Saturday, March 28, 2009

Beginnings and endings

My latest study: How do short stories begin and end?

I'm reading my latest Asimov's with this question in mind. In the best stories, what is it about the first few sentences that catches my attention? And how does the writer wrap up the story in the last couple of paragraphs?

The first part of that is easier for me than the second. I've had beat into my head over at the Hatrack writers forum that the first 13 lines of a story are critical, that you must catch the attention of the editor or reader before he/she gets to the end of the first page. Otherwise, they might not go on to the second. That is, of course, what is called the hook.

The latter part is the one I'm really focusing on. What I've learned so far is that stories don't need a long, drawn-out, explain-everything conclusion. The most recent story I read, by Jack Skillingstead ("Human Day") ended in such a way that you're left without a resolution to one of the most pressing questions of the whole narrative. And it works. I suppose the trick, overall, is simply to leave the reader with a sense of satisfaction.

That's easier said than done. For any given story, I'm usually told in critique that it would end just fine about two or three sentences earlier than what I've written. So I usually end up chopping off the last paragraph, and ta-da! The critiques are right.

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