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S'mores by the fire - Kary's reflections on writing

 
Kary English
(@karyenglish)
Silver Star Member
Posts: 625

Hey, all,

In the downtime before Q1 judging starts, I thought I'd start an ongoing thread where I share some thoughts, techniques and observations on writing. Let me say right up front that these are my personal thoughts as a writer, not anything official as first reader. In addition, I'm just some rando on the internet. Stuff that works for me may not work for you, and even if something works for me, that doesn't mean it's the best or only way to do it. Your way might be different, and sharing the different ways we do things is how we learn and grow as writers.

So pull up a camp chair, warm your hands by the fire, and let's talk about writing.  Smile

I'll start with a bit about endings.

WOTF: 1 HM, 1 Semi, 2 Finalists, 1 Winner
Q2,V31 - Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!
Hugo and Astounding finalist, made the preliminary Stoker ballot (juried)
Published by Galaxy's Edge, DSF, StarShipSofa and TorNightfire

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Topic starter Posted : December 19, 2021 4:35 pm
Ease, Wulf Moon, MountainSpud and 9 people liked
Martin L. Shoemaker
(@martin-l-shoemaker)
Platinum Member Contributor
Posts: 1786
Posted by: @karyenglish

In addition, I'm just some rando on the internet.

Some rando on the internet whose instincts for endings got me a Nebula nomination, a Small Press Award, and four Year's Best reprints.

 

Pay attention.

http://nineandsixtyways.com/
Tools, Not Rules.
Martin L. Shoemaker
3rd Place Q1 V31
"Today I Am Paul", WSFA Small Press Award 2015, Nebula nomination 2015
Today I Am Carey from Baen
The Last Dance (#1 science fiction eBook on Amazon, October 2019) and The Last Campaign from 47North

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Posted : December 19, 2021 4:39 pm
Wulf Moon, David Hankins, NVHaskell and 8 people liked
DoctorJest
(@doctorjest)
Silver Member
Posts: 450

Darnit, I wish was some rando on the internet.

R: 0 / HM: 10 / SHM: 4 / SF: 0 / F: 1
Entered for Q1.V39 / Q2.V39 draft zero ~85%
Last result: HM for Q4.V38
Revised SHM ('Ashwright') at PodCastle

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Posted : December 19, 2021 4:40 pm
MountainSpud, David Hankins, NVHaskell and 5 people liked
Kary English
(@karyenglish)
Silver Star Member
Posts: 625

Whenever I can, I'll tell you where I learned something, and I learned this bit about endings from David Farland.

There are three kinds of endings.

In the happy ending, the main character gets everything or almost everything they want, and things in general are better than when the story started. It's a very satisfying ending. Romances end this way.

In the sad ending, the MC fails, gets nothing they want, and things in general are worse than when the story started. The difference between a romance, for example, and a love story is that a romance has a happy ending but a love story doesn't.

Both of those are valid endings. Both of those work, and I'm sure you can think of plenty of examples of each. But Dave says that the ending readers find the most satisfying is the complex ending, which is where the MC gets some of what they want, but only at great personal cost.

Example, fantasy: Frodo wants to destroy the One Ring and save Middle Earth, especially his beloved Shire. In the complex ending, he succeeds in destroying the ring, but he's lost a finger, has a wound that will never heal, several of his closest friends died horrible deaths, and the personal trauma is so great that he loses his beloved over it. Yes, Frodo's beloved is the Shire itself. Frodo saves it only to find that he cannot remain. Time after time on his journey, Frodo imagined the Shire, drew strength from his memories of it, but when the battle is done, Frodo has to leave it. He goes to the Undying Lands. His great personal cost is exile.

So how do you do it?

Here's how I do it.  I make a list of everything my main character wants at the beginning of the story (example: to stay home, to keep her kitten, her mother's love). I look at which things are big vs. small, and which things are personal or internal vs. public or external. Saving the world is big and external. Saving a box of salt as it falls from a cliff is small and personal. Saving the Shire for everyone? Big and external. Saving the Shire because of your own personal love for it? Big and internal.

That big, internal thing? My character's probably not getting that. That's the knife I'll twist to put the bitter in my bittersweet ending.

You can also pull this off by using a symbol. In Top Gun, Maverick starts out wanting to be the hottest flyboy in town. He takes risk after risk until he gets it, but the cost is the life of his wingman, Goose. The scene that gets people isn't the botched ejection scene. The scene that gets people is when Maverick finally lets go of his grief and guilt, symbolized by releasing Goose's dog tags into the ocean. The complex ending for Top Gun is about more than the loss of Goose's life. It's about Maverick realizing that his desire for glory was hollow.

So have a look at your endings. Think about about what your characters want, why they want it, and whether you're going to give it to them. Think about whether what they want changes during your story. When you're looking for costs, hit the character where it hurts. Give them a victory, but take something big and important.

Happy endings work. Sad endings work. Complex endings often pack the most punch.

P.S. Comments, questions, examples and counter-examples welcome!

 

WOTF: 1 HM, 1 Semi, 2 Finalists, 1 Winner
Q2,V31 - Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!
Hugo and Astounding finalist, made the preliminary Stoker ballot (juried)
Published by Galaxy's Edge, DSF, StarShipSofa and TorNightfire

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Topic starter Posted : December 19, 2021 5:27 pm
RETreasure
(@rschibler)
Gold Member
Posts: 819

I love this so much! Way better than real s’mores. (So sticky, ugh)

My first finalist has a very very bittersweet ending. The character has to sacrifice something she desperately wants for something she desperately needs. 

My second finalist kinda does this? It maybe does it in a false way, not sure. The character gives up her dream, the goal she’s had the whole story, for something she’s realized is more important (family) but then she gets the dream in the end anyway, and all she’s lost is time, really. Maybe that’s why it didn’t win lol!

My quarter 4 story definitely has this. The character gets what he wants, but it sucks, and after some suffering he realizes he wanted the wrong thing. However, again, he didn’t lose a lot personally. Or maybe as Kary said, internally. Something to think on for sure, hmm.

The anthology is full of examples of this kind of win-lose ending, I feel. Leah Ning’s “Yellow and Pink” is a dramatic example of it, C Winspear’s “The Trade” has it, “The Enfield Report” by Christopher Bowthorpe, I could go on for ages. Most of the stories I’m thinking of have this in a way. 

Anyway, thanks Kary, for taking the time! Love it. 

V34: R,HM,R
V35: HM,R,R,HM
V36: R,HM,HM,SHM
V37: HM,SF,SHM,SHM
V38: (P)F, SHM, F, F
V39: P
Always Available for 5-page Critiques
www.rebeccaetreasure.com

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Posted : December 19, 2021 5:54 pm
Martin L. Shoemaker
(@martin-l-shoemaker)
Platinum Member Contributor
Posts: 1786

The last are often examples of what KD Wentworth called tragically beautiful endings. She loved those.

http://nineandsixtyways.com/
Tools, Not Rules.
Martin L. Shoemaker
3rd Place Q1 V31
"Today I Am Paul", WSFA Small Press Award 2015, Nebula nomination 2015
Today I Am Carey from Baen
The Last Dance (#1 science fiction eBook on Amazon, October 2019) and The Last Campaign from 47North

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Posted : December 19, 2021 7:32 pm
Kary English, AliciaCay, TimE and 2 people liked
storysinger
(@storysinger)
Gold Star Member
Posts: 1017

Thanks for the insightful info Kary. This should help with the story I'm working on. typing  

Today's science fiction is tomorrow's reality-D.R.Sweeney
HM-V32/Q3
HM-V36/Q4
HM-V38/Q1
HM-V38/Q4

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Posted : December 20, 2021 6:56 am
SwiftPotato
(@swiftpotato)
Silver Star Member
Posts: 582

@rschibler The author you're thinking of is Christopher Bowthorpe! Smile Such a great story. And, having read your story that you're talking about, I know what you mean and I think that a character realizing they wanted the wrong thing all along can be a really powerful thing, and very real.

A thing I've wanted to experiment with for a while on endings is making something the reader would normally think has a certain impact have an entirely different one. For example, normally, one would think that living a very long and full life would be a happy thing. But how can you make that something else? Sad, terrifying, bittersweet? And, on a slightly different note, what if the character gets what they want and it absolutely sucks? I feel like there would need to be some nuance to that in order for it to be a satisfying ending, but it sounds like it would be fun to try out.

Also, re: happy endings, I've seen these have great impact in certain stories depending on the setup. (Kary, not saying you meant happy endings don't have much impact!) An example of this would be COTTONMOUTH by Joelle Wellington at Apex Magazine. I know I use that zine as an example a lot, it's just that I read them tons and tend to enjoy their stories! Anyway, SPOILERS FOR THAT STORY BEGIN HERE: IMO, this was a happy ending, because the character we're rooting for gets what they want. Exactly what they want. But that character is not the viewpoint character. And its an extremely satisfying revenge story, at least for me! SPOILERS END HERE. I'd be curious to hear folks' thoughts on this story and why the ending works (or doesn't work for you!), and whether you feel it's a happy one. The story's very dark, but it's absolutely delightful.

Kary, I really liked your breakdown of how you look at the character's desires to determine how you want to end a story. That's really insightful - I'm going to give that a shot! 

R, 3rd place Q4 v36!!!
Stories in Apocalyptic, Cossmass Infinites x2!, and Podcastle; forthcoming in Spirit Machine (air and nothingness press)

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Posted : December 20, 2021 10:50 am
David Hankins, NVHaskell, Kary English and 4 people liked
FolkLoremIpsum
(@folkloremipsum)
Active Member
Posts: 10
Posted by: @karyenglish

That big, internal thing? My character's probably not getting that. That's the knife I'll twist to put the bitter in my bittersweet ending.

This is BRILLIANT. Probably my favorite writing tip I've encountered. It's like a magic wand transforming story ideas into full arcs with endings people think about for days afterward. 

Q3 V38 - F, Q 4 V38 - SHM

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Posted : December 20, 2021 8:23 pm
Kary English
(@karyenglish)
Silver Star Member
Posts: 625

I'm glad this one seemed to resonate with a few of you.  Smile

Some of the comments got me thinking about happy endings that aren't so happy. If your MC is the villain, then an allegedly happy ending can be all kinds of bad / creepy. By this definition, I think Cold, Silent & Dark is a happy ending story.

Departure Gate 34B is a sad ending story. So like @SwiftPotato said, don't discount the straight happy or sad ending for impact. It comes down to how you do it.

Disclaimer: When I link to my own stuff, it's only because I know the story is an example of whatever concept I'm talking about. I'm sure there are lots of other / better examples, too.

WOTF: 1 HM, 1 Semi, 2 Finalists, 1 Winner
Q2,V31 - Winner Winner Chicken Dinner!
Hugo and Astounding finalist, made the preliminary Stoker ballot (juried)
Published by Galaxy's Edge, DSF, StarShipSofa and TorNightfire

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Topic starter Posted : December 21, 2021 7:41 am
CCrawford, scribblesatdusk, NVHaskell and 3 people liked
dommichaels
(@dommichaels)
Bronze Member
Posts: 56

@karyenglish 

Very insightful and clearly expressed. I'll definitely use this tip.

V37 Q3-HM, Q4-HM, V38 Q1-HM, Q2-HM, Q3-HM, Q4-HM

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Posted : December 21, 2021 10:01 am
Physa/ Guthington/ Amy
(@physa)
Bronze Star Member
Posts: 112

Love this thread! Endings are hard for me so it's nice to get some guidance by the first reader. Thanks so much Kary English, Smile

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Posted : December 23, 2021 5:33 am
twdad
(@twdad)
Active Member
Posts: 7

Thanks for sharing!! I definitely struggled with the ending for my first submission, but your advice has me super excited to improve on my endings from here on out.

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Posted : December 23, 2021 9:58 am
storysinger
(@storysinger)
Gold Star Member
Posts: 1017

As we have heard, the beginning, the first two pages, and the ending are all that get read a very large percentage of the time.

With this level of competition, you cannot afford to give your story anything less than your best. Write what you know. Write cause that's what you love doing. Hone your skills like a blacksmith sharpens a blade. Find the right angle that leads to the point. Learn how to learn!

Today's science fiction is tomorrow's reality-D.R.Sweeney
HM-V32/Q3
HM-V36/Q4
HM-V38/Q1
HM-V38/Q4

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Posted : December 23, 2021 11:20 am
Joe Benet
(@joebenet)
Advanced Member
Posts: 25

Heard your recent WotF podcast episode, Kary (polished, well done) where you and John briefly mentioned the downsides of writing real-world politics into our stories.

How does that apply to satire?

Sci-fi and fantasy are perfect realms for highlighting human inconsistencies and does not always have to be obvious or blatant. But does satire have automatic marks against the story, or can it pass a first read as easily as any other that checks the boxes? Does it depend on the obviousness of the satirical target, or the side of the aisle? Or is the story rejected outright because by definition the targeted idea will draw too many complaints by adherents?

Thanks for the insights!

5xHM: Q3'16, Q3'17, Q4'18, Q1'19, Q4'21

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Posted : January 1, 2022 10:45 am
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