DBW Review: Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress

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.

Beginnings Middles and Ends by Nancy KressNancy 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.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

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.

Verdict

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.

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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?

DBW Review: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

I’m taking a course in substantive editing, so I’ve been immersing myself in books on storytelling. Today’s DBW Review is about a helpful book called Story Engineering: Mastering the 6 Core Competencies of Successful Writing by Larry Brooks.

Story Engineering by Larry BrooksI’ve read several books describing how to write great stories, and many of them fail to deliver. They focus on providing lists of what not to do. This is all well and good, but not positive or useful for someone who is trying to learn what they should do. Larry Brooks has written a comprehensive book on what he calls the six core competencies to build a successful story. Four of them are the basic elements of a story: concept, character, theme, and story structure (plot).  The remaining two are narrative skills: scene execution and writing voice. For each competency, Brooks goes into detail to describe why it is important, how to execute it, and where it fits in with the other competencies. For those who want to learn more about Larry Brooks, you can visit his website Storyfix.

What I Liked

One of the things I liked was how Brooks works hard at relating all of the parts together, rather than providing separate laundry lists of items to consider. Each section builds on the next, until you feel like you have a full grasp of the entire process.

The sections themselves are covered in a great level of depth. The section on character, for example, describes the three dimensions of character, how to create backstory, interior vs. exterior conflict, crafting a character arc, and many other topics. I honed in on this section because I enjoy character-driven stories. I had to laugh when he called me out for this in a part called “Character Is Not Story”:

More than one writing guru and established writer has described the essence of storytelling as character-focused […] But that’s like saying the essence of baseball is pitching, the essence of music is singing, the essence of medicine is diagnosis, and the essence of cooking is salt and pepper. It’s not wrong, it’s just not right enough. Because there is so much more to consider. (p. 58)

He then goes on to relate character to all of the other elements in a deft fashion that is both convincing and helpful. Brooks has an engaging writing style that helps to carry his messages forward.

I know I’ll be referring back to this book often.

What Could Be Better

The first twenty-eight pages of this book introduce the six core competencies and Brooks’s approach for his storytelling model. This section contains repetitive sales pitches on why his model works better than other models. It also includes several references to Stephen King’s On Writing and why none of us should follow his advice. (In a nutshell: because we don’t have an instinctive grasp of storytelling principles like he does after his many years of reading and writing.) I liked On Writing, so I felt my hackles rise every time this point came up. Even if I understood his point.

Brooks also spends too much time throughout the book on planners vs. pantsers. He often points out how story pantsers can benefit from his approach, even if they don’t like to spend a lot of time outlining. (For those who are not familiar with the term, a pantser is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. This contrasts with a planner, who likes to plan ahead before writing a story.)

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Connection

I have yet to read a great storytelling guide written by a sci-fi/fantasy writer. (Suggestions, anyone?) As a fan of the genre, this is so disappointing. Brooks writes thrillers, and uses this genre for a lot of his examples. The only sci-fi reference in this book is to the movie Avatar, where Brooks describes James Cameron’s use of backstory to build the main character.

Verdict

This is a solid resource on storytelling that is worth multiple reads. Whether you are a writer/editor of fiction or simply a person who enjoys reading stories, you will find a lot of valuable information here. Highly recommended.

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For those of you who have read up on storytelling, what is your favourite resource, and why? If you’ve read Story Engineering, what did you think? And for you readers out there (which I should hope is all of you), what do you pay attention to the most? Character, theme, or plot?