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?


Filed under Writing

8 responses to “Begin at the Beginning, End at the End

  1. I think you sound ready to go! Seriously though, great stuff. This struck home with me, and I am going to keep all of this in mind. Now, when people ask me what my novel’s about, I hope to be able to answer them straight and without a roundabout answer! Thanks 🙂

  2. Great post, Jo! I recently dragged out an old query letter to make another attempt and even though I know the plot, it was mostly about the character, her personality and the setting, rather than what actually happens to her. I need to look at the beginning of the story–and the ending–and try again from scratch. Your Three Little Pigs example is a great one.

    • Thanks, Laura. I often find that applying principles to children’s stories helps me clarify them in my head. (Plus, Three Little Pigs is one of my son’s favourite stories, and I often find myself contemplating writing styles while I’m reading to him.)
      Good luck with the query letter!

      • That’s brilliant, Jo! I spend so much time each day reading to my daughter, so I’ll try thinking about the stories and styles as a writing exercise. I’m not sure if I’ll work on the letter in the next few weeks. I ought to, as we’re having a writing group query meeting in July, where we’ll critique each other. But my heart isn’t in submitting that manuscript right now. I’m too busy with the new novel! Then again, I spent five years of my life on the last one and it seems a shame to put it aside without giving it a chance in the world.

  3. Pingback: Let’s start at the very beginning… | The Exasperated Novelist

  4. One of the things that I do is to come up with my pitch line for every book. That one sentence (even if it’s bad) that sums up my story. That one sentence will have my protag, the core conflict, and the stakes. That’s enough for me to pinpoint what the story is about. What’s the big problem driving my protag and what’s at stake if she fails.

    After that, I actually write a query for the novel. They’re always bad at that stage, but the goal is to again identify the core elements of the novel. If I can’t write even a bad query, then I know I’m missing something. I don’t know my stakes, I don’t know why my protag wants to do this (no goal, usually the missing piece and all I have is a premise at that point), what the opposition is.

    These two things help me tremendously. They really make sure I know what my story is about from a goal/conflict standpoint before I start writing. That way I always know what the story is about, even if I’m stick working out the plot details.

    • That’s a fantastic approach, Janice. I’ve tried doing a similar thing with my current WIP and it’s given me a much better idea of the goals and conflict in my book to start with.

      I might even try writing a query letter each time I feel a bit stuck in my plot, and see if that helps me refocus. If nothing else, it’s bound to be interesting to see the evolution of the query & the story between the beginning of the writing process and the end!

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