Sometimes the story you start out writing is not the story you end up telling. The beginning and the ending are two different stories–and the inevitable result is that one of those is the wrong story.
How can you tell when you’ve got two halves that don’t form a single whole? How can identify which of those halves is the wrong story? And, once you’ve identified the wrong’n, how can you transform what’s left of your story into a cohesive whole from start to finish?
What Promise Does Your Story’s First Half Make to Readers?
The problem I’m discussing here is simply that of false promises. In the April 2016 issue of The Writer, creative writing teacher Hunter Liguore suggested insightfully that writers:
Go to the library and pull 10 books off the shelf. Read the first page or first chapter and identify the point at which you know what the story is about and where it will go. That will help you understand the story promise in your own work.
The tone of your opening chapter, the conflict, and the stakes–all of these are early promises to your readers. They are indications of your story’s specific focus and intent. A romantic comedy starts out making much different promises than does a post-apocalyptic book.
Elizabeth’s heart hammered loudly against her chest. She banged the front door behind her and paced the hallway in uneven strides. With the phone pressed hard between her ear and her shoulder, she balanced herself against the hall table and pulled off her broken-heeled shoe. Another bit of chaos to thank her sister for.
When he woke in the woods in the dark and cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and days more gray each one than what had come before.
What Promise Does Your Story’s Second Half Fulfill?
This is a promise that must be fulfilled in like measure by your story’s ending. More than that, if you’re going to create a cohesive plot, the events in the first half must be direct causes of the events in the second half. Otherwise, you end up with two essentially distinct stories cobbled together in a way that will overtax your readers’ suspension of disbelief.
One more time, consider Ron Howard’s meta-Moby-Dick tale In the Heart of the Sea. The fundamental cause of this story’s myriad problems is the fact that the events of the first half do not cause the events of the second.
The first half of the story sets up conflict between the newbie captain and his savvy but disgruntled first mate. Throughout the first half, the captain tries to assert his authority by making questionable–even downright foolish–choices. The story is blaring a promise that the captain’s bad choices will create horrific consequences.
But, no. The fatal collision with the white whale ends up being a freak encounter that has little to nothing to do with either the captain’s or the first mate’s choices. It comes out of the blue. Were it not for the flashforward framing device that provides a blatant heads up about the disaster, there is absolutely zero “promise” of a white whale. The whale-caused disaster is incidental to everything that occurs in the first half and, sadly, renders the first half’s interpersonal conflict nearly irrelevant in the second half.
Two Causes of Mismatched Story Halves
Frankly, it’s easy to write yourself into this fix. Stories are big, complicated beasts, and sometimes it’s difficult to hold both halves in your head at once and make sure everything matches up. But if you can recognize one of two possible causes of this problem, you can regain control before it’s too late.
Cause #1: You Didn’t Know the Ending When You Began
Sometimes finding your story’s ending is a process of discovery. You may write (or outline) halfway through your story before learning what you’re truly writing about. By that point, it’s possible you may have set up the first half to make all the wrong promises to your readers.
Depending on how far you’ve gotten into your story, you’re probably going to have to face down a hefty rewrite. But correcting the first half of your story, to allow it to properly build into the second half, will always be worth the extra work.
Cause #2: You Approached the Ending in the Wrong Way
If you want my guess, this is what tripped up In the Heart of the Sea. This is a story about the white whale’s freak attack, and yet (like Ridley Scott’s similar disaster-at-sea movie White Squall), the most important aspect of the story is almost completely without foreshadowing within its main conflict. Even though the story was clearly about the whale from the very start, the first half tells an entirely different story.
This is a trickier fix, since out-of-the-blue disasters are hard to foreshadow, by their very nature. But don’t despair: there are a couple tricks you can pull out of your bag.
First, remember foreshadowing is your friend. In the Heart of the Sea tried very hard to foreshadow its disaster via its flashforward framing, with Brendan Gleeson’s elderly survivor recounting the story to Herman Melville, but it failed to include strong foreshadowing within the story itself–the main conflict between the captain and the first mate.
A better approach would have been to allow reports of the deadly whale to have drifted back to the New England whaling community–which would have forced the characters to make the decision to move forward in the face of this potential danger. This would have created a first half in which the characters’ decisions and actions had clear consequences, in that they caused the events of the second half. (The characters do get a warning about the whale very late in the story, but it’s true import isn’t supported well enough to put the consequences back on the characters’ own heads in any significant way.)
Examine your story. Do both halves fit together? Is the ending fulfilling the beginning’s promises? Is the first half causing the second half? If so, congratulations! You’ve written a solid and cohesive story.
If not, ask yourself which half is the wrong story? Which half is the one you really want to tell? Then get to work tweaking that first half to properly set up the second.