Tag Archives: fibonacci

It’s the End

In my last two posts I explored two parts of a story’s structure:

  • The beginning, where we encounter main characters, the setting, and the challenges the characters face.
  • The middle, where things become complicated for the characters and tension mounts.

Now we’ve reached the end.

Like the beginning, the end is a relatively short, but for a different reason. Whereas the beginning hooks readers and draws them in, the end resolves the conflicts that carried the reader along. Actually, let’s qualify that. Some conflicts may be resolved in the middle. But the primary conflict can only be resolved at the end. Often a few lesser conflicts stick around until then, too, particularly in a novel. Short stories may only present a single conflict, but longer works will have more.

By definition, the resolution of the primary conflict is a story’s climax, it’s most important and exciting moment. All the tension built up through the middle is released in the climax. In action/adventure stories, this moment is the point when the threat posed by the primary antagonist becomes overwhelming. If the protagonist doesn’t succeed right here and right now, an irreversible catastrophe will result. The terrorists will blow up the building or the aliens will take over the world or the meteorite will crash into the Earth, triggering a mass extinction. In a mystery, the climax often pairs the resolution of the principal crime with mortal danger for the detective or for someone close to them. In a drama, the climax could even be triggered by the protagonist’s own flaws; if they fall victim to their failings, they will loose something important or others will be hurt. In all cases, the climax is the biggest, baddest, most danger-fraught moment in the whole story.

The story’s lesser conflicts can trigger moments like this, too, but generally they are less critical, less intense, and therefore not climactic. They can therefore be resolved in the middle of the story, but if so are usually replaced by larger conflicts or an intensification of the main conflict. The author can give the reader a moment to breath, but only a moment. Tension can’t decline for long, or the reader will wander off in search of a sandwich. But what happens when a lesser conflict persists right up to the climactic moment? Must it be resolved before the main conflict, or can it wait?

In some cases it can and indeed should wait, but order is important. Bear in mind that once the tension is gone, the reader has no reason to keep reading. Conflicts that persist beyond the climax have an inglorious name: “loose ends.” They must be tied up, but because the principal source of tension is gone, they must be tied up quickly. When the business of tying up loose ends drags on, readers rightly get bored and feel that the book should have ended sooner. In the worst case, they may suspect the book was “padded” to make them pay more for it–a feeling that also arises from middles where too little happens for too many pages. Conversely, a book that suddenly ends after a strong climax may leave readers feeling like they were dropped off of an emotional cliff. The less intense resolution to a loose end or two affords  us time to “come down” gracefully rather than plummet. On the other hand, the author of a series might leave something unresolved as a “cliffhanger,” a way of inviting you to the next book in the series where, one hopes, the remaining conflict will eventually be resolved.

You may sense a theme here: writers play on your emotions through story structure. The good ones do it so well that you’re left clamoring for their next book!

By way of illustrating these concepts, I’ll invoke my novel The Fibonacci Murders. Therein, a series of murders takes place, with tension ratched up through an increasing body count, the cryptic nature of the killer’s notes to the police, a mathematical switch he pulls mid-stream, and the discovery that his final crime must be one of horrific proportions. Along the way, a second series of crimes occurs. Less severe than the murders, it nevertheless causes a PR nightmare for the police and is resolved only when the murderer kills its perpetrator. That’s one conflict removed, but it hardly decreases the tension–just the opposite. And then a new wrinkle develops: Tom Kaneko, the mathematician who has been assisting the police, privately devises a plan to find the killer and strikes out on his own, unwittingly placing himself in mortal danger. The killer captures him but must execute his final crime, so he trusses Kaneko up and dumps him in the woods, planning on dealing with him later. Now the climax arrives: the killer is stopped mere seconds before committing a mass murder.

End of story? Not quite. Kaneko is still out there in the woods, injured, bound, and gagged. That’s a loose end: I couldn’t leave him there. Moreover, the detectives had a couple of loose ends of their own to tie up. Keeping Kaneko in hot water until after the killer is foiled allows the tension to drop somewhat less than precipitously and transitions towards resolution of the other, lesser, loose ends. The result, I hope, is that when you’ve read the final sentence, you feel that order has been restored and all is right with the world.

The end.

In the Beginning…

Have you ever read a story that completely failed to engage your attention? Probably so. How long did you stick with it? Fifty pages? Ten? Five? My personal low was two pages when reading an old science fiction novel my dad owned. I think I started that book three times over the course of several years and never made it past the second page.

Why does this happen? Basically, it’s a structural failing. You see, every story needs a structure, and that structure can be stated very simply: beginning, middle, end. As straightforward as that may seem, writers don’t always figure it out. When they don’t, the result can be a story in which nothing seems to happen, and when nothing happens, readers quickly get fed up.

So what is this beginning, middle, end thing, anyway? Well . . .

The beginning is where main characters are introduced, the setting is established, and the principal conflict is set up.

The middle is where most of the events play out. Lesser characters may be introduced and additional conflicts may arise. Throughout, the tension increases, the stakes get higher, the challenges become tougher. Even if the characters meet with small successes, things generally get worse for them.

The end is where the main conflict is resolved and loose ends are tied up. Compared to the rest of the work, this part is relatively short for one very good reason: resolution of the main conflict removes the tension and, thus, most of the interest.

Reread that last bit. No tension equals no interest. Books that fail to engage your attention are likely books lacking tension, or at least books with tension well-hidden. Maybe the writer spent the first ten pages providing background before presenting the main conflict. Maybe the initial conflict wasn’t much of a conflict. Or maybe it’s just you. After all, different people have different tastes and interests. Decades back my wife recommended a novel to me that, upon reading, I found stultifying. She couldn’t believe it. One of the main characters had suffered a serious injury and spent most of the novel at death’s door! How could I not be interested? Unfortunately, I didn’t care much about that character for whatever reason, and nothing much else seemed to be happening while he was busy almost dying. Oh, well.

Personal tastes aside, a story’s beginning has an important job to do: it must draw the reader in. To that end, writers employ what is called a hook. The hook is simply something interesting or unusual or dramatic that makes readers want to find out what’s going on. It’s what carries the reader past the first paragraph of a short story or the first page of a novel. It isn’t necessarily the main conflict, although it could be. It provides the vital infusion of tension without which readers won’t become engaged.

If I may, I’ll use my own writing as an example, since I know it so well. The Fibonacci Murders opens with a statement from a key character, mathematician Tomio Kaneko, about why he was involved in a murder investigation. In the course of this short passage, he states that had he not become involved, he would have been spared injury. The main conflict (a sequence of murders that take on a serial killer aspect) doesn’t start immediately and Kaneko’s involvement comes well into the novel. But I needed to get him onto the scene early because of the key role he plays. So I decided to introduce each chapter which a personal statement by him. The opening statement injects some menace because the reader knows that he’s going to get hurt. That point only happens near the end (technically, in the late part of the story’s middle), but its foreshadowing creates an element of tension that (I hope!) draws the reader in.

In True Death, I handled it a bit differently. We first meet a guy sitting alone on the porch of a run-down cabin out in the mountains and through his musings find out that he regards himself as dead. Clearly something tragic has happened to him, but just what will only become clear late in the novel. At the outset, we don’t even know his name. Ice on the Bay opens with an actual crime being committed, a botched robbery at a veterinary clinic. You’ll read that something has gone horribly wrong, but you won’t immediately find out what.

These three examples, different as they are, share a common theme. You meet someone to whom something bad happens, but you don’t get any details about what it was. With any luck you want to know the details, and that’s what pulls you into the story. As the old writer’s addage puts it, “Shoot the sheriff on the first page.” To which I might add, “But don’t reveal who shot him. Or if you do, don’t let on why they shot him.” Give the reader something to worry about, then keep them worried. That’s tension. That’s what keeps them reading. That’s a good beginning.

But, of course, that’s only the start . . .

The Making of “The Fibonacci Murders”

It began at a traffic light, a red light that stopped me on my way home from work one day. Minds often wander at such moments–at least mine does–and at that particular red light a thought came to me: it would be fun to write a mystery in which a mathematician plays a key role. Deservedly or not, mathematicians have a reputation for quirkiness. I could play that up to good effect.

Not a bad start! But it took two more years before I connected that character with a story. What took so long? Well . . .

Something like a decade earlier, I’d written a science fiction novel and started shopping it around. In those days I was an “aspiring writer,” a polite and encouraging term for a writer who hasn’t made a sale yet. I’d written oodles of short stories, mostly science fiction, but sold none of them. I had also written one longer work, a mystery just barely of novel length.  And then there was my magnum opus, the SF novel Jurek’s Legacy. My first full-length novel, it was arguably the best thing I’d written. I had high hopes of selling it, and set out to find an agent.

Although it may be hard to remember now, at that time there were just two kinds of book publishers. One, real publishers, carefully picked the works they would produce and paid advances and royalties to authors. The other, vanity presses, would produce anything somebody would pay them to produce. Real publishers pay the costs of book production. That’s why they’re so picky about what they produce and reject the vast majority of what they receive. Vanity presses produce just about anything, because they make their money off of writers, not books. As there are always a healthy number of desperate aspiring writers, vanity presses can always find customers.

But I was looking for an agent. I’d collected a few “thanks but no thanks” notes and one agonizingly near miss from an agent who said she loved my work but was closing her business to focus on other things. (Drat!) At just that moment, a fellow writer contacted me to say he’d signed on with an agent and encouraged me to submit my novel to her.  I did. End result? She turned out to be less an agent than a scam artist. She charged a modest up-front fee, then did nothing in return. When I began to press for my money back, she informed me she’d sold my novel, but when the contract arrived, it was from a vanity press.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that knife went in so deep the wound took nearly a decade to heal. I largely stopped writing fiction after that. Possibly I judged myself too harshly, but the words refused to come out right. I did write, but my efforts turned to nonfiction. I sold a couple of technical articles on software development, and later a pair of essays to Sky & Telescope. I contracted with About.com to write content on the Baha’i Faith, and after that venture folded I created a new site, Planet Baha’i, to continue that work. (PB had a good ten-year run before I retired it. It’s been resurrected as an occasional blog.) I was no longer an aspiring writer; I was a published author.

But a fiction writer? Not so much.

And so back to The Fibonacci Murders. Once I had both a character and a story–a series of murders based on the Fibonacci sequence–I got busy writing, and amazingly the result wasn’t half bad. Mathematician Tomio (Tom) Kaneko didn’t turn out as quirky as I’d originally envisioned, but you’ll find his genesis embedded in the first paragraph of the novel:

First I must state two things: I am a mathematician, and I am not crazy. I mention the first because it alone explains my involvement in the events that recently took place in Howard County, Maryland. Otherwise, I would have had no connection to them whatsoever and would have been spared injury. I mention the second for two reasons. First: strangeness is associated in the public mind with my profession, notwithstanding that relatively few mathematicians are odder than the average person. Second: it seems to me the tale I’m about to tell could only have been imagined by a lunatic. Indeed, there was a lunatic. But he was not I.

So there you have it. Where the story itself came from, how the detectives wandered in, and how they caught the culprit, well ,those are tales for another day.