The Secret to Writing Powerful Stories

by Dr. John Yeoman | 30 comments

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!

30 Comments

  1. John Fisher

    First Sentence:   As she stepped into the forest, the sunlight diminished and self-doubt increased with the shadows.

    Closing Sentence:  She emerged from that darkened forest into the welcoming midday sunlight, knowing she had covered the distance.

    Reply
    • Steph

      These are very poetic and show character growth.

    • Marianne

      I like how you show in the first sentence that we are going to see a challenge to the character’s self reliance. Each word contributes to that. 

  2. Yalí Noriega

    First sentence: She closed the door quietly, fearing to wake the family, and as she walked down the street she wondered whether she would ever see them again.

    Last sentence: She looked around the table, all eyes staring at her, and she announced proudly, “I’m home”

    Reply
    • Steph

      Full circle, very  nice.

    • Marianne

      This sets the scene and ties it up well. 

  3. John_Yeoman

    Thanks, John and Yali. Both those examples are excellent. In both cases, you have repeated an emblem or emblematic theme. But do make sure to make that emblem vividly memorable or folk will forget it, several pages later! 

    I’m looking forward to reading more examples. These are fun!

    Reply
    • JB Lacaden

      I’ve read stories using this structure (I just didn’t know what it’s called before). Thanks for explaining how it works! 🙂

    • John_Yeoman

       Thanks, J B. It’s also called the Book End. True, it’s a formula but if you examine the winning stories in many an anthology you’ll find it defines the majority of them!

  4. Katie Axelson

    I love seeing blogs and short stories with book ends. I’d never thought about doing it for a novel. Thanks!

    Katie

    Reply
  5. Yvette Carol

    Thank you for that tip. I love the ‘book end’ idea. All of life happens in cycles. How wonderful to have your story echo that circular way that life goes…

    Reply
  6. Steph

    Here are the opening and closing sentences from my WIP:

    Opening: A
    bobcat screamed, and from his corner table beneath a flea-bitten caribou mount,
    Rex LaCroix watched the fishermen along the bar put their beers down and crane
    toward the dark hole of the open window.
    Closing: He went back to the boat for a bobcat pelt, the softest of
    all furs, and tucked it around her shoulders as she slept beneath the faded ochre
    caribou painted in the cusp of the cliff.

    Reply
    • Steph

      Ack – don’t know what happened to the formatting when I posted this! Sorry it is awkward.

    • Marianne

      You have things figured out to a tee Steph. Good for you!

  7. RD Meyer

    Opening line – When I woke up Thursdau morning, I had no idea that my love of politics and my affinity for culturing bacteria would come in so handy.

    Closing line – And that’s why most of our politicians should be kept under glass.

    Reply
    • Oddznns

      This has the beginnings of a creepy sci-fi Roald Dahl.

    • Marianne

      Ha!  I like that.  

    • Yvette Carol

      RD you cracked me up 🙂

  8. Shelley

    First Sentence:  She began to run, trying to distance herself from his stinging words lashing at her heart from behind. 
    Second Sentence:  He reeled her in to an embrace of old times like dancers in love.

    Reply
  9. JB Lacaden

    First Scene: A High Paladin is tasked to eliminate the heretics in a certain region. He sets out with his goals clear in his head.

    Last Scene: The High Paladin, after discovering that the leader of the heretics was once a friend and former Paladin of the Order, starts to have questions in his own faith. He returns back to their Order–he’s target successfully eliminated, but his faith starts to crack.

    Reply
    • Marianne

      I like this not just because it shows what the story will be about but because you in a few words put us in a different time and place.   Well done.

    • JB Lacaden

      I’m glad I was able to paint a vivid image. Will probably turn this into a short story 🙂

    • Yvette Carol

      PJ would be proud! 🙂

    • JB Lacaden

      Thank you Yvette! 🙂

  10. Beck Gambill

    Great advice! Just what I needed. I’m finishing up my story and was working out the ending. This approach will work perfectly!

    Reply
  11. Tom Wideman

    First Sentence: His father had forbid him from ever
    walking across the train trestle, but since it shaved ten minutes off his walk
    home from school, he did it anyway.

    Closing Sentence: The old man limped his way home across the deserted trestle.

    Reply
    • ShelleyD

      This reminds me of the warnings we used to get as kids to stay off the train trestle.  I also remember the “bums” that used to pass our way via the train tracks.  

      It definitely makes you wonder what happened in between.

  12. Juliana

    First Sentence: “That is the third homeless person dead this month – do you think there is anything to it?”
    Last Sentence: Mrs Bessie Smith carefully put the bottle of rat poison back into the cupboard, and smiled.

    Reply
  13. Keandris Cousin

    First sentence: He was a whimsical old man, constantly in his thoughts, feeling the wind beneath his arms, running around til day turned to night, until night turned to day he slumbered feeling happy but impractical to the world, he destined himself to forever be alone, misunderstood, unappreciated.
    Last sentence: As she bellowed below the trees, feebly clapping her hands together amidst the sunrise, she was a whimsical old woman, constantly in his thoughts, he watched the wind fly beneath her arms, as they ran together til day turned to night, until night turned to day they slumbered, holding eachother close, feeling happy and impactical to the world, he destined himself to never be alone, never be misunderstood, never be unappreciated as long as SHE… along as she was around..

    Reply
  14. Paisley Truitt

    First: I smile deviously as the locks of her gorgeous blonde hair fall to the floor. My hands grow sweaty, causing me to clasp the safety scissors a bit harder. I felt so bad, but at the same time a tear of joy escaped my eye, then a tear of devastation escaped hers. Wow, how stupid a jealous third grader can be. I knew I shouldn’t do such horrid things to people, but for the arrogant, care-free Amelia, I’ll make an acception.

    Last: I lay here, dying in this sterile room that I’ve grown accustomed to after so many shortened days and prolonged nights. I wearily graze the surface of my balding head, a tear of devastation escaping my eye. There’s a knock at the door. I turn my head, hiding my glossy eyes, blinking the tears away. “Yes, come in” I say, a phony care-free sense ringing behind my every word. “Ah yes, a wig has been donated to this hospital, specifically for you, maim.” A streak of excitement flies through me as the doctor hands me a beautiful blonde wig. “It’s from a woman named Amelia? you two must be close” He said, smiling.

    Reply

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