Wednesday, 26 October 2011

[Review] Beginnings, Middles and Ends

At first glance, writing a book specifically about beginnings, middles and ends might seem a bit odd. After all, a story contains all three, so surely that's just a book about, well, books? Well yes, and no. Despite the fact I was familiar with the three act structure from my academic work in film studies, I hadn't really stopped to consider beginnings, middles and ends as separate entities in fiction until I read James Scott Bell's book, Plot & Structure (highly recommended, by the way). I wrote my own series on beginnings, middles and ends over on Fuel Your Writing, so I couldn't help but be curious about how a whole book on the subject might actually work.

Nancy Kress is no stranger to creative writing books, having also written Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities That Keep Readers Captivated and Characters, Emotions and Viewpoint. My edition of Beginnings, Middles and Ends was published in 1999 (although a newer version is available), and in some ways, the text has dated. The book places more emphasis on writing short stories that will be "mailed" to various magazines, while novels are intended to be submitted to agents. Still, don't let that put you off - after all, there's a lot to be said for submitting shorter works to magazines or journals (although most are now online) and despite what certain people say, agents can still be very useful people in your writing career. But I digress.

While at first it seems odd to focus on the three parts of a story separately, it's actually a very logical approach. After all, most writers struggle with one of the three. They may write stellar beginnings, but run out of steam, or they may write lacklustre material that is entirely redeemed by a spectacular ending. Personally, I find the beginning and ending exciting, but I worry about how to maintain pace in the middle. Considering the majority of the book seems to be given over to beginnings, I'd wager that's the area with which Kress herself has the most problems.

It is a very interesting book, and its particular emphasis on developing a through-line for the novel/story to keep you on track and on theme is a valuable one. The book also highlights the importance of coherence, and keeping each segment of your book closely aligned with those preceding and following, in order to prevent any of those annoying "What the hell is that?" moments. Kress uses a fictional example story involving a problem family to demonstrate ways in which the plot can be developed, and ways in which it probably shouldn't, as a way of showing writers how endings should grow organically out of beginnings. Each section is broken down into chapters aimed at specific problem areas, including exactly where to begin, how to get past a block when you get stuck, and how to nail that stellar ending. In addition, Kress provides exercises at the end of each chapter, aimed at getting you to work on the specific area of your work that you've just covered in the book.

My biggest problem with the book is that it does feel slightly dated, and the information in both Plot & Structure and the recent Story Engineering by Larry Brooks seems more useful. Perhaps the book would be more useful if you're very new to writing and you'd like things to be more clearly broken down, but if you've been writing for a while and you want to better investigate story structure, then either of the titles I've just mentioned will probably be better for you. Of course, if you're solely a short story writer, then I highly recommend Beginnings, Middles and Ends as both Plot & Structure and Story Engineering are more aimed at novelists. Even then, as a novelist, you may find something useful in the book...but try to borrow it from a library instead.

Three blunt pencils out of five

2 comments:

Michael A Tate said...

Thanks for this review, not quite for the book you reviewed, but for turning me onto Story Engineering. I'm half-way through that, and while it's a bit wordy and repetitive, there is a LOT of good info there.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Story Engineering is brilliant! You're right, he does repeat himself a bit, but even if you only use bits of it, it's really helpful.

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