept of the beginning.

I was recently in a position where a friend of mine asked me the ever-fateful question: “What’s your novel about?” Wow. You’d think she’d asked me something difficult. I spent twenty minutes talking about the main character, and then the secondary character, and the setting, and then said that I didn’t want to tell her how it ended, because that would ruin the story for her should she wish to read it.

There’s only one problem with all of that.

Nothing I said actually answered her question.

It’s a little like this:

Friend: So, those Three Little Pigs seem pretty cool. What’s the story about?

Me: Well, it’s really cool. See, there’s these three pigs. The first one isn’t all that bright, but he’s really cute. The second one isn’t too bright either, but he’s industrious. And the third one is really smart. Their mother loved them all, but she couldn’t afford to keep them all at home when they grew up, so she sent them off into the world. The area around where they lived was really dangerous, and their mother had always warned them to be careful of wolves. Anyway, I don’t want to give away the ending, but you’re going to love it.

That description is full of “truths” about the story, but it certainly doesn’t mention what the story is actually about. (For a great read on working out what your plot is, have a read of Nathan Bransford’s post.)

The reason that in the past I’ve had trouble answering the “what’s it about?” question is because I didn’t have a clear idea of the plot. I could wax lyrical about the characters, the theme, the premise, the setting, and a variety of plot points, antagonists, and conflicts. I could tell you what the major conflict/grand finale was going to be. But I never sat down and defined the beginning of the story.

Returning to Kristen’s statement, looking at what constitutes the end has helped me to be able to define the “main story goal”, which is also the main plot arc. While most (adult) books contain sub-plots as well, these aren’t relevant when answering the “what’s it about?” question.

Let’s go back to our example:

Friend: So, those Three Little Pigs seem pretty cool. What’s the story about?

Me: It’s the story of three little pigs who leave their mother’s house and head into the world. They live in a dangerous part of the forest, and have been brought up to be wary of wolves. When a wolf shows up and tries to trick them into letting him into their houses, the pigs have to work out how to avoid being eaten, and also try to scare the wolf away for good.

Next time I’m asked about my novel, I’ll be much better able to answer. What do you think?

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