The beginning, middle, and end

book thief“…I’m being rude. I’m spoiling the ending, not only of the entire book, but of this particular piece of it. I have given you two events in advance, because I don’t have much interest in building mystery. Mystery bores me. It chores me. I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.

There are many things to think of.

There is so much story.”

This is from, The Book Thief, by Mark Zusak, wherein Death had just given away a huge plot point; this was his reasoning behind it. Death is absolutely right. It’s not about the big booming, softly sighing, gut-wrenching finish, but all that leads up to it that makes a story great. The coolest plot twist in the world isn’t going to atone for a mediocre build-up. And while a great build-up attached to an otherwise lackluster ending sucks royally, at least the author has entertained long enough to pull the reader to that ending. Of course, the reader might never pick up a book by that author again, but that’s another post entirely.

Whether as readers or writers, we’ve all heard the term “muddy middle.” It’s that part of the story not the beginning we’re all excited about writing, not the ending we all can’t wait to get to, it’s that middle part where the fun beginning gets tied to the exciting end. For some, it’s the hardest part. It’s when a reader will put down a book, or a writer will stall. Getting a reader hooked is hard, Keeping them hooked is harder.

I’ve picked up books because the opening hook is fantastic, only to be disappointed thirty pages in. My best example of this is Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet. It is, without a doubt, my absolute favorite opening scene of all time. It sets the stage for an exciting, intricate, well-paced novel and, despite the tome-ish size of the thing, I couldn’t wait to read it. And then it never happened. Don’t get me wrong! It was obviously a great book, it just wasn’t the book the opening scene set me up expecting. I have to say that, for me, it ruined the rest of the story. I just kept waiting for more of what I got in the beginning, and while I got flashes (usually involving Ellen, or her son, Jack) it just never fully realized.

Maintaining the momentum you set up at the beginning is crucial, no matter how difficult it is to one-up your beginning–and I don’t mean by bigger and bigger BOOMS; the stakes have to rise, whether physical or emotional. We can’t all get away with giving up our big finishes the way Death (and Mark Zusak) can. It has to fit. It has to be part of that build-up, or it comes off as contrived. And if you’re going to slam readers with a fabulous opening that sets up something that never comes, you’d better have the background and stamina of Ken Follet, whose success speaks for itself.

However hard it is, we have to make our middles as fabulous, more fabulous than the bookends of our stories. That’s how we keep readers who cheat and read the end of the book first. (You know I’m looking at you.) Like Death says, it’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest and astound.

What about you? Can you forgive a so-so story for a big-boom ending? A great story with a lackluster finish?

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12 Comments

Filed under Writing is Life

12 responses to “The beginning, middle, and end

  1. If a book starts out with a bang, then leaves me glancing around my living room thinking about how I should be dusting, then there’s about an 80% chance I won’t finish the story. My time is precious (so precious I want to spend it dusting, either.) As a writer, I think the first draft of every book I’ve ever written starts out like a race, then I’m chasing my tail in the middle, then as I wind down the excitement resumes. Thank God for edits! A chance to figure out what you should be doing in that all important middle. Perfect timing for this post; as I head into edits of the dreaded middle!

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    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Glad it was timely for you, Sharon! 🙂 I’m smack dab in the middle of Walk With Dreams, and though it’s not muddied, it’s not sailing along like it did in the beginning. Some of the elements I started out with are being sidelined, if not taken out of the story completely. It’s hard to give up an element that had been the crux of the idea to begin with, but so too did the original idea for Seeking Carolina change completely. I suppose letting go is the key to slogging out of the mud and onto drier land.

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  2. I do better with a so-so book with a big finish. At least at the end I feel validated for getting through the so-so story. I don’t do well with edge of your seat stories that leave you disappointed at the end. I feel almost betrayed 🙂 Perfect example – although it’s a show rather an a book – Last night was True Blood’s series finale. The show has had it’s ups and downs through the 7 years but last year was really good and so was this year, up until last night. It was such a let down, anti-climatic series finale that I wished I had done something else with that hour of my time. And that’s sad.

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    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      You know…I’ve not watched a single episode of True Blood, but I watched the last ten minutes of the series finale last night and even I knew it was lame. What was all that jumping forward in time?? And you end with a big “family” picnic and some girl suspended in chains? It didn’t feel “tense,” but like a big letdown. I feel for you, Deb, because I know how much you loved this show. It’s like the Seinfeld series finale. So disappointing.

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  3. Eilzabeth Young

    With me, you have between 30-40 pages to get me fully engaged, if you haven’t done it by then, I’ll never know how it ends because I’ve put it down.

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    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      If I’m reading a book of my own choice, I will put it down if it does not engage. I did that last week, actually, with a story I had been really looking forward to reading, but after 35 pages of rehashing the same informaiton over and over and over and over and…you get it. Had to skim to the end–which was satisfying but pretty predictable.
      Book club books? I almost ALWAYS finish them. In the twelve years I’ve been with this group, I’ve only put four books aside as unreadable. One, I chose not to even pick up. And I will admit to skimming a few. 🙂

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  4. Lise-Marie

    i love to read and a unsatisfying finish will leave me disappointing and i may not pick up another book by that author. I can forgive a slow moving middle, but i need to care about the characters enough to go on. As for a so-so story with a great ending……….that is acceptable. I do not like to judge other writers as i know how difficult (and fun !) writing is. Love what you write and others will also.

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    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Hello, Lise! I have to say, if I can slog through a book and the ending is faboo, I’ll forgive the book, and the author. I might even give the author a second chance–and in fact, did so recently. The book I read last week and ended up skimming was a second chance. The first book I read by this author was well-written, but the pace was like molasses in January…in the snow…in the Yukon. But she is a well-respected author, and I so WANT to like her books! So I tried again. Same thing. I skimmed to the end. I won’t be reading any more of her stuff. Probably. 🙂

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  5. What a great post, Terri! I read Pillars of the Earth years ago and remember enjoying it a lot, but I don’t know how I’d feel about the book if I read it now. Have you seen the series? It’s very well done. I’m so happy to see your new web site & blog getting off the ground. Woohoo!

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    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Hi, Karin! Thanks for stopping by. Glad you like my new digs! I love it.
      I enjoyed Pillars of the Earth, though historicals must not be my thing, because I got bogged down by all the history, rather than intrigued by it. Just went on and on and on. I like a smattering that enhances the story, not blocks that take it over.
      That opening though–I get chills even now, just thinking about it. It’s why I keep a copy on my shelf, so that I can read that opening every now and again.

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  6. I’m on the side of, if it doesn’t grab me after a few pages, I’m out of there anyway. I agree entirely with you about middles of stories. They are the bridges linking beginnings & endings. A wobbly bridge induces vertigo – who needs it?

    A disappointing ending is just that & although, if I’ve enjoyed the story, I can forgive it – I don’t forget!

    My favourite first line comes from, I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.’

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