The Elements of Effective Writing
When broken down into its simplest form, effective writing has three parts:
Sure, it sounds trite, but everything has to start somewhere, right? Your writing will be much better if you consider each of these components. When you start writing, don't just jump in and start anywhere. Take a few moments to figure out where you want to start, what you're going to say, and how you're going to wrap things up.
Despite the association with “once upon a time” as the beginning for make-believe stories, the consensus for most fiction today is that you “start with the action.” If there are things the reader needs to know about the “beginning” (which is known in fiction as “backstory”), then there are devices such as flashbacks that can be used to supply that information, or it can be worked into the story as you go along. Today's world is a fast-paced one. People used to moving at a fast pace are not patient. Effective writing, regardless of whether it is fiction or nonfiction, reflects this trait.
Literature has evolved over the years to reflect the demands of the public. Consider the long, wordy passages in novels of past centuries: In Chapter 11 of Emily Brontë's Gothic
Other beginnings are even less easy to define. As you'll see in later chapters, you don't get to the opening sentence of a letter until you write the “body.” The beginning is the “opening,” which consists of the recipient's address and greeting (and is not to be confused with the “heading,” which consists of your information and the date).
Regardless of its name, an effective opening is one that engages the reader from the git-go. In formal writing, it's free of slang or colloquialisms (like
If you're writing a romantic thriller, you want to introduce the hero and heroine, of course, but you want to do so with finesse. An opening scene might be the following.
Dick Meadows tilted his hat and boarded the aged train, pulling himself up with the handrails just as the train lurched slowly forward on its way to Nairobi. He heard a shout behind him, and turned to see a tall blonde woman running to catch up.
“Stop the train!”
He smiled. “Fat chance, lady,” he thought to himself, before turning back to see the determined look on her face.
The train continued to move slowly as she ran alongside it. Bracing himself, Dick reached out his hand to help her up. She gave him a grateful smile as she climbed aboard.
That example starts with some action. It doesn't spend a lot of time developing the story, the setting, or anything else. It isn't necessary to establish how Dick or the lady got to the train station. Or why it's so important that the blonde catch the train. Or why she was late getting to the train. It simply jumps in where everything starts. This way, the reader joins the heroine as she hits the ground running, amidst the action, and hopefully will want to know more. The rest of that, of course, is continued in the middle.
When it comes down to it, the “middle” is just a convenient way of separating your beginning and ending from everything else. The middle is where the substance occurs. The opening may set the tone, but the actual point of your piece will emerge through the unfolding of the middle. In a story, this is where the bulk of the story happens.
Your middle will actually be a series of events that slowly culminate in the big, final climactic scene. And after you reach that, it's time to end your story.
Wrapping Things Up
Just as you must be careful to start with the action in your opening, you must also remember to stop where the story ends. Many beginning writers continue writing long after the story is over, rehashing old material. In fiction, your writing is much stronger — and has a much greater emotional impact on the reader — if it leaves some things up to the imagination. As long as the major points of the story are wrapped up, you can leave some things unsaid.
An emotionally satisfying ending to a story with a few things left to the reader's speculation also leaves the author with the option of writing a sequel.
Consider the romantic thriller example. Suppose your story progressed to finding a giant ruby and smuggling it through various countries. Finally, Dick and the woman reach the coast.
Megan looked up into Dick's eyes. “So I guess this is it.”
He nodded slowly. “Apparently.”
Hoisting the satchel with the ruby inside, Megan slung it over her back. She smiled at Dick, trying not to cry, as she turned and began walking away from him, up the plank to board the ship.
Megan stopped at the top, hesitated, then turned to face him. Dick stood on the shore, with his hands on his hips, his hat slightly askew. Megan tried to push away the thought that this might be the last moment they would ever share. The last chance she'd have to look in his eyes.
“You sure?” she asked, biting her lip.
“Oh, what the hell,” Dick muttered, and started to run up the plank.
Because the story ends that way, the reader doesn't know what happens to the ruby, or to Dick and Megan. Maybe they lived happily ever after, or maybe they had a fight on the cruise and decided to go their own separate ways. Those unanswered questions don't make it an ineffective ending. The point is that this is where this story ends. Anything more would merely be fluff and would most likely detract from the rest of the story. As long as you provide an effective emotional close to your piece, you don't have to have an answer there for everything.