Nancy Kress’s name gets tossed around a lot in fiction writing circles. So in today’s DBW Review, I decided to take a look at one of her books in the Elements of Fiction Writing series by Writer’s Digest: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.
Nancy Kress clearly knows her stuff when it comes to fiction writing. She was the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine for sixteen years, and she has won five Nebula Awards and two Hugo Awards.
In her introduction, Kress tells us that she wrote this book because her writing students consistently encountered one of three challenges: beginning well, sustaining interest through the middle, or providing a satisfying ending.
What I Liked
While reading this, I could tell that Kress is a natural storyteller. Everything flows from one chapter to the next. She has a story example that she uses as a common thread to illustrate points throughout the book. This ongoing narrative is smoothly reinforced with specific examples from other stories.
Her writing style is quite personal, and her sense of humour makes the book an easy read. In the section “Techniques That Won’t Get You Unstuck,” she relates the story of Richard McKenna, author of The Sand Pebbles, who was discouraged midway through writing his novel:
For a time, he says, he became convinced that the answer to getting unstuck was to divorce his wife and move to the desert, where he could write uninterrupted by the demands of domesticity. Eventually he came to his senses. (p. 107)
I particularly loved her section on Beginnings, and all the things that need to be covered to get you off to a good start: character, conflict, specificity, and credible prose. She also discusses how to focus on a single narrative mode in the opening, such as dialogue, action, or exposition (among others).
A lot of writing books focus on novels. Kress applies her concepts to both short stories (including literary short stories) and novels. In the section on Ends, for example, she discusses the difference between resolution (used in genre fiction) and resonance (used in literary fiction).
Practical exercises are included at the end of each chapter. Most of the time when I look at exercises from a “how to” book, my eyes start to glaze over and my brain freezes at the thought of all that work. These exercises are ones I can see myself doing, and it’s immediately clear how they would be helpful.
At one point, she talks about her award-winning story “Beggars in Spain,” which originally had an ending that didn’t work. The main character’s change of heart was not believable based on what had happened in the middle. The story sat for thirteen years. She changed the story so the ending grew out of the character’s deepest self, and ended up winning the Hugo and the Nebula Awards. Now that is an inspiring tale!
What Could Be Better
I think this book would be even better if it focused entirely on Beginnings and Ends. It’s really hard to talk about how to fix “the middle,” the largest part of a book, in only three chapters. There is great advice in the Middles section, but I preferred other books like Story Engineering for the level of detail that went into aspects like plot points.
I also wish the book was longer. It’s wonderfully written, but at 168 pages including the index, it feels a bit overpriced.
Kress has written a lot of fantasy and sci-fi stories, and she uses examples from these stories to illustrate her points. (She does include examples from other genres as well, so the book is well-rounded.)
Since fantasy epics usually have multiple points of view, I was especially intrigued by her discussion in Middles about the different alternatives for handling this situation (p. 80-83). Her solutions include having regularly recurring viewpoints in the same order, writing multiviewpoint chronological sections (breaking the story into parts based on set periods of time), and using parallel running scenes, such as those found in Ursula K. LeGuin’s story The Dispossessed.
Kress is familiar with speculative genre conventions, so she doesn’t do things like dismiss the value of prologues out of hand. Instead, she talks about when to use them. This is a refreshing change from other books I have read, which rant about the evils of prologues.
If you would like to get some specific, practical ideas on how to tighten up the beginning or end of your story, this is a well-written and useful resource.
Have you read any books by Nancy Kress, or other books in the Elements of Fiction Writing series? What did you think? Which part of a story do you believe is harder to write – the beginning, the middle, or the end?