Saturday, July 24, 2010

Three Easy Pieces

By Pat Browning

Dusting off the keyboard, flexing your fingers, settling down to write your novel? Nothing to it, according to Vickie Britton: You just write a good beginning, a good middle and a good ending. On she lays it all out -- good advice from a Voice of Experience.

Vickie and her sister, Loretta Jackson, have co-authored more than thirty novels of mystery and suspense, published by Avalon, Zebra, Thorndike, FictionWorks, TrebleHeart Books, and Whiskey Creek. They have recently signed a contract with Mundania Press to publish THE CURSE OF SENMUT, the first book in the Ardis Cole Series, in electronic format and trade paperback.

They have a new 3-book Avalon Western series: The Devil's Game, The Fifth Ace, and The Wild Card. They also have a new Robert Hale mystery, Stone of Vengeance. Their novels Path of the Jaguar and Nightmare in Morocco, have been reprinted as Thorndike Large Print editions and have sold internationally. The sisters also have an audio series, The Ardis Cole Mystery Series, with Books in Motion.

The sisters' research has recently taken them to Peru, Russia, Egypt, and China. Among their titles, NIGHTMARE IN MOROCCO, KILLER OF EAGLES, and MEXICAN MYSTIQUE, have just been released in Scotland and Italy.

Vickie Britton lives in Hutchinson, Kansas with her husband, Roger, a geologist and computer consultant. Their son, Ed, lives in Denver and works as game level designer.

Loretta Jackson, former teacher of English and Creative Writing, lives in Junction City, Kansas.

You can read summaries of some of their books at

FIRST Chapter for Your Novel
Vickie Britton

The first chapter is the most important chapter in the book because it is the first sample of your writing your readers will see. It must have the power to draw them in and interest them in the rest of the book. The first chapter also determines the voice, tone, and atmosphere of the story.

Start with Conflict or a Point of Interest
While the first chapter doesn’t have to start with soap-opera drama, it must have enough action the interest the reader. Many writers choose to begin their story at a point of conflict such as at a place where the hero is in immediate danger. For example, the logical place to begin a mystery would be with the discovery of the body, not the detective commuting to work or reading the morning newspaper.

Providing Background Information
Many instructors habitually advise their students to throw away the first chapter. Should you? That depends. Many writers make the mistake of including far too much background information in the first chapter. This is because they are anxious to set the groundwork for the rest of novel. They want readers to know everything about their character from the start.

You need to start where the action begins, not with a lot of who, what and where explanation about your character and how he got in this mess. The first chapter should provide only the bare essentials of background information.

For example, it might be necessary for the reader to know where your hero lives, but not, at this point, where he went to school, how many kids he has, whether or not he gets along with his mother. These points can be introduced if and when they become pertinent to the story. Though additional information is necessary, it should not all be crowded into the first chapter. If there is too much explanation, most of it can be discarded, and what is essential should be threaded into to a later part of the book.

Now that you have gotten their interest, you must develop the first chapter by deepening the conflict. If you have started with a point of action, now is the time to bring into focus the details of the event, and the character’s reactions to the event.

End With a Question or Cliffhanger
Just as the first chapter begins with a bang, it should not end with a whimper. The final lines should pose a question that draws readers into the next chapter.

If your book is a mystery, have the detective discover an unusual lead or clue he plans to follow up on. If your story is a romance, cut the first chapter off at the point where the boy asks the girl for a date, not after the reader already knows her answer. If you are writing a thriller, stop the first chapter with the hero hanging on the ledge of the building, not after he has jumped to safety.

By the end of the first chapter the reader should
*be introduced to the main characters
*know where the story takes place
*have a feeling for the atmosphere of the book
*know the main problem or conflict
*experience some kind of mental or physical excitement

The Middle Chapters
Have you ever put a book down in the middle and never picked it up again? Books are often begun with a great burst of enthusiasm, but by the time the middle is reached, the excitement may have worn thin for both writer and reader. That is because the middle of the book is the longest section and often the most challenging part of a novel to write. What was once new and exciting runs the risk of becoming redundant and ho-hum boring. The writer must think of ways to keep the book entertaining to hold the reader’s interest to the end.

Keep it Exciting by Continually Upping the Ante
The middle is the place to up the ante. If the hero is at risk, make him more so. If he is in danger, make him sweat even more. For example, if your hero is a professional gambler and has risked his own money in the first chapter, in the middle get him into even more hot water by risking money from the boss’s safe or his wife’s private account. Now, if he loses again, he’s really got a problem.

Add a Totally New Event
Spice the middle up with an entirely new event. If you are writing a mystery, add a new murder. If another murder does not fit the storyline, then add a threat or warning. A sinister phone call, a death note, or the taking of a hostage can heighten the suspense and keep the reader interested.

Add an Unexpected Twist
A twist or surprise in the middle can be a pleasant diversion. Perhaps the hero has figured out that the source of all of his problems is the next-door neighbor. He goes to confront him, only to find the neighbor lying in a pool of blood. Everything he has thought up to now has been wrong. The hero must now re-think his angle and start from square one (plus, he must also now find out who murdered the neighbor.)

Further the Subplot
The middle is also the place to develop and deepen the subplot. Create interest in the romantic subplot by making the hero and heroine temporarily separated for some reason. Maybe the hero gets into an argument with his girlfriend or has a misunderstanding that is difficult to clear up. Keeping them estranged for a few chapters can liven up the middle of the book and generate reader interest.

Writing the middle can be a challenge. Creating new problems and events for the hero to face and overcome can help make the middle as entertaining as the rest of the book.
*Up the ante
*Add a totally new event
*Add an unexpected twist
*Further the subplot

Readers who have stayed with the book to the end deserve a reward -- a good ending. A satisfying ending is one that ties up all the loose ends in a logical manner and doesn't disappoint.

The Hero Should Solve his Own Problem
The resolution of the novel should logical and should, at least in part, be brought about by the hero’s quick wit, thinking or reaction. It is unfair to the reader to have the problem solved too easily, or by chance or circumstance. For example, if the hero is in a shootout with the bad guy, it would be disappointing if a brick suddenly fell from an overhead building and instantly killed the bad guy for him.

This would certainly make the hero’s day and solve his problem, but it is unsatisfying because the hero has done nothing toward saving his own life. It would be much better if the hero had made a plan in advance, perhaps rigged the brick so that it would fall, then lured the bad guy over to the spot where it will land. In any event, the hero should use his wits in some way to save his own life. His actions should make sense and be products of his own logic, not fate.

Resolve any Subplot
By the end of the book, any subplots, such as romantic subplots, should be resolved. If the hero has a fight with his girlfriend, do they reconcile or are they forever estranged? Other subplots that should be resolved by the end of the book are conflicts with family members or major life decisions.

Readers are interested in even small details about the hero or heroine. For example, in your novel the heroine might be looking for a new house to buy. This may be only a minor aside, yet the reader wants to know and will be disappointed if the heroine has not found and purchased her little cottage by the sea the end of the book. Keep them hanging until the end of the book, but not indefinitely.

Tie up all Loose Ends
“And they lived happily ever after.” It is customary for a novel, especially a genre novel, to have a happy ending, or end on a positive note. The ending is usually a time to assure the reader that all the wrongs have been righted.

However, a book does not absolutely have to have a happy ending. In fact, some of the greatest novels of literature end on an unhappy note. If your book does not have a happy conclusion, then it must be in some way satisfying. The hero must have grown or learned some valuable truth about himself. By the end of the book, the problem that plagued the hero should be resolved, one way or another. The hero should either be on his way to a happier life or have in some way come to terms with, and be at peace with, the decisions he has made.

End With a Strong Sentence
The ending is a good place to provide a kind of closure. What has the hero learned (or not learned) about himself? Has this experience made the hero a better person in some way? If possible, end with a deep thought or emotion.

In A Tale of Two Cities, when Sydney Carton commits the noble act of dying in another man’s place, the words "it is a far, far better thing I do than I have ever done, it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known,” will stay with the reader long after the pages have closed. And who can forget the ending line of Gone with the Wind, when Scarlett O’Hara pronounces, “After all, tomorrow is another day!”

Tips for making a good ending:
*make sure the ending is logical
*the hero should solve his own problem
*resolve any subplot
*tie up all loose ends
*leave the reader with a strong sentence, thought or emotion
Read Vickie’s articles at: Suite


There you have it. So what am I waiting for?


Jaden Terrell said...

Thanks you, ladies, for sharing such good advice. As I'm struggling through book 3 of my Jared McKean series, I'll keep this post handy.

Helen Ginger said...

Definitely good advice. Thank you.