Are You Telling the Wrong Story?

Are You Telling the Wrong Story?

Are You Telling the Wrong Story?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.

Contrast the opening lines of Cecelia Ahern’s If You Could See Me Now with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road:

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.

vs.

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.

If You Could See Me Now Cecelia Ahern The Road Cormac McCarthy

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.

In the Heart of the Sea Benjamin Walker

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.

The Fix:

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.

The Fix:

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 friendIn 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.)

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA

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.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever realized you were writing the wrong story? What did you do to make both halves work together as a seamless whole? Tell me in the comments!

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland's monthly e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.
Email:
About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I start my story with the beginning chapter. Then I play the story over and over in my mind. Then I always write the ending. So no matter where I go, I know where I am going to end up. This way works for me. I guess the story is like cracks in glass. They have a starting point and a finishing point. I just have to keep them under control and funnel them to the end.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      So you write your ending before you write the rest of the story? You’re in good company with that. John Irving does the same.

      • To write the beginning and the ending, and then fill in the rest of the story, DOES create the danger of the dreaded “saggy middle”

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          One of the great things about structure is that it goes a long way toward eliminating the whole problem of the “saggy middle.” There are so many important structural sign posts in the center of the story that it’s much easier to keep the plot rolling along when you’re aware of them.

        • “To write the beginning and the ending, and then fill in the rest of the story, DOES create the danger of the dreaded “saggy middle””

          To write the beginning and not know the ending creates the same danger. I’m a pantser, but it doesn’t really bug me. I always figure I’ll just go back and make the appropriate changes when I know what they’ll be. A lot of my stories have “saggy middles”, which are often easily corrected when I work out the ending.

          That being said, I generally struggle with middles. To me, the middle is the hardest part of the writing process. But when I finally understand what my ending will be, I am often flooded over with inspiration and solutions to my middle.

          For example (spoiler warning, but this applies mostly to the one to two followers of KM who know what I’m writing about), the first arc or “season” of my collaborative superhero/ sci-fi has a character who has always had a certain tough, aggressive personality, with a sense of bitterness against the world around her (and God) built around the grief of the death of her mother. I knew that by the end of that arc/ season I wanted her to reach a point where her grief would finally be alleviated and she would overcome her constant bitterness, but I struggled with how to pull that off. For a long time, I would throw in some fairly standard superhero adventures that were often disconnected and “monster-of-the-day”-ish. (Fans of Power Rangers or the 90s Sailor Moon series will recognize that phrase.) One day I nailed down the story of how my MC has her heart changed following a violent and heartbreaking battle against an innocent character who had been forced into the fight by the villains, resulting in two innocent deaths by the hands of my MC. After the battle, she breaks down and reveals years of guilt she had hidden away over her responsibility in the death of her mother. Shortly after this scene is when she transforms her personality to not be bitter against the world.

          She still more-or-less blames herself for the past, but until she learns the true story of what happened (in a later “season”), she at least behaves differently and isn’t constantly eaten alive with her self-blame.

          [/spoilers]

          Once I had the details of the ending of the entire arc written down, I was flooded over with all the important changes to make to the middle of the series, understanding which villains were connected to each other and to her and why, and understanding how her bitterness was affecting her relationships and her decisions.

          Figuring out the ending of the first “season” of the story was like standing in the epicenter of an earthquake: it sent off massive ripples that extended far back through the story, changing the landscape, with much of the change in landscape occurring in the “saggy” middle.

    • I like it. I never understood it until today. Makes a lot of sense. If you know where you’re headed you have a better idea on how to provide adequate foreshadowing in the first half.

  2. Kate Flournoy says:

    Awesome! I totally agree. Thanks so much for sharing. 🙂

    I especially need to watch myself for the events in the first part of the story causing the events in the last part thingy— that’s been halfway a problem with editing my WIP. I found if I consolidate and twist different plot threads and characters on their heads, I can get much tighter conflict, word count, foreshadowing… all that. Cause and effect, if you will. Every event has to lead up eventually to the climax, and then the end.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Cause and effect is so huge in writing, and yet it’s something (at least in my own experience), which often takes writers a little while to get their heads around. But once we get that much, the whole enchilada becomes so much easier to understand and construct.

  3. I like it. They say prevention is the best medicine. I’m just now realizing that not knowing the ending or the midpoint can cause problems with the first half of the story. I just finished the Plot Machine by Dale Kutzera. He discusses writing the story from the second act that way you can know how to set up the first act with foreshadowing. James Scott Bell also has a book entitled Write Your Novel from the Middle. I didn’t know what that meant until today. This confirms my suspicions with today’s post. Not knowing or planning the end or middle can possible cause two “different” halves or stories. I love what you said about crafting a cohesive story with cause and affects. Makes a lot of sense. When I plot my points this will allow me to write a more cohesive story.

    Thx

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Something I mentioned in the comments of the recent post “How to Know When to Write The End” was that when you know your end, your beginning often writes itself. That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to *write* the ending first. But it’s so helpful to at least know what you’re working toward.

      Of course, if you’re a pantser and prefer not knowing in the first draft, the solution is simply to go back and edit the first draft into “causing” the “effect,” once you know where the story ends up.

      • Kate Flournoy says:

        Haha… I’m a pantser, and that’s pretty much what I’m doing right now. 😛 😉
        Actually, I think I’m half pantser half not, because usually before I even sit down to write a story I know pretty much where it’s going to end up. I just have to smooth out all the tangled plot threads getting there so it’s actually a relatively logical path. 🙂

        • Kate F. We must twins separated at birth. I think I’m a half panster too! Well, at least a reformed panster, or plotser. Lol! I do love knowing some what the ending heading into it, that way I know how to craft other part of the book.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s basically how I approach story too. I just do the untangling in the outline. 🙂

      • What do you do? Do you seek knowing the end and then feel your way through? I seriously doubt you’d wing anything.

        • Kate Flournoy says:

          *gasp* How dramatic, Benjamin! 😉 Actually I’m sure there are more ‘plotsers’ out there than we think. 🙂

          I prefer ‘plotsing’ because it helps me get a deep taste for the most integral parts of the story that an outline can’t really give me. With a lot of my characters, I discover their personalities as I write, and the only way to do that, really, is to… well… write! 😛

      • “Of course, if you’re a pantser and prefer not knowing in the first draft, the solution is simply to go back and edit the first draft into “causing” the “effect,” once you know where the story ends up.”

        ME!!

        When I think about it, it’s more fun to be a pantser than a plan-aheader. XD I’ve done both, and all stories I’ve planned ahead through outlining eventually bored me to death and then flopped completely. They were so stale. But when I “shoot first and ask questions later” I get a certain level of the same experience as a reader (or watching a movie) : I don’t know what’s going to happen next, and I’m excited to read (write) the story and watch events unfold. I’m caught off-guard and delighted at the reactions of characters in one situation, I feel myself guessing that an event in the story is going to go one way, then delightfully surprised when it goes a different way.

        I eventually come to a point where I feel confident reading everything I’ve already written (several chapters in), and then picking up a notebook and writing down my observations on how my story went, and from there learning what the end will be and what changes to make to what is already written to accommodate that vision.

        • Joe Long says:

          Whether fiction or computer code, the ‘outline’ from beginning to end is in my head. Occasionally I have to stop and write chunks of it down before I forget some good part.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Writing, by its very nature, means going over and over a story time and again to perfect it. How we deal with that potential boredom is ultimately what makes us either plotters or pantsers. They’re just different approaches to the same problem.

  4. The only draft I haven’t yet completed is a story I started in the middle with characters doing things for no perceptible reason. I got the end and was happy with the conclusion, but it had no roots in the beginning. So I went back to write the beginning and it was like trying to shovel fog with a sieve. I’ve got two ‘early’ chapters which begin exploring how the characters became themselves, but I’ve still have several chapters to go. It is much harder for me to have the character first, then show why then to start with the why and build the ending. It’s strange, because my thinking about stories usually starts in the middle of the story with a single image or choice about which the story moves.

    This commentary on connecting the halves will help me focus what I need to do to finally finish that draft.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      It’s always interesting to me, whenever I have to go back and add an earlier scene within an existing timeline or flesh out a summarized scene. Inevitably, the neat little event I had in mind turns into something *much* more complicated and unforeseen when I have to plot it out, beat by beat. It almost always ends up changing subsequent events. This is one reason I really like writing scenes in chronological order: it allows for an organic evolution of cause and effect. That same cause and effect can get ridiculously convoluted when you have to go back and expand on earlier scenes.

    • If the manuscript contains more lines like “trying to shovel fog with a sieve,” it’s going to go somewhere.

  5. Joe Long says:

    I started with a beginning and an end, then wrote an outline describing the path traveled to get from A to B. As I set down to do each chapter ans scene, I ponder and visualize those pieces (all the actions/reactions etc) to fill in the details.

    This article made me think about the end, and I also recalled your discussions of “the lie”

    (spoilers)
    So I have guy meets girl, guy gets girl, guy loses girl, guy finally gets another girl (but still hadn’t given up hope for the first)

    The first lie is “I’ll never find a girl”. What is more obvious to me right now is the second lie “I’ll never find another girl as good as this one” despite all the obvious flaws in the relationship that the MC is ignoring. As I right the middle I’ll have to make sure to clearly show that second lie developing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Great stories are made of layers. There may (should) be a fundamental Lie at its core. But that Lie is ideally going to spawn many secondary Lies that enhance the moral complexity of the theme. Good job with that!

    • “the second lie “I’ll never find another girl as good as this one” despite all the obvious flaws in the relationship that the MC is ignoring.”

      You have no idea how much respect I have just developed for you for doing this. I’m so disappointed in the many stories/ movies that handle this the other way, effectively stating, “It doesn’t matter if you’re setting yourself up for a bad relationship later, or how whimsical and prone to spontaneous change of mind, as long as you’re happy during this exact moment.” Every time I see a bride standing at the alter, right when the preacher says “Does anybody object?” and her old boyfriend bursts into the door to object, and she gleefully flees her groom and jumps into the arms of her old lover, I want to scream and throw stuff at the TV in hopes of decapitating the bride. (I’m talking to you, Mary-Jane Watson!!)

      If the relationship broke down so badly before, what makes you think it’s different just because the guy ran in to claim you at the very last second?

      (Yes, I am well aware the genders can be reversed in these scenarios… But as far as TV and literary entertainment goes, they usually aren’t.)

      • Joe Long says:

        Thank you, I really do appreciate that.

        Yes, spoilers. It’s a fictional story, but many threads were pulled from real life. The affair is a wild, fun ride that I never actually had. It didn’t work, but the experience lets the MC grow in such a way that he can find true love the second time around, even if he is at a crucial moment willing to run back.

        Looking back, I see that a couple of relationships before I met my wife were necessary to get me to the right spot for her.

        • “Looking back, I see that a couple of relationships before I met my wife were necessary to get me to the right spot for her.”

          That’s another detail I’ve never seen included in romance stories. We need more of these.

  6. Katie, I do believe this is one of the best, most helpful blogs you’ve written. For once I have to admit that I haven’t been there, done that.
    This is probably the best explanation of a story which goes flat in that difficult middle section. I’ve never been a proponent of important conflict on every page, I’ve never agreed that connecting narrative sections must be avoided – every story must have areas of down time, just as our life must give us a rest at the end of the day.
    But here you said it: not necessarily conflict, but connectivity. One thing leads to another, which connects the end to the beginning, and the beginning to the end.
    I’ve always followed that instinct, one thing leads to another. I think it makes the story whole. In defining it – “Are you telling the wrong story?” you show the writer how to avoid wrong beginnings which may lead to dislocated endings.
    Super stuff.
    THIS is what you do best, IMO.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Lyn! Stories are a constant balance–an ebb and flow–of conflict and and tension, scene and sequel. Any story that’s all conflict, all day long, is going to end up nearly as flat and boring as a story with zero conflict.

  7. Sounds like filtering all scenes through a clearly understood promise should help us keep the plot and character arc much more on track. Great post! Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Definitely. In fact, we can rather think of the story’s “promise” in the same light as its “premise.” If we have a clear understanding what the story is about and what we want to accomplish with it, we’ll be that much closer to fulfilling its potential.

  8. The movie “Hancock” has been described as two or three movies spliced together.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ve had a copy of that movie forever, but haven’t convinced myself to actually sit down and watch it. :p

    • “The movie “Hancock” has been described as two or three movies spliced together.”

      I’m not seeing that at all. He experiences a guided character growth from beginning, through the middle, and into the end. (I’ll try to avoid spoilers here as much as possible.) The end is his (and viewers’) realization of why he behaved as he did in the beginning. There is some mystery in his being. The discussion at the dinner table scene is a solid enough connection (to me) to understanding why there had ever been a mystery at all, and the ending completes the realization of that mystery. Most of the middle is about him putting forth the effort into changing his behavior, and the points I mentioned above explain how he reached the point of needing this change.

      Basically it goes like this. (Again trying to avoid spoilers.)

      (Beginning) “Why do you act like such an [censored]?” (Dinner) “This thing happened to me long ago.”
      (Middle) “You should try to be better.”
      (Middle) “I’m kind of better, I guess.”
      (Climax) “I happen to know this other thing about you.”
      (End) “I am no longer an [censored]. I understand my past and I care about others, so I have to do this heroic thing.”

  9. It’s so interesting to me. This is another in a series of posts that mirror what Steven Pressfield is writing (Did the two of you work this out ahead of time?). To summarize his response to your question, he would say that this is why theme is so critical. Which half of your story is the right one? What is the main theme you are trying to say? The half that evokes that theme is the one that is correct.

    Of course, what is the promise of the story is very close to the question, what is the theme of your story?

    Here’s his latest, which echoes a post of your own – both out in the last 2 weeks: http://www.stevenpressfield.com/2016/03/the-hero-embodies-the-theme/

    I don’t know if he saw it, but I’m just going to speak for Steve and say he agrees with you (and me) that In the Heart of the Sea was a waste of a good whale…

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Steven’s site seems to be down, so I couldn’t take a look. I have his book on my Kindle. Looking forward to reading it as soon as I get a few spare minutes one of these days.

      But, anyway, yes, I totally agree that theme is a hugely integral piece in this discussion. When the theme is solid throughout, it’s inevitably a sign the other pieces are moving in concert as well.

  10. Odd Guy says:

    Hey Katie, here’s a question for you:

    Still working on my trilogy, where it’s a single overarching story divided into three very linear substories.

    I figure each story’s “promise” as you mention here should be made in the first scene/chapter-ish. When do I make the “promise” of where the trilogy is headed?

    Also, I’m under the impression that this “promise” is essentially just the Hook, and that this entire post is basically about staying true to your hook. Or is there really a difference between the Hook and this “promise”?

    I’ll tell you one thing, Katie. Following along through your posts about structure has been quite the ride when I scratch my head and fit it into an overarching trilogy. I should e-mail you the graph I made. As it turns out, the Overarching Inciting Event is the Book 1 1st Pinch Point, the Overarching 2nd Pinch is the Book 2 Beginning of Climax, the Overarching 25% is the Book 1 75%, and the Overarching 75% is the Book 3 25%!

    It’s mayhem, I tell you. Mayhem! And I love every minute of it.

    So here’s where it gets interesting: the Book 1 and Book 3 Midpoints don’t line up with any real standout point in the Overarching structure. These two points are really what make their respective volume their own story, while Book 2 is really about the trilogy as a whole’s realization of the central conflict.

    So now to get back on topic: let’s take three stories, make sure they are true to their own endings, line them up, and make a fourth story out of the three of them, make sure the end of book three is true to book 1, and book 2 fits perfectly in the middle.

    It’s good fun. Evernote is my friend.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you! I’m about to embark on a couple trilogies of my own, and I’m eager to apply structure to overarching stories.

      As for hook vs. promise, I think it would be simplifying matters just a little bit too much to say they’re exactly one in the same. The hook *should* be part of the promise, but the promise may need more space than just that opening hook in which to develop.

  11. Thank you, this is exactly what I needed clarity on today.

  12. Ha. I never made to the end of a story. I’ll keep this in mind.

  13. Hi! The information you shared through this post is really helpful for me and I think not just for me, because it will help all the writers avoid telling the wrong story. It is not surprising, that you decided to discuss this problem here, because there are many writers who face with such challenges during the writing. I like the idea to write the end of the story first, because it gives author a target to write forward!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I don’t personally go to the extent of actually *writing* my endings first. But I definitely need to know where I’m going if I’m going to get there by the best route.

  14. Michelle says:

    This is something I’ve had to do do in both my novels now. Something kind of major shows up half way through the novel that I wasn’t expecting and wasn’t in the main outline (I only outline main plot). So, I had to go back and bleed the red thread into the first half to make it work. Something –In The Heart Of The Sea could have done as you recommend.

    I must say the second book was harder. It wasn’t a device or a plot but a person and I couldn’t introduce them earlier. In fact the “love” interest is a faux protagonist in the beginning, a real one in the middle and in the end a different one but one that was there all along. It’s something that could jolt the reader but the circumstances allow for the character to make those choices and I don’t see anyway around it. (Not a typical romance- will put it under Women’s Fiction. 🙂 Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The answer to these tricky introductions of elements late in the book is always the same: foreshadowing. If you can appropriately foreshadow the ending, readers will still feel even the most jarring of changes are all of the same piece.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Are You Telling the Wrong Story? (K. M. Weiland) […]

  2. […] the writing process, and my nerves simmered down. The day of my panic attack I read the article, “Are You Telling The Wrong Story?”  It was my past four months or so of work summed up into one article.  Suddenly, I felt like I […]

Speak Your Mind

*