Great novels grab readers’ attention right away and keep it. This takes work — and a lot of it.
I learned that not only does your novel need a good beginning, middle and ending, but so does each chapter, paragraph and even each scene. While most of my comments apply to the entire novel, many of them apply to chapters, paragraphs and scenes as well.
The important thing to remember is you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression. Everyone who picks up your book will read the first sentence. If you don’t grab their attention in the very beginning, you could lose them, so strong opening sentences and paragraphs are crucial to lure the readers into the story and “hook” them into reading further. The hook doesn’t have to be extreme, and it shouldn’t be extreme unless you can support it with the rest of the story. The hook can be quiet and simple to still be a hook.
Beginnings should be powerful; they can’t afford to be dull, boring or drawn out. Today’s readers don’t have the patience to wait until page 25 to get hooked.
The beginning of a novel should set the stage, the mood, the time period and the tone for the rest of the story. It should also introduce the main characters and define the protagonist’s problem. The main story line must be made clear early in the narrative. If the reader is confused in the beginning, he may get frustrated and put the book down.
One way to motivate readers to read further is to leave enough out of the first sentence or paragraph or chapter to intrigue them. ‘Start the story right before everything changes,’ I was once advised. Force the reader to ask questions about what comes next. Make it clear that change is imminent.
Many things will carry the middle — strong characters, meaningful dialogue, an interesting journey, tension and conflict. The middle is the meat of the story, and to avoid a sagging middle, something needs to be happening all the time to move the story forward. Middles are the crux of the story and need to constantly move upward.
The middle of your novel is generally where the story climaxes, where everything comes apart, where the tension is the greatest, where the conflict peaks. The protagonist will change and grow throughout the story, but most of it will take place in the middle. Some conflicts may be resolved in the middle, but the major one will peak there and be resolved later, potentially not until the end.
The climax is where the greatest tension of the story unfolds and is what the readers have been waiting for. No matter what form it takes, whether it’s intense action or a quiet internal realization, the climax needs to be tied to the protagonist’s conflict that was conveyed in the beginning of the book, and it should reflect the ultimate test of the protagonist’s capabilities.
Three primary things need to happen at the end of the novel. All loose ends should be tied up. The major conflict in the story needs to be resolved. And the reader needs to know how the story has changed the protagonist. It should be clear what truth the protagonist has learned or not learned about himself in the ending — his inner growth, how he’s changed, how he’s grown. An effective ending is often a new beginning for the protagonist.
Most readers want to feel some sense of satisfaction when they’ve completed reading a book. That’s not to say every story has to end with, “. . . and they lived happily ever after.” However, most readers do prefer a happy ending, but not a predictable one.
Whether the ending is gradual or one with a punch, the best one will make the reader feel some strong emotion, whether it’s happiness, sadness, surprise, pleasure, shock, or reflection. A good ending won’t be too abrupt, flat or drawn out.
As much thought should be given to the last sentence of the book as the first one. Whether it’s a leisurely sentence or a sharp one, it should reinforce the book’s central message, portray a sense of completion and leave the reader satisfied. A good ending will make the reader sorry to see the story come to an end.
A word about chapter endings. I rely on instincts to know when to end a chapter. For me, it’s usually when I’ve accomplished the purpose of the chapter, and the story is going to shift. It’s important to end each chapter with enough interest that the reader is compelled to read the next chapter, whether your chapter end is a cliff-hanger, a heart-wrenching moment or the use of foreshadowing (providing clues that suggest events that will occur later in the story). Mix it up; don’t end each chapter the same way.
The pattern of the beginning, middle and ending of a story is called narrative arc (Narrative Arc Figure).
To keep on track, I have found it helpful to keep this chart handy as I write.