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How to Give Your Story a Winning Structure

Updated on July 18, 2011

We often hear that a good short story or novel must have a coherent form. It is a unity, a ‘closed compacted thing’ (Virginia Woolf).

Of course, absolute finality is not necessary except in nursery tales. Some great stories end without explicit closure. The French Lieutenant’s Woman famously finishes upon the question: how should this story end? It can also be a profitable trick for an author to leave behind a few loose ends. For example:

‘I often wondered what happened to Jack. Somehow, I doubt that the singing Santa Clauses got him. Maybe he’s sitting right now in some sleazy dockside bar, chewing the worm from a tequila bottle and reading this whole darn story by the light of a putrefying crayfish. Yes, I reckon old Jack’s alive out there, somewhere. I can hear his laughter.’

Now the reader knows that, tequila permitting, old Jack will reappear in a sequel.

Closure is also false to life.

In the modern ‘representational’ or realistic story, comedies might end with a wedding and tragedies begin with one. Nothing really ends in life, short of death. (Even then, we can write a ghost story.)

Yet... the appeal of a good story is that it shows form at work in the world. We hunger for form to make the chaos of our lives meaningful. We see the constellation of Hercules in a scatter of stars. However it is contrived, ‘closure’ satisfies the pattern-seeking mind.

The easiest way to impose closure in a simple story (and to sidestep writer’s block) is the Book End structure. The story ends where it starts but, meanwhile, the characters’ lives have progressed in some meaningful way.

Anything can serve, emblematically, to define a Book End.

Perhaps the same object appears at the start and the end (or throughout). Or a similar incident does. Or the same snatch of dialogue. Or a key phrase, in which the same words reappear but are given a new -perhaps ironic - meaning.

For instance, Lawrence Sanders’ grim thriller The First Deadly Sin opens with a man climbing a mountain, perilously alone. It ends with a similar incident only, this time, he dies at its peak, frozen to the rock, his eyes open beneath the falling snow. It’s an apt finalé. The man is a psychopathic killer, a loner, his mind as cold as ice. The rock-climb episodes are emblems. They frame the story in a Book End.

In a humorous story, a timid boss might be faced with the ordeal of firing an insubordinate clerk. ‘A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,’ he tells himself, through gritted teeth. He makes a hash of it. The bemused clerk asks: ‘Are you quite finished? Then I’ll go back to my desk.’

After several such humiliations, the boss hires a female personnel manager. ‘A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,’ the boss reminds himself, contentedly ‘except when a woman can do it better.

Here, a phrase - repeated with a twist - provides the Book End.

True, the Book End is a formula, a cliché. But it’s interesting to note that at least one third of the prize-winning stories published in the anthology Best New SF17 used the Book End.

For a 14-part 'little university' of ideas to get your stories published for profit go to:

Also see... Tested Ways to Beat Writer's Block. Click here.


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    • John Yeoman profile image

      John Yeoman 7 years ago from Story writing land in the centre of England

      Thanks for your comment! Of course, the technique of a repeated phrase or object can be overdone. Lawrence Durrell used no fewer than 120 mirrors as emblems throughout the Alexandria Quartet. Some might think that excessive... :)

    • triciajean profile image

      Patricia Lapidus 7 years ago from Bantam, CT

      Yes, a good writer will often use an image, phrase, or incident at the beginning and end of the story--and sometimes throughout. Often this is not fully conscious. Thanks for bringing this technique to the fore.