books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Biggest Problem Facing the Beginning Novelist—And 6 Tips for Avoiding It



Creating compelling narrative takes more than great characters, sparkling dialogue and exciting action.  All those elements have to come together in one story. 

One story.

Not a series of episodes. 

As creatures of the television era, a lot of us tend to think in episodes rather than one long story arc. I know I do. My first book, which I worked on for a decade, contains what is probably my very best writing. Every scene is honed to perfection. 

But it's not a novel: it's a series of episodes. I had story, but no plot. The book is unpublishable. No wonder it got over 300 rejections. 

It took a very kind agent to read the whole thing and tell me what was wrong before I put it aside. "It reads like a sit-com" is what she said. Finally, that "aha" moment: I had episodes; not a novel.

I know I'm not the only writer who fights the episode habit. Episodic storytelling is the number one problem I see confronting the new writer. And sometimes seasoned authors run into the problem, too. 

One of my favorite movies about writers is Wonder Boys, based on Michael Chabon's prize-winning novel.  In the film, Michael Douglas plays a writer who can't finish his book.  Everybody assumes he's blocked, but—as we discover when he opens a closet stacked with reams of typed pages—the problem is he can't make the story end. 

I'm willing to bet that Michael Douglas's character's problem was episodic storytelling. 

Look at the trouble TV writers have ending a series. The weak last episodes of Seinfeld and The Sopranos come to mind.  And don't get me started with Lost...

Episodic storytelling happens when one scene doesn't generate the problem of the next scene.  You could shuffle the scenes around and pretty much the same things would happen. 

E.M. Forster illustrated this in one of his famous lectures on novel-writing: "'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died, and then queen died of grief' is a plot."

You can just as well say "The queen died and then the king died." But the "dying of grief" makes no sense in reverse order. 

To write a successful novel, you need a plot. Just the one. Each scene needs its own story arc, but we also need one over-arching plot to compel us from scene to scene. 

So how do we do that? 

Here are a few things I've learned that helped me kick the episodic storytelling habit:

1) Start a novel with the ending in mind. I always do this now. After my disaster with the Novel That Would Not End, sometimes I even write the last scene first. It never ends up being the actual last scene, but it helps me enormously to have it sitting there as a goal. 

2) Write lots of short fiction before starting that first novel. If you think of your novel as a short piece stretched out, it can help you keep that plot in mind. If I'd spent that decade writing short fiction instead of polishing up that endless collection of chapters, I'd probably have reached my career goals much faster.  (And I'd have a ton of stories that can be published again and again. Stories have a long shelf life and are now pure gold in the age of the Kindle Single.)

3) Write a logline before you start.  I'm not telling you to outline. I know we should, but I can't bear to outline myself. Stories are so much more interesting to write when you don't know exactly what's going to happen. But you want to have the basic story in your head.  Try plugging your idea into this formula: When______happens  to_____, he/she must_____or face_____.  (More on loglines in my post on Hooks, Loglines and Pitches.) 

4) Make sure your story has an antagonist. Again, just the one. This doesn't necessarily mean a mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash bad-guy. But you need a force working against the hero that's powerful enough to keep the plot going for an entire novel. Your hero can't just slay a new dragon in each chapter. He needs to live in constant danger from the Big Momma Dragon who never lets go and can't be slain by ordinary means. And Big Momma Dragon has to get meaner and more dangerous as her little dragons get vanquished.

5) Create characters who act rather than are acted upon. The protagonist's actions and choices should cause each new event. When you have a hero who causes things to happen by her actions (no matter how stupid) the story is propelled forward. You can do E. M. Forster one better with something like: "The king died, then the queen faked her own death to run off with a hot young dragon-slayer."

6) Consider writing your first novel in a genre with built-in structure. Romances and Mysteries have firm story structures. Romances need a HEA (Happy Ever After ending) with lovers united. Mysteries have to end with the revelation of who dunnit.  This doesn't mean you have to give up your favorite genre. Women's fiction can have a traditional romance story structure. So can historicals, fantasy and sci-fi. The mystery structure can be used in almost any genre from chick lit to scifi, and the unsolved mystery doesn't have to involve murder.

Many thanks to Pip Conner for his email this week that sparked this blogpost. He asked how to deal with that nagging feeling something isn't right with the WIP--even though you've been polishing forever. I told him most first novels have structure  problems. It's always worth a check of your story structure if something doesn't seem "quite right." 

Ask yourself these questions: 

  • Could you remove a scene or two and still have the same story outcome? 
  • Does the plot build from one inciting incident to an inevitable climax? 
  • Do you have both a protagonist and an antagonist? 
  • Does the protagonist have a goal that isn't achieved until the end?
  • Does your book have three well-defined acts? (Here's a nice graphic on the 3-act structure.)

That scene that doesn't quite work may turn out to be a detour that moves us away from the plot and you may have to eliminate it. (Don't you hate that? Remember to save it for another novel or a short story someday.)

Obviously, it helps if you start the novel with some of the above things in mind, but even if you didn't, you can often fix a structure problem if you step away from the manuscript and re-examine it later with fresh eyeballs. 

Here's what I advised Pip:  

My strongest piece of advice is this: put it in a drawer and walk away. Close the file and don't look at it for two months. Go read a book in your genre. Then read another. Then read some books on story structure.

Robert McKee's STORY--although it specifically addresses screenplays--is the structure Bible. (But I just saw the Kindle edition is $23--yikes--so get it from the library.) Another oldie but goodie is James N. Frey's HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL. And Kristen Lamb's blog  has some fantastic advice on structure and the antagonist. Do a search on her blog for "The Big Boss Troublemaker." And if you're a techie sort, GalleyCat has a whole list of programs this week that help you outline your novel.

Then start a new book or story. Do not open that file for the whole two months.

When you get back to that old WIP, I'll bet you'll see a solution.

How about you, scriveners? Do you have recommendations for some good books or blogs on story structure? Have you ever written a Novel That Would Not End? Do you struggle with structure in your novels? 

COMING UP ON THE BLOG! Next Sunday we're going to present "LAURIE McLEAN'S CRYSTAL BALL"-- a visit from the dynamic literary agent Laurie McLean of Larsen-Pomada, talking about what she sees coming up in the publishing world. And on December 16th, we'll have our annual visit from Romance author and uber-blogger Roni Loren talking about how authors can best use Facebook and Twitter.

OTHER NEWS: I'll be interviewed at WRITE IT SIDEWAYS on Monday, November 12. and I have a GOLDEN REVIEW at Indie Authors Anonymous on November 14. Plus I have a guest post about traveling off the beaten path in the UK at the READERS GUIDE TO E-PUBLISHING on Thursday November 15th

And don't forget that SHERWOOD, LTD, a Camilla Randall mystery, is FREE on Kobo and Smashwords. The Smashwords blurbitude didn't come out quite right--so it's credited to Saffina Desforges, who wrote the forward. But it got a nice review the first 24 hours it was up.

Reviewer David Keith said "It's not yer typical whodunnit, nor is the protagonist anything like a cop. Ms. Allen (or Ms. Deforges, as the case may be) has crafted a wily tale of murder, deceit, and intrigue that can stand with the best of them. Her characters are all too real and her dialogue took me from laughter to chills to suspicion of everybody in the book." FREEEEEE!



37 comments:

  1. I've always written with the end in mind first. (And a detailed outline, otherwise I'd get lost.) And for this last manuscript, I did create a logline early.

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  2. I bet you could publish your episodic manuscript as a type of short story collection. And seeing as it revolves around the same people it's even more compelling. A bit like Rebecca Miller's, Personal Velocity. I'd read it!

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  3. This is interesting to me. While, for my own reading enjoyment, I completely agree-- I like a story with a beginning, middle, satisfying ending, a story I can dig into and get lost in.

    Interestingly, the last several prize-winning novels I've read don't read like that--A Visit from the Goon Squad or The Tiger's Wife, for example. I had a heck of a time making each chapter connect in either story and seeing a flow of story to a satisfying conclusion, yet they were both critically acclaimed. I couldn't finish either. It is interesting what gains recognition isn't always within the assumed "rules" of book-writing.

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  4. I wiah I could write a short story but everytime I try it ends up as a novel. Writing novels is so much easier than those short stories. I always keep in mind a beginning, middle and ending in my head but it sometimes changes as I go.

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  5. Anne--what a terrific post! You ID'd the problem & then gave great advice for solving it.

    I think of it as "wandering." The writer wanders around. So do the characters. Stuff happens. Then more stuff happens but where's the ending?

    Focus is another good way to address the problem. Be cruel. Be ruthless. Pick ONE character & make him/her the MC. Then pick ONE MORE character to be the antagonist. Once you do this, you will often find the other characters fall into place around them & a single plot line with a beginning, middle & end will emerge out of the episodes.

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  6. Alex--For an author who's got an established series like yours, I'm sure the outlining gets easier. You know more about your characters and how they're going to behave. It's much easier for my fourth Camilla book than my first and second.

    Jessica--That has occurred to me. Thanks for the encouragement. There still needs to be a concluding chapter/story though, and I've written about ten. Maybe one is right, but maybe none are.

    Julie--You bring up an important point. "Literary" fiction of the modern variety is almost allergic to the three-act structure. And they frown on endings. I don't know how many times I've thrown a New Yorker magazine across the room when I've spent a half hour on a story that has no ending. So if you have David Remnick on speed dial, you can probably get away with writing rambling fiction. Otherwise, endings are our friends.

    Vera--I'm like you. Short fiction is very hard for me. I think in big pictures. But it's still a good exercise. I'm proud of my short fiction because it was so tough for me to write.

    Ruth--You add another super-useful tip, as usual. Yes. You can still add protag/antag conflict after you start: choose one of those meandering characters to be the protag, and another to be then antag, and your book can finally get going.

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  7. Fantastic post Anne! Those points are fab!

    Now I just need to suck up the courage and follow them, haha! I'm hopeless at hacking things out - I like my darlings a bit too much. I'll grow out of it. I hope.

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  9. I have a friend who writes and produces films. Nine out of ten times he writes or envisions the ending and then sets to work from there. It's always worked for him rather well.

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  10. I've been watching a lot of anime recently, and one thing I really appreciate about it (as a writer) is its unique ability to stretch out an extremely convoluted plotline into a series of extremely well-crafted and satisfying episodes that defy Western notions of what an episode should be.

    For example: I'm watching Bleach right now, and it just took about 50 episodes to complete a single story arc.

    I have a problem with pacing (I often try to rush toward the solution of a story) so watching anime has been very helpful in determining the difference in stretching a story by throwing more obstacles willy-nilly at a character vs allowing those obstacles to grow organically one after the next from a single inciting problem.

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  11. Funny, my novel kind of finished without me realizing it. I flew straight past and kept writing. I was writing a serialized novel every week (which should make it episodic, but didn't). When I went back later to read it, I discovered that there was a stopping point to the novel about 2/3rds the way through. It completed the primary conflict and ended the book. I had actually written a book and a half without realizing it. So, I split them up, continued writing the second book and started editing the first.

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  12. Charley--The more you write, the more you realize you can write. Cut that scene, and another will come. Takes a while to learn to trust your muse on that.

    Jeremy--That's useful to know. Screenplays and novels are very similar in structure.

    TL--Fascinating. Other media often help us with our own. I know nothing about anime, but it sounds like an interesting artform.

    Danielle--What a nice gift from your muse! I rushed right past my ending once, too. I went into about 5 chapters of happy-ever-after with my first novel. I was so sad when my editor made me cut it--but then I realized, happy ever after is totally boring. :-)

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  13. While I appreciate the general advice aimed towards novelists, I disagree with the premise that TV writing is somehow different.

    Unlike the claim made here, most television scripts cannot be thrown into a blender and be none the worse for jumbling.

    In my years writing, and now teaching, television writing, I can say with certainty that one scene does indeed build upon another in a TV script. At least it does in a well written TV script.

    The difference with a TV show and a novel is we may have nine seasons to explore our characters. But I can assure you that television writers are very much aware that one scene must generate the problem for the next.

    Some shows are more successful than others. But so are some novels!

    Kind regards

    Thom Bray

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  14. As always Anne, your post is pure gold. I relate to most of it. I actually wrote the ending (which probably won't actually be the ending) to my latest NaNo novel first, at least I have a goal and can make sure the story reflects that.

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  15. Thom--So sorry if I seemed to be casting aspersions on TV writers. Not what I meant at all. (Although I'm still annoyed about Lost :-)) Do note I advise reading Robert McKee for story structure, and I'm very aware that a TV episode does need a 3-act structure. But the TV shows some of us grew up with didn't have story arcs for a whole season. If you write for TV now, you're probably a couple of generations younger than me, so you may not remember shows like I Love Lucy or Happy Days, but those are hard-wired to a lot of people's brains. The episodes stand alone.

    Denise--So glad it helps. Soooo smart to start your NaNo novel at the end! Good luck. I hope you win!

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  16. Dearest Miss Allen (or should I say Ms. Deforges),
    Bravo to another fine post. And that David Keith review is fantabuloso. Here's hoping the world reads Sherwood Ltd & is compelled afterward to read the others.

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  17. Another great book on structure is SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. It's aimed at screenwriters, but every novelist I know loves it.

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  18. Fabulous post. It's really been a treat watching this blog begin and grow and turn into a blog that's always worth reading; informative, witty, just plain interesting, even to somebody not in The Biz.

    Re TV series with ongoing story arcs. What was the first drama series (besides soap operas) that first started an ongoing story arch. What I remember was it was a multi-character cop show, with the watch captain constantly telling his men (each week) at the daily briefing, "Be careful out there." Think it predated NYPD Blue? anybody know if there was another series that did that? I know it was noted at the time as something "new" and concern expressed that the audience wouldn't follow those long intertwined plot lines. Now, it seems totally a given for any season.

    As for TV series with bad endings. We'll have to hold judgement on "Breaking Bad." Until it actually does end. Right now, it seems to be in the "Past it's sell-by date" mode. But the author has promised a "all strings tied up" final ending, so we'll see.

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  19. Anne ... much thanks for yet another great post. I think I have to come here every week to get my "fix" and to learn not only about the blog, but about the structure of our work.

    I always have the end in sight. The beginning usually moves from first to third chapter in the final draft and the middle does a lot of twisting and turning. But having the end somewhere in my head and in my note files, keeps me focued on the goal. In a series, I also love to leave supporting characters hanging off somewhere to create a platform for getting back to them later.

    Thanks again. Now I am off to catch up to your guest blog: http://writeitsideways.com/?awt_l=5SK8R&awt_m=3mriVDbsSHfdfaC. Hosted by another dear friend, Debra.

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  20. When I began my first story, all I had were a bunch of scenes with no plot. I eventually weaved the scenes together into a plot, but it took a lot of time and effort, and the scenes had to undergo significant changes. So I've learned my lesson about having the ending in mind before I start writing.

    Thanks to NaNo, I will soon be finding out how well this new process works for me.

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  21. Great advice. I learned a lot from James Scott Bell's Plot & Structure. The two books I wrote before reading that craft book were a mess.

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  22. C.S. Thanks much!

    Margaret--Thanks for mentioning SAVE THE CAT. I've heard it's great, but I haven't read it yet myself. I probably should. I'm still fighting structure problems.

    Churadogs--HILL STREET BLUES!!! Yes! I was trying to remember when the season story arc started. I think that might have been the beginning. Before that, even drama series didn't have arcs (except soaps like Dallas or Dynasty) Thanks for the memory-jog.

    Fois--Making sure I had the end in mind is certainly what made all the difference to me. And thanks for commenting over at Write it Sideways! Debra is a great interviewer.

    Chemist--"A bunch of scenes with no plot." Yup. That's what I used to write. Such lovely scenes, too... Just nothing holding them together.

    Julie--James Scott Bell: "Plot and Structure" I'll check it out. Thanks much for the tip!

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  23. Fantastic advice. My first few novels were rubbish. I'd start, have amazing things happen, then run into trouble because I had no idea why everything happened. I always keep the end in mind now.

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  24. Great advice Anne!! I'm actually going to print this post out and stick it to my noticeboard!

    I always start at the end (oddly the first scene that comes to mind for me is the end). At a 'how to start a novel' the tutor gave similar advice for those who never finish their MS - "write your last paragraph. Now you just have to fill in the middle to finish your book. "

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  25. Anne:

    Thanks for your reply. No offense was taken! I understand you are trying to help novelists improve the quality of their work. We do the same thing with TV writers :-)

    As a way of clarification and in the interest of understanding and fellowship, a few observations:

    1. Hour TV is written as a four act structure. Half hour a three, but more traditionally, a two act structure.

    2.Unlike the LUCY and GUNSMOKE days, TV now has both a continuing season storyline, and self contained story. (@Churadogs, you're thinking of Hill St Blues but there were shows before it that used continuing story.)

    3. You are correct that TV often does not do endings well, because we are designed, as a practical matter--never to end! Often the endings are rushed or under stress because of cancellations and other network pressures. But I believe we do season endings very well; one only has to look at DEXTER to see how a show can have a season arc, self contained stories, and finish the season with a satisfying ending.

    For the record, I'm retired from active TV writing. (I'm an old guy who does remember LUCY!) I hope writers can learn from all forms of writing. I can see the influence of television structure in novels, and it's not always a negative influence! :-)

    Kind Regards,

    Thom Bray

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  26. Cathy--You've hit on the problem: you need to say WHY these things are happening. Otherwise your reader goes, "so what?"

    Emily--It's good to hear your tutor gave the same advice. It's something I learned by trial and error. Lots of error. :-)

    Thom--Thanks for coming back and educating us. I assumed teleplays were like screenplays, but I see they're more like classic plays, if they have a 4 act structure.

    I admire TV writers greatly. I think shows like Dexter are on the cutting edge of our culture's creativity, while film seems to be falling into the same old tropes. Most of what I rent on Netflix is TV series dramas.

    Novel-writers can learn a whole lot from watching good television--like when to cut away from a scene (we tend to linger too long) and how to keep dialogue exchanges short and dynamic.

    BUT--and this is a big but: a novel is not a teleplay. Too many new writers try to write novels in imitation of TV shows. But there are a lot of differences. (No value judgments here: I'm just saying that they're not identical.) Novelists need to pay more attention to things like interior monologue and point of view. Many new novelists try to write from a camera's-eye viewpoint and that makes for a cold and unengaging novel.

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  27. I like the tip of one problem leading to the next. Frequently my writing feels episodic and I think it's the scene/sequel or action/reaction formula, especially for mysteries. It feels like a start and stop, if that makes sense. Doesn't seem to matter if the reaction is internal or external, or if these steps build toward the conclusion and are true to the plot. The stop and start still leaves me feeling the episode quandary.

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  28. Wow- thank you so much-- you gave me an epiphany. Despite a pair of successful published mysteries and a number of good story collections, my first novel, with horror overtones, has been languishing in a drawer. Just couldn't figure out how to take it from "eh" to "wow!"
    Duh- did not have a strong antagonist to give it oomph. Protag was struggling, but not against human opponent. Now I know what direction to take, and the pieces just fell into place. I've been wanting this done and released, and now I can do it. Bless you.
    By way of thanks, can I send you a signed copy when it's out?

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  29. Lisa--The "one problem leads to the next" is a biggie for me. Once I got that down, plotting was a lot easier. But you're right that in a mystery there has to be some start-and-stop, because we need red herrings and false clues. But just keep one element going even though the sleuth has reached a dead end in the investigation.

    Dale--I'm so glad this led to an epiphany for your book. I love to hear stuff like that! But for other readers, I should probably have made it more clear that the antagonist doesn't have to be human. It can be a political system or an addiction or even the weather (as in The Perfect Storm). But it has to be the same force through the entire book. Your MC can't "win" the big battle until the end.

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  30. Dale--And absolutely, I'd love a signed copy of your book!

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  31. Newbie writer here. Guilty as charged, but I figured this out over the summer and I've been working to fix it. Great post!

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  32. These are wonderful tips for memoir writers, too, Anne. I spent years transforming my memoir from a series of episodes into a story arc, and I'm facing that challenge again with memoir two.

    "Story" is a fantastic resource, as is "How to Write a Damn Good Novel."

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  33. Handy--Congrats on "getting it" early enough in your career that you haven't spent years trying to market a non-novel the way I did!

    Meghan--Memoirists have it MUCH harder. Life doesn't happen in story arcs, so you have to be very creative in molding the facts into a story without actually altering those facts. I'm in awe of anybody who can do it. Can't wait to read your memoir!

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  34. What a great post and comments thread too! What a splendid job you've done, Anne, I always enjoy your blog...and learn from it!

    I've been writing now...for what, 15 years maybe? But in a continuous fashion only for 6 years (since I retired - I had a first phase as a painter then I retired from that too and came back to writing!)

    So I guess I still have a lot to learn. I love your idea that one should start by writing the novel's LAST SCENE! Great suggestion! I've never done it, but I suspect it would help to keep a direction (I don't do outlines so I tend to go in very many directions before settling down to a sort of routine of daily writing that brings me to the end of the novel...) I'll definitely try that the next time.

    My problem you see is that I don't start with a story line but with a CHARACTER - one main character that I feel like exploring in depth making it go through a series of events that are really "slices of life". So the events have to be credible, probable and impact the character to make the story move forward.

    In other words, it takes times for a story of this type to "mature" - and you may well be right: if I jump ahead and try my hand at the final scene, it might bring out sooner some major features (that would come out anyway because of the internal logic of the novel) but it might act as a "forcing out".

    At least I hope so. Will let you know after I've tried it!

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  35. STORY by McKee is well worth its $35 price tag. You'll refer to it again and again. Think of it this way: these days, it's cheap for a textbook, and will give you what you need to know about story structure!

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  36. I just wanted to let you know hoe much I appreciated this post and that I recommended it on my blog for beginning writers.

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  37. Claude--Sorry I didn't get back to this post. Thanks for the great comment. I start writing with characters, too. I usually write some character sketches before I jump into writing the novel. You may be doing that too without realizing it. I don't always write the whole last scene--I just keep it in mind as I write the opener. It's the goal I'm aiming for. Obviously, this is easier with a mystery, since it's the big whodunnit moment. But I've done it for more literary novels, too.

    Kathryn--I refer to my copy of STORY all the time, but I bought it when it cost about $13, so the price shocked me. But yes, it's a great book.

    Kelly--Thanks much. If I can keep one new writer from writing herself into a corner, this post has succeeded.

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