This guest post is by Dr John Yeoman. Dr John Yeoman has 42 years experience as a commercial author, newspaper editor and one-time chairman of a major PR consultancy. He has published eight works of humour, some of them intended to be humorous. You can find him on his website, writers-village.org.

Is there one secret for success when writing stories? Yes!

Just as the secret in retailing is location, location, location, so the strategy for enduring success in fiction writing is Structure! That seems odd if we consider that real life has little or no structure, other than that imposed on us.

Flower

Photo by Sean R

We need a sense of form in our lives just as we need food. It seems to be engrained in our genetic structure.  The perception of form creates meaning, all by itself. If we look at a flower, a miracle of structure, we infer a sense of meaning in its creation.

For many of us, stories are an escape into an alternative life. So structure in a story persuades us that there’s meaning in life as well as fiction. That’s possibly why a classic story endures. It grants meaning to readers’ lives in each successive generation.

But a structure, to work, must have a clear boundary—an end.

Of course, there are rarely any perfect ends in life. Untidiness rules. Sad incidents follow comic ones, and little is predictable. Yet somehow we feel that, if we knew the underlying truth, our lives would have form. And form implies meaning.

That said, the best stories rarely ‘close’ in any conclusive way. In Ben Jonson’s brilliant play Bartholomew Fair, the last character on stage tells the audience to go away and carry on with the play at home. Its colourful tale of villainy and virtue cannot end, he says. Why? Because it’s a mirror of human life.

But still, there’s closure. The audience goes home.

Introducing the Book Jacket Structure

Here’s a tip for closing a story strongly, but without implying a conclusive ‘end’ that’s false to life. It’s the Book Jacket. Simply place a strong incident at the start—or even a memorable phrase or emblem. Then echo that motif at the close. The story then fits between the two ‘jackets’.

Let’s suppose that a tale begins with an heiress visiting a health spa. She’s having boyfriend troubles. She pours out her woes to the beautician, who secretly despises the woman. She’s rich, cold and selfish. No wonder she has boyfriend problems!

A day later, the heiress finds she has mislaid her Gucci purse. She’s carried it to so many places lately, she can’t remember where she left it. Grumpily, she buys another one.

The story shifts forward a year. Now the woman has gone through a life changing experience. Perhaps she has lost her money, her looks, and everything she once valued. She has matured, taken stock of herself and become less self-centered. For the first time in her life, she’s in a stable relationship.

She visits the health spa again. The beautician recognizes her and hands her back the Gucci purse. “You left it here.”

The woman looks at the purse. Now she sees it as superficial, frivolous and vain—just like her previous life. “Keep it,” she says. “I don’t need it any more.”

A Proven Strategy

That Book Jacket strategy is a proven way to turn a story that’s already good into one that resonates with mythic depth. (It was a favourite with the writer O. Henry.)

Simply, start off by writing the first section of your story then the last. Ignore the middle. Repeat a major theme or phrase in both sections and make the echo close the story with a twist or new significance. Irony? Humour? Tragedy? It’s up to you. Then all you have to do is fill in the bits in the middle.

The story will acquire a powerful sense of form and the reader will perceive that form subliminally. The story will acquire a fresh depth of meaning, elusive but beguiling.

Try the Book Jacket approach, not least because it makes story writing easier and more fun. And it’s a certain cure for Writers’ Block. Structure, structure, structure—that’s the secret of story success!

PRACTICE

This exercise is fun. Write the opening sentence of a story. Make sure it grips the reader. Maybe it has a hint of mystery, intrigue or conflict to come?

Then write a last sentence that ‘echoes’ the opening words—but gives them a surprising twist or added meaning.

Post your examples here.

Have fun!

Dr. John Yeoman
Dr. John Yeoman