This post explains the acronym WATCH, asks what kind of novel you’re writing, and then teaches you where/how to begin and end your novel. Short fiction writers—don’t fret. You can learn about beginning and ending your stories effectively, too.
I’ve been reading Characters and Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card* and learning so much about point of view and types of novels that I’ve not read anywhere else. So of course I’m going to share what I’m learning with all of you!
[*EDIT: When I read the book and wrote this post, I was unaware that Orson Scott Card is homophobic. As such I do not recommend his book. I still learned something from it though, and I’ve shared that below.]
My main takeaway was his idea of a “MICE Quotient.” He says there are four types of stories. Each story has all four elements, but stories will emphasize one more than the others. M.I.C.E. stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event.
I think his use of “Idea” is a bit misleading, and I’d probably have to look up “milieu” again every time I saw it in the future. So I created my own mnemonic device that works well in the context of my time-traveling historical fantasy.
Okay, I know the H in “character” is silent. Nobody’s perfect.
This is Card’s “Milieu,” but “world” is far less pretentious and more memorable, in my humble opinion. You’ve probably heard of “world building” if you are familiar with Sci-Fi and fantasy, or the broader term “universe.” World concerns itself with setting, place, time, culture, customs, manners, and the like. Every novel has some degree of its own world. In some stories, though, the world-building is so central to the book, it almost becomes a character itself.
Westerns, epic fantasy, and historical fiction tend to focus on World.
This is what Card refers to as “idea,” but I think “Idea” has connotations of “theme” and not much else. An Answer story poses a question or a problem that needs to be answered or solved by the end. The question could be obvious—”Who murdered Mr. Boddy?”—or it could be figurative. If it’s figurative, the answer might very well be the theme of the story. Take The Great Gatsby, for example. While the World (1920s), Time (events), and Characters (Gatsby, Carraway, Tom, Daisy, etc.) are all important and well-developed, they are all used to illustrate the themes (money, power, time, etc.). An allegorical story like Pilgrim’s Progress has universal, and thereby flat, characters, but it can get away with it, because the story is about finding answers. What is Christian’s purpose? To get to the Celestial City.
Mysteries, capers, allegory, and some sci-fi and classical fiction focus on Answers or theme.
Examples: Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Ocean’s Eleven, Pilgrim’s Progress, The Great Gatsby
Time deals with events. Cause and effect. The plot. What happens. If you’re trying to get a writing degree at a respectable university, they will tell you that Character must always trump plot. And while that’s true for literary fiction, it’s not true for all fiction. Anne Lamott, whom many of us regard as one of the finest writing instructors alive, urges writers to think about characters and their motivations, hang the plot. But in Bird by Bird, she confesses that she had to rewrite one of her novels countless times, because the plot made no sense, and her editor kept telling her it didn’t work. So she learned how to do a plot treatment, and she fixed it. Plot gets thrown under the bus by some respectable writers, but it’s definitely important.
I really enjoy character-driven short fiction, but if I pick up a novel in which nothing actually happens, I’ll throw it across the room and rage about it to my poor, unsuspecting husband. Popular fiction, the kind that is nearly impossible to put down, focuses on Time and what happens in the book. Hopefully the characters will change by the end of the book, but that isn’t always the case. Katniss Everdeen isn’t the deepest character on the shelf, but she sure does a lot.
Time novels start with something amiss that needs to be fixed. They right a wrong; they “save” women from spinsterhood. Or at least they try to fix the problem. They primarily try to change what happens, though the people in the story are usually changed, too.
Because they deal with problems, the line between Time stories and Answer stories can be a blurry one. The difference is that in an Answer story, something is learned or realized, resulting in an understood truth. But in a Time story, something happens, resulting in a shift in circumstance. Answer stories have an intellectual conclusion, whereas Time stories have a physical one.
Dystopian, disaster, justice/revenge, thriller, horror, sci-fi and romance are generally Time- or event-focused.
Examples: The Hunger Games, Jurassic Park, The Count of Monte Christo, The Da Vinci Code, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Doctor Who, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary.
A character-driven novel is one in which the most important factor isn’t what happens, when and where it happens, or the author’s intent. The important thing in a character-driven story is personal growth. The character should change for the better or for the worse. If the character doesn’t change, the reader grows in understanding of why that character will never change.
Contemporary literary fiction concerns itself primarily with character: who characters are and why they act the way the way they do. Motivation, motivation, motivation.
General fiction, literary fiction, and the bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story) depend primarily on character.
Examples: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Things They Carried, Huckleberry Finn
How to begin and end the story
When the world in your story is the focus, you begin by introducing the world. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien created a gigantic universe that is Middle Earth. His stories begin by showing what life is like. Then things begin to shake that world up a bit. Orson Scott Card gave the example of The Lord of the Rings. Why does the story not end when the One Ring is destroyed? Because the story isn’t just about Frodo Baggins and his Fellowship; it’s about how Middle-Earth completely changed. So the story ends not at Mount Doom, or at Aragorn’s coronation, or after the scouring of the Shire. It ends when the last of the elves leave Middle Earth. The world has changed. It’s changed for Frodo, too, so he leaves with the elves.
Where are my tissues?
If you’ve read or watched many mysteries, you know they all start the same. They might have a couple of lines or minutes introducing the protagonist as a person capable of solving a mystery, but they really start when someone’s been murdered or another crime has been committed. They start with a mystery or a question. Why do you think some people call mysteries “Whodunits”? The story ends when you find out who did it.
In theme stories, the story begins with theme and ends with theme. The Great Gatsby begins with advice (given in the past) about considering someone else’s history against your own, and how those histories have affected your presents:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”
It ends with the message that even though we make effort to change our futures, we will always be pulled back to our past:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
You end the story once the characters or the reader has a new understanding.
In a series of Answers stories, they might end on a new question. Readers read the next book to have the new question answered. That’s usually how seasons of Castle end. And if you watch Sherlock, you really know what I mean about ending on a question!
Time stories begin by showing you what’s wrong. There might be a quick introduction of characters, but then we see what sort of circumstance the characters are in, and they realize they’ve got to do something about it. Or they reject it but end up doing something anyway.
My mom gave me this shirt.
The Hunger Games begins with the Reaping. Pride and Prejudice begins with a woman who, according to her mother, needs a husband (preferably a rich one). Doctor Who episodes usually begin with the discovery of aliens bent on the destruction of the universe.
Time stories end when circumstances change. The woman gets married; the world is saved. Justice is had; someone is avenged. They basically end when there’s nothing else to tell—nothing else happens to change the circumstance of the world or of the protagonist. At least not until the sequel. If a time story is part of a series, one story might end when the circumstances change in order to create a new story. The Hunger Games ends after circumstances change for Katniss and Peeta. They’ve hit a new normal. But Haymitch assures them that more change is to come. Catching Fire is notorious for its cliffhanger ending.
The story ends here when it’s one about finding romance. Achievement unlocked.
Character stories begin with the character living a normal life.
Everything that happens in the story affects the character somehow, and by the end of the story, the character has grown. Character stories end with the change or growth in character. A new life for the character has begun.
(500) Days of Summer is not a love story, it’s a character story. It doesn’t end with a relationship, it ends when Tom finally gets a life. (I adore this movie.)
Chris Oatley has a great post on “How to Write Great Character Introductions” [archived] over at Paper Wings Podcast. If you’re writing a character-driven story (and even if you aren’t), be sure to read it.
Take some time and think about your favorite books and movies. What kinds of stories are they? Where do they begin? How do they end?
Be sure to check out WATCH Part Two—a quiz on where you should begin and end YOUR novel.
Once I get through my notes and finish Characters and Viewpoint, I’ll be starting a new series on Point of View. Subscribe or follow me on Facebook to stay in the loop!