Prompt – Every story starts with a stranger in town or a journey. “Pa, we’re takin’ the wagon to Virginia City.” Every story ends with “Golly gee, Wally. I thought we were goners.” True or False?
Yes, and yes/no. Regardless of whether you write milieu, idea, character or event, even deep stream of consciousness or “slice of life” stories in any of Polti’s 36 plot forms, they all have an inciting incident. A person or an event wakes up, encounters someone or something else. Spending a moment in time with a character or an event is to cover (for lack of a proper pronoun) “its” journey.
The “Golly gee, Wally I thought we were goners” only applies as denouement. If the conflict is resolved without dusting up, then that line might read –
Alix dropped the pistol on Yannick’s body when she stepped over it and through the splintered door into the late summer night. (The Hollywood out of budget The End scene)
The Golly Gee version might go like this –
Alix dropped the pistol on Yannick’s body when she stepped over it and through the splintered door into the late summer night. She would take the next train to Paris, find the beautiful American woman and tell her the good news. Tell her how a passionate, blue-eyed French girl with impossible hair had begun to feel about her, see what she thought about that.
The difference can be a denouement of several lines, or a chapter, a wedding invitation, or the hero listening to his new stereo after the insurance rebuilt his house. Resolution equals BAM. Golly gee equals BAM plus denouement.
Either way, the end of narrative “generally” involves a resolution, even if the “journey” (quest, procedural, civilization) is a failure.
Unless you’re writing a series, “cliffhangers” or unresolved narratives should be avoided. Standalone they are pretty much writerly suicide as they are frustrating as hell to readers. However, if you are a screenwriter who writes novels or films, you are allowed more unresolved sub plot holes than Swiss cheese as long as the main protagonist(s) commits some resolving action. Forget what happened to the white Cadillac, the Mafia boss’s son, the hooker, the Faro dealer and all the forensic evidence, security cameras and cell phone tower pings. Bang Bang. The cheating husband is dead. Wife and mistress are happy. Roll credits.
I keep saying this to everyone who thinks anyone has reinvented the literary wheel – check this link out. From Plotto to Plot Genie. (there was a you too can become a Dan Alatorre clone comment here, but it was sarcastic and inflammatory, so I deleted it)
Understanding that Bonanza is Star Trek. Beowulf is Dune is Lord of the Rings means the best any of us can do with the stranger or the journey is to write engaging, well-edited and logical content regardless of chosen genre.
As always, there’s more – There are some interesting tips on Writer’s Digest (A book my father bought annually until his death) and this is one I want to share for first page/chapter construction, as explained (in edited form) by Orson Scott Card.
Tolkien does not begin with a prologue recounting all the history of Middle-earth … He begins, instead, by establishing Frodo’s domestic situation and then thrusting world events on him, explaining no more of the world than Frodo needs to know right at the beginning. We learn of the rest of the foregoing events bit by bit, only as the information is revealed to Frodo.
In other words, the viewpoint character, not the narrator, is our guide into the world situation. We start with the small part of the world that he knows and understands and see only as much of the disorder of the universe as he can.
And here’s a bit on prologues that is longer than Elmore Leonard’s, but maybe blowing it up a little will help.
Too many writers of event stories, especially epic fantasies, don’t learn this lesson from Tolkien. Instead, they imagine that their poor reader won’t be able to understand what’s going on if they don’t begin with a prologue showing the “world situation.” Alas, these prologues always fail. Because we aren’t emotionally involved with any characters, because we don’t yet care, the prologues are meaningless. They are also usually confusing, as a half-dozen names are thrown at us all at once. I have learned as a book reviewer that it’s usually best to skip the prologue and begin with the story—as the author also should have done. I have never—not once—found that by skipping the prologue I missed some information I needed to have in order to read the story; and when I have read the prologue first, I have never—not once—found it interesting, helpful or even understandable.
In other words, writers of event stories, (I say any stories) don’t write prologues (or overly busy or populated first chapters). Homer didn’t need to summarize the whole Trojan War for us; he began the Iliad with the particular, the private wrath of Achilles. Learn from Homer—and Tolkien, and all the other writers who have handled the event story well. Begin small, and only gradually expand our vision to include the whole world. If you don’t let us know and care about the hero first, we won’t be around for the saving of the world. There’s plenty of time for us to learn the big picture.