Tips for aspiring writers

by | Jan 12, 2020 | Karna Small Bodman, The Writer's Life, On writing | 7 comments

By Karna Small Bodman

You have always harbored the desire to become an author. You have what you’re certain is a great idea. You vow to make the time to get it down — on your computer, a tablet or whatever is handy when you’re so inspired. You’ve read a ton of novels, you’ve decided on your genre, you’ve gathered a pile of research. Now where in the world do you begin? You’ve attended writing workshops and just the other day you read the interview with Rogue “In the Limelight” guest, bestselling author, Lee Goldberg, who emphasized that you absoluely must have a killer opening (scroll down below this post to read his advice) 

Several months ago we Rogues had a post about our favorite opening lines and I recall this one from George Orwell’s famous 1984, “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Wow! What reader would be able to put that book down without reading more? And that’s the whole point, of course.  

I recently attended a workshop where the speaker, author Abigale Dane, talked about “Killer Opening Lines” and chapter endings to keep your readers turning the pages, along with several ways to end your story. She called them “Endings to Die For.” I wanted to share some of her helpful points.

Let’s go back to opening lines. I’m sure you all have your favorite examples, but one author who has always impressed me with his creative openings is Ken Follett who has been writing international bestsellers for decades.

Author Ken Follett

I happen to have a number of his novels in our library, collected over many years.  Let me give you a few examples.  Ken’s book, A Dangerous Fortune, published back in 1993, has this opening line:

      On the day of the tragedy, the boys of Windfield School had been confined to their rooms.

And from his famous 973 page story, The Pillars of the Earth:

       The small boys came early to the hanging.

While both of those openings make the story-to-come sound pretty dire, there are many ways to think about opening lines – including the use of: action, dilemma, surprise, humor, irony, satire, shock, intrigue. The workshop presenter said that the writer should show that something just happened, is happening or is about to change. For more examples, she suggested we could check out this blog, 5 Spellbinding Ways to Begin Your Novel written by Juleanne Berokoff.

On a personal note, I thought about a humorous opening line, but never developed the story.  It was “They used to whistle.” For you aspiring writing, go figure out the most promising opening you can and start writing.

Next come chapter endings. One rule: do not end a chapter with one of your characters simply going to sleep.  Again, you want your readers to keep turning the pages. How? Here’s a list:
     –Ask a question
     –Present a door                                

Author Hank Phillippi Ryan

     –Invent an obstacle
     –Force a decision
     –Realize a mistake
     –Form a plan
     –A visitor arrives
     –Learn something new
     –Create unresolved action
     –A pivotal confession
     –A big misunderstanding

Many of those ideas have been summarized in publications by author friend (and prior Rogue guest blogger)  Hank Phillippi Ryan whose terrific novels truly do keep me turning the pages.

OK, now you’ve got your story down with a dynamite opening, tension at the end of every chapter, and it’s time to figure out how to wrap up your creation with a clever ending that will satisfy your readers and perhaps have them anxiously anticipating your next endeavor (if you’re planning a sequel).  In the workshop, it was emphasized that you don’t ask: How do I want this story to end? Instead ask: What final reaction do I want my reader to have? Amusement, tears, shock, fear, surprise, wonder, humor, satisfaction? A great way to end a novel is with a unique plot twist.

When it comes to plot twists, one of the best  I’ve encountered recently was in the movie The Good Liar with Helen Mirren.

If you haven’t seen it, you should check it out. I guarantee you will learn about a plot twist you never saw coming. You might try this technique (no “foreshadowing”) in your own story.

An ending all of us undoubtedly remember, if not from the famous novel by Margaret Mitchell, perhaps from the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind. Mitchell’s writing earned her a Pulitzer Prize and a description of that book as “The Great American Novel.”  Who can forget the wealthy plantation owner, Scarlett O’Hara, who saw her entire way of life change  in the sweeping tale of passion, courage and determination — showcased in this last line, “Tomorrow, I’ll think of some way to get him back.  After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Finally, some authors have ended their novels with a play on the title.  I did that with my third thriller, Final Finesse, the story of an evil plot by a dictator that was carried out by his henchman, Rossi, who later went beyond the dictator’s original plan by putting an even worse operation in play.  The last paragraph reads like this:

   Tripp turned to Samantha and whispered, “I thought it was pretty wild when you told me the FBI had learned that

it was Rossi who orchestrated the last attack and that el presidente evidently had nothing to do with it. But then he gets the blame for all of it and now he’s history.”
   Samantha leaned over and murmured, “Yes. Let’s just call that the FINAL FINESSE.”

Do you have some books with clever endings that you’d like to recommend to aspiring writers (and the rest of us)? Leave a comment and thanks for visiting us here on Rogue Women Writers.

…Karna Small Bodman
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  1. Lisa Black

    Fabulous advice! I feel the same way about chapter endings.

  2. Lisa Black

    I really wanted to see The Good Liar but didn’t get to the theater in time! Now I have to wait for cable or streaming, so no spoilers!

  3. Chris Goff

    Karna, I was terrified you were going to give us the ending of THE GOOD LIAR. Like Lisa, I wanted to see it in theaters and missed it.

    You've given us some great advice. I am working on the opening to my latest book and I can see now I have more work to do. (Actually, I could see it before, but….)

  4. Robin Burcell

    I was also almost afraid to keep reading for The Good Liar! But I braved on, knowing you'd never dish on a twist!

    Great advice. First lines and last lines are just as important as the middle stuff!

  5. Семен Цевелев

    My favourite ending? Alistair MacLean, The Dark Crusader. It plays with the first line of the book, closing the circle.

    "I closed the door with a quiet hand and left him lying there, a small dusty man in a small dusty room".

  6. Gayle Lynds

    What a wonderful example of good writing AND good storytelling! Thanks, Karna, for these compelling opening and closing lines!

  7. JD Allen

    I love leaving readers hanging on the chapter endings! Thanks for reminding me to do so intentionally.