On Being a Professional "Beginner" and The Movie: The Prestige

So, I did not get the critiques done for last month because I wasn’t going to make it to the meeting anyway and now I have to do two months worth of short stories and novel chapters. You know what I have found interesting in the pile of work of before me? The amount of beginnings.

What do I mean by this?

I mean that, for a lot of writers, creating the beginning may be the difficult part, but for others it’s hard to get past the starting line. There’s a lot of revving the engine, and that seems like action, but then you never hit the gas and go, so it’s only the promise of action.

I like to think of the trailer for The Prestige when I think about how to structure a story…partly because I like any excuse to think about Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman….In the trailer you hear Michael Caine’s voice explain “The Pledge” “The Turn” and “The Prestige.” Here is my interpretation to the writing of stories (particularly longer works like novels, I’ll use the group’s round story to avoid picking on any on person, while picking on all of us…):

1. The Pledge: The opening, the beginning, if you will. This is where you establish who your main character is, what his problems are, and how you’re going to solve it (which may or may not be accurate/clear at this point). Basically, you’re making a promise to the reader: “You will love this character who is surrounded by a mad cast of other characters (who you will also love) and who is searching for love via his dreams.”–My rough guesstimation of the promise made by our group to the reader in our round story. This pledge can continue for a few chapters while you make the world a messy place to live and complicate the problem further…it’s a continuation of the same promise and the bigger the mess you make, the bigger the next two parts have to be. Quite frankly, our group made a huge messy promise and now must work its way out…but how to do that?

With “The Turn”: This is a mini-climax near the beginning of the middle where the story takes what is promised and brings it all to a head by streamlining all those fragmented pieces. In Emma it’s where Frank Churchill enters the picture…pulling the focus from Emma’s matchmaking (which is in the Pledge to the Reader part of the novel) and adding the idea that she may need a man herself…initially to be thought of as Frank Churchill himself. It’s the biggest new complication that takes all those little ones and sheds new light on them. In the round story, that would be where the will comes into the picture and the contests. Now you’ve taken the mad cast of characters, threatened them, and now they have to work themselves out. If your situation is messy enough, the sorting out of this turn should take you a while to untangle….Leading you to:

The Prestige: The climax. The be-all-end-all. But here’s the trick with the Prestige…all the elements have to be in place to begin with. Jane Smiley in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel discusses the idea that if something is wrong with the end of the book, it’s because some key element is missing from the beginning. I can’t use the round story for this because we haven’t made it to the end yet. Looking at Emma again: the prestige is where Emma finally listens to what Mr. Knightley has to say and it’s that he loves her and wants to marry her. Who is Knightley, you ask? Well, he’s the guy that was there in the first chapter, spending time and attention to the whole of Emma’s family. He’s the guy that was her conscience through all the other mischief she was getting up to. In other words: his revelation and her acknowledgement would be the prestige. The key that made the whole thing go together…otherwise it’s just about a spoiled girl who learned nothing and went about her spoiled little rich life.

Now that I’ve gone on, I’m going to go just a little longer…

In the critiques I’ve been doing, I’ve noticed that the Turn is the most difficult part. There are lots of beginnings and promises being made, but no one is turning all those complications. So there’s just the promise of a good story. And, of course, once you’ve made the Turn, the next hardest part is the Prestige, the pay off, the Turn-take-two as it were. In one case I’m on page 200+ and can’t find the turn anywhere–there’s a second case that’s not as bad as this in that there’s 40+ pages, but I’m not sure the problem is being complicated/promised quickly enough. In another case I think we got to the Turn and then turned back to the beginning instead of driving forward. In one more case I noticed that just a small tip of the problem was introduced amongst all the scenery.

I’ve probably had a little too much time to think about all this. But what are some other opinions out there on how to structure a big story? How can you move past the “Pro Beginner” stage and into the “Pro Finisher” stage?

Writing Problems Writing Thoughts

jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. I like your analogy. I may have to steal it. First step to becoming a pro finisher: finish something. Step two: practice finishing things over and over again.

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