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Elements of Fiction Writing

Beginnings, Middles & Ends

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Get your stories off to a roaring start. Keep them tight and crisp throughout. Conclude them with a wallop.

Is the story or novel you've been carrying around in your head the same one you see on the page? Or does the dialogue suddenly sound flat and predictable? Do the events seem to ramble?

Translating a flash of inspiration into a compelling story requires careful crafting. The words you choose, how you describe characters, and the way you orchestrate conflict all make the difference--the difference between a story that is slow to begin, flounders midway, or trails off at the end--and one that holds the interest of readers and editors to the final page.

By demonstrating effective solutions for potential problems at each stage of your story, Nancy Kress will help you...hook the editor on the first three paragraphs make--and keep--your story's "implicit promise"build drama and credibility by controlling your prose Dozens of exercises help you strengthen your short story or novel. Plus, you'll sharpen skills and gain new insight into...the price a writer pays for flashbacks six ways characters should "reveal" themselves techniques for writing--and rewriting Let this working resource be your guide to successful stories--from beginning to end.

149 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1992

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About the author

Nancy Kress

435 books843 followers
Nancy Kress is an American science fiction writer. She began writing in 1976 but has achieved her greatest notice since the publication of her Hugo and Nebula-winning 1991 novella Beggars in Spain which was later expanded into a novel with the same title. In addition to her novels, Kress has written numerous short stories and is a regular columnist for Writer's Digest. She is a regular at Clarion writing workshops and at The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland. During the Winter of 2008/09, Nancy Kress is the Picador Guest Professor for Literature at the University of Leipzig's Institute for American Studies in Leipzig, Germany.

Excerpted from Wikipedia.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 169 reviews
Profile Image for Spencer Orey.
557 reviews140 followers
May 29, 2019
There's a lot of useful info here for aspiring authors (like me!). Good focused book without a lot of fluff, divided into helpful little sections. I'll be coming back to this one a lot. Seems especially helpful for the process of revision.
Profile Image for David.
154 reviews60 followers
November 5, 2015
“The story that comes out on the page isn’t the same as the story in your head,” Nancy Kress says on the very first page. I know this feeling intimately, and from this moment on I was hooked.

I’m very serious about writing, and I also have a tendency to research things I’m interested in very thoroughly. I’ve done this with every RPG and MMO I’ve ever played. I’ve done it with shows that have complex mythologies. So, it probably comes as no surprise that I’ve read quite a few books about writing. As of this review I’ve finished five, including this book, and I am working on three more. So far no book has helped me as much as this one. I took notes on this book, of every chapter. The chapter with the least notes clocks in at 200 words. The chapter with the most clocks in at over 800. That’s how packed full of useful information this book is.

So what makes this book so great? Kress goes over every topic a new writer needs to write credible, publishable prose, and to structure a satisfying story, and she does it in a way that immediately makes sense. She also does something I’ve yet to see other writing books do, which is to take into account every type of writer. Every new lesson acknowledges the differences between novelists and short story writers—outliners and discovery writers, and it offers specific advice for each. As someone who is just starting out, I write a lot of short stories simply because they’re faster and easier to finish. Finding information specific to short stories in this book was an unexpected but welcome surprise.

Long story short, this is one of the best books about the technical side of writing fiction. Period. If you need tips, advice, structure, direction, buy this book. If you are instead looking for inspiration, you won’t find much of it here, but one book can’t have everything, now can it?
Profile Image for Candace.
895 reviews
June 27, 2017
This how-to-do book on beginnings, middles and ends helps the writer with writing skills. In beginnings the author discusses the implicit promise writers make with the readers. It instructs the writer on the importance of the first sentence, the first paragraph and the first scene.

The middle looks at developing the promise and keeping your novel or short story on track. The writer does this through answering three questions: (1) Whose story is this? (2) Who is the point-of-view character? and (3) What is the throughline (plotline). It also covers moving from scene to scene and planning for the climax.

The ends deliver the implicit promise. It discusses the climax, denouement and epilogue. Ends point out the importance of the last scene, last paragraph and the last sentence. The final chapter is on revision.

This book discusses writer's block. It covers both the novel and the short story. It has exercises at the end of each chapter for the writer to practice. Overall, the book is a good resource for the novice writer.
Profile Image for Mike.
Author 45 books161 followers
January 30, 2018
This was excellent, not least because it's very well laid out, with a clear flow from point to point and chapter to chapter. (As you would hope from a book on beginnings, middles and ends.)

All too many craft books, I'm finding, don't have much to teach anyone who isn't a beginner. This is an exception. Even though some of the ground it covers is inevitably ground I've seen covered before, it does it so clearly and thoroughly that it provides fresh insight.

For example, the section on endings gave me an "aha!" moment about one of my own stories. The editor I'd submitted to liked it apart from the ending, and requested a rewrite. I realised, reading Nancy Kress's explanation, why the rewritten ending had worked where the original had not: it directly addressed the conflict which started in the first paragraph and was developed through the middle of the story.

This was the main point I gained from the book: the beginning, middle and end form a unity. However, there's also useful material on characterisation, motivation, promises, climaxes, and a structured approach to revision.

The author helpfully points out some differences between short stories and novels along the way. She also makes clear something that had been vague to me: how non-plotted or "literary" stories are supposed to work, and how to signal that you're writing one of those, and not a plotted story. I believe I'll now approach the non-plotted stories I read with more appreciation for what the author is doing.

This is the second book I've read in the Elements of Fiction Writing series (the first being the highly useful Scene and Structure ), but I'll be searching out the others, given the excellent quality of both the ones I've read so far.
Profile Image for Darcy Conroy.
Author 2 books32 followers
April 27, 2011
Beginnings, Middles & Ends, by Nancy Kress is one of the best writing how-to's that I've read, yet. The book is targeted at both novelists and short story writers of any experience. Kress assumes little writing theory on the part of the reader and yet manages to be neither patronizing nor cliche when explaining basics (I swear some books are written from the same template - not this one!) Kress also takes care to emphasize that different writers work in different ways, addressing the "pantsters", who like to write without plotting, acknowledging that, for them, most of the advice will be relevant only after the first draft is done (but it will be relevant.)

So what's so good about this book? In short: it focuses on the writing. There's no showing off the author's understanding of Georges Polti, or proving that she bleeds Joseph Campbell. There are no structure formulas (three acts with seven turning points, no nine sequences, no 18 dips and crests of the roller coaster,) Kress has written a book which focuses on what you, the writer, need to know and do to organize your story's structure. Not that there's no theory, there's plenty, but it's all contextual, so it is clear how to apply it. How does Kress do this? Well - ahem - it's how the book is structured.

The title of the book is its structure. Starting with Beginnings, Kress discusses everything that needs to be considered when writing a beginning, which, of course, touches on everything from characterization, to language, to how the beginning effects the middle and the end. She acknowledges writers who find beginnings easy and offers assistance for those who find them difficult, addressing the various reasons one can become stuck while writing a beginning. Kress then gives the same detailed treatment for each of Middle and End, followed by a section on Revision.

I highly recommend this book to any writer, whether they are new to writing and don't know where to begin, or are wallowing uncertainly in a WIP. I particularly recommend this book to structure-phobics because, whether they think about it consciously while writing a first draft or not, a writer needs to know their craft and this book is a pain-free way to learn. I'll be putting this one on the #storycraft Book Chat list.
Profile Image for Mary Catelli.
Author 52 books172 followers
August 27, 2015
A how to write book.

With plenty of useful advice about how the beginning sets up the book's promise, transitions to your second scene, development of the middle, point of view structures, having it all collide in the climax, and the denouement. Getting unstuck, working out how to develop the character rather than pull things like rabbits out of hats, and more.
Profile Image for Jim Reddy.
206 reviews7 followers
July 21, 2023
I like to write short stories but I haven’t written very many. While I have lots of ideas I also have lots of unfinished stories. Making time to write is a challenge but there’s another reason. Figuring out how to tie everything together. Ideas that sound great in my head often fall apart when I start writing them down. The following quote from the introduction of this book was eye-opening:

“The truth is that there’s always a gap between the story as you imagined it — compelling, insightful, rich with subtle nuance — and what actually ends up in the manuscript.”

The rest of the book was eye-opening as well. It offers practical advice for how to fill in that gap, how to take a flash of inspiration and turn it into a story. The author provides clear explanations on creating characters, crafting opening scenes, choosing what direction to take a story, how to stay on track, coming up with an ending, and the importance of revising.

I’m looking forward to putting what I learned into practice.
Profile Image for Siskiyou-Suzy.
2,038 reviews23 followers
June 21, 2016
I'm starting to really dislike books like this. They remind me of teaching/classroom managements guides.

"Oh, just do this."

"Well . . . I tried and it didn't work."

"Nope. This is how it works."

"Well, you told me what to do, but not really how to do it. Also, I can see flaws even as I'm reading! I can come up with situation after situation after situation in my mind that completely contradicts what you're saying! And every time I take your advice into the real world, specifically the bits I need help on, I am shown that it doesn't really work! It only works in the easygoing situations that I didn't really need advice on in the first place!"

"No, it works."

"But --"

"It works."

These books are well-intentioned, but the more I read the more I see they are no help whatsoever. It's not that I'm so great of a writer I don't need them. I need this book desperately because my middles are all but non-existent and I have no idea how to fix that problem. But not a single bit of advice in here actually helped, and as I read through it, I couldn't help but think of the many, many stories and novels I've read that sort of go their own path. "Well not everybody can do that!" You may say. "First you need to learn the rules so you can break them!" Nah. See, the ones doing their own thing are good. And if my writing turns into something that needs to follow these proscribed rules to be readable, then I don't really wanna do it. That sucks.

Sigh. I still like writerly advice. But it has to be the sort of "right place, right time" thing. So much advice is just not applicable at all, but you can totally hit on something that changes the way you think about your writing. Maybe not even what the advice-giver was saying, but something clicks. Nothing did here.

Anyway. Books like this work for some people, but not for me. That's all right.
Profile Image for Timons Esaias.
Author 42 books55 followers
December 23, 2014
I don't often find the time to read how-to-write books, but I've been meaning to find some additional strategies for helping students who get stuck in the middle of their novels. This book is relatively short and simple, but I found all the advice to be sound and practical. Almost all of the end-of-the-chapter exercises are versions of what I call Field Reconnaissance, which is the best way for a practicing writer to learn; so clearly I endorse them. I did find some strategies to add to my list; and I also found the brief discussion of what makes a prologue valid to be useful.
Profile Image for Willow (Taylor's version).
187 reviews3 followers
July 26, 2022
I appreciate when writing advice books are applicable to, well, writing, and this book is definitely that. *Beginnings, Middles, & Ends* has lots of helpful advice, examples to demonstrate each point, and exercises to try out.
Profile Image for Audra.
Author 1 book25 followers
September 10, 2018
This book was extremely helpful to me. As I continue to write daily, my writing improves, but I often find myself getting stuck in the middle of my stories and also either not ending them sufficiently or at all.

Nancy Kress offers excellent detailed advice for all three aspects of the story. Most meaningful her explanation of how these aspects will differ from short story to novel.
Profile Image for Emily.
38 reviews
April 2, 2021
It is a very daring thing to write a book about how to write books, especially because there are so many ways to do it. While I do not agree with all of the author's methods, I found this book generally helpful.
12 reviews
March 29, 2020
I think this book would benefit most the person who has never taken a creative writing class, but maybe feels a bit stuck in teaching themselves. It covers all of the basics, and it puts into words the things that if you’re a frequent reader you’ve probably intuited as a. important factor in good writing without knowing why (credibility, fulfilling your promises to the reader, using details to show your characters as unique beings and not placeholders...)

To some writers, this advice might seem too basic. I picked up this book specifically for the “Endings” section (I realized that I knew way more about writing beginnings and have a bad habit of starting new projects and never finishing that I wanted to correct). The beginnings section felt very basic to me and a not small section of the middles was devoted to writers block. I did appreciate the simple and direct way everything was explained and all advice felt practical, even if it didn’t feel especially new to me. This is why I’m giving this book 4 stars instead of 3.

There wasn’t a whole lot to take away from the Endings section, but again the advice was practical and Kress posed a couple of questions that made me rethink a direction for one of my stories and I know it will be stronger for it.
Profile Image for Giulia.
407 reviews180 followers
December 7, 2015
Some [writers] work best when they write like a runner racing through a haunted graveyard late at night: full speed ahead and no looking back.

Secondo me è quasi sempre inutile dare un voto ai manuali, sopratutto se trattano aspetti più emotivi. Ma vorrei spender qualche parola per questo libro.
Nonostante i manuali di scrittura vadan presi per quello che sono, ovvero informazioni e consigli da chi c’è già passato; molte persone invece tendono a credere che leggendone un paio, poi il loro racconto si scriva da sé. E’ sbagliata l’idea di fondo di aspettarsi troppo da questo genere di guide, magari qualche trucco o scorciatoia, o chissà una formula magica.

Pag. 19 This isn’t a book about style, if you have trouble with sentence construction, find a book that is

Perciò, per quanto un manuale possa esser scritto bene o male, non tutti lo troveranno della stessa utilità. Ma me questo è piaciuto. Forse più di altri.

La divisione in tre parti (inizio, metà e fine) è molto più comoda come guida, rispetto al solito “pensa a un personaggio”, “scrivi le singole storie”, “ incorpora qui, e sposta là”... insomma, qui vi è più libertà, il lettore non è costretto a pensare alla sua storia per tappe obbligate, bensì ci si ritrova in un generico contesto che spiega come e cosa dovrebbero contenere le tre parti di una storia. Poi sta all’aspirante scrittore, valutare quale approccio sia per lui il migliore.

L’autrice scrive: “A climax that occurs off-stage is frustrating and disappointing to novel readers”; “Nor should the climax speed by in a few paragraphs.”. Non potrei essere più d’accordo! Vedi il ridicolo climax di Twilight!
“a saga of violent gangland warfare shouldn't end with a quiet talk between the leaders and a subtle symbol of ambiguous hope. In context, that will feel flat.” La Meyer non doveva sapere nemmeno questo; vedi il climax di Breaking dawn (la tanto attesa battaglia, che poi non avviene proprio) che personalmente considero una presa in giro per il lettore. Non è un libro sulla guerra tra bande, vero; ma non abbiamo forse aspettato 800 pagine per uno scontro tra due gruppi di vampiri?
Cita il climax di Jurassic Park di Crichton come ottimo esempio, e sono d’accordo con lei.

Inoltre ogni tanto, l’autrice consiglia degli esercizi, alcuni dei quali, seppur elementari, focalizzano l’attenzione dell’aspirante scrittore sui particolari più incisivi di un racconto. Il punto cruciale è applicare i parametri ai propri scritti, con egual obiettività.

Certo a volte il manuale perde di chiarezza. La scrittrice si è persa un po’ nell’introduzione dei personaggi secondari. E qualche esempio non è dei più brillanti.
Il cap. 6 è una mera chiacchierata sul blocco dello scrittore, con alcuni consigli ed esperienze riportate da vari scrittori. Alcune delle cose scritte si leggono anche in molti altri manuali, tant’è che ho saltato la lettura. Inoltre credo che sia inutile leggere le “tecniche di sblocco”, se non ci si trova in tale situazione. E anche in quel caso dubito della loro utilità.

Ma il mio giudizio generale rimane buono.
Profile Image for Erin.
336 reviews13 followers
January 29, 2020
In general, I tend to dislike writing guides. My dad bought me "Beginnings, Middles & Ends" when I was in high school, and it's the rare guide I keep coming back to when I start a new project. I usually dip in and out of it depending on what is giving me grief, but this time I read the whole book cover to cover and was reminded why it's stuck around on my shelf for almost 20 years (ugh I'm old). I'm about a month in to a new novel and I'm sure I'll refer back to the "Middles" portion of this book when the time comes.
Profile Image for Doug Farren.
Author 16 books17 followers
September 24, 2012
This is a good book to help newer writers focus on what is important in writing a book. It provides a good overall set of rules and things to consider when writing anything from a short story to a massive novel. One thing I did like was the acknowledgement that not all writers write in the same way which makes it difficult to write a book on writing. Overall, I thought it was a good book.
Profile Image for Carlie Van Amerongen.
92 reviews6 followers
March 8, 2015
Really helpful. Lots of practical exercises for both crafting a piece of writing and polishing those you have already written. The chapters were knowledgeable and the information was useful. I especially liked that there were exercises that had you looking at stories written by other writers for examples of the ideas Kress was trying to teach.
Profile Image for Shannon.
879 reviews
June 8, 2019
I didn't do the exercises on this one - but I found this an easy, helpful read. It's one of those books you want to come back to after you've finished a book - or when you reach a new stage, whether that be the middle or the end or writing a whole new novel, and you need a structure to boost yourself. Anyway, I might buy this... or get it from the library again. :)
Profile Image for Letitia.
1,096 reviews86 followers
April 5, 2008
I borrowed this from the library, but I need to own it! I have never read a more clear, useful, step-by-step manual to brilliant writing. If you don't have talent, this book won't give it to you, but if you do, Kress' advice is invaluable.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books4,101 followers
May 14, 2013
Very decent guide to writing both novels and short fiction. It reminds me of a great deal I should always keep in mind while reading, as well. My appreciation for novels might just improve some more with these kinds of reminders. :)
Profile Image for Michael.
23 reviews2 followers
February 6, 2011
An excellent walk through of story structure. Concise, thorough and honest. Certainly worth a second read (and a third).
Profile Image for John.
1,458 reviews36 followers
April 22, 2012
Very helpful stuff. I wish I'd read more books like it when I was in college working on my writing degree.
Profile Image for Shawn Cooke.
Author 4 books15 followers
May 11, 2019
I have owned this book in college — and had not read it since then. Some of the advice I had likely internalized, while other points I probably learned by trial and error. Other recommendations were entirely new to me, or at least new to my memory.

Beginnings, Middles & Ends (I shudder at the lack of an Oxford comma, but that is the title) is a series of essays on different parts of a novel. Throughout the book, Kress uses examples from literature and her own running example narrative to demonstrate how to write, and now to write, these parts of a novel.

She does not make assumptions of a particular genre, and this is both a strength and a weakness. The strength is that her advice is immediately applicable to pretty much anything you’re writing — the weakness is that you might need greater detail that the broad scope cannot give you.

The last chapter is all about revision, and it felt a little out of place. At the same time, it was one of the strongest and most useful sections in the book.

I read the book straight though, but I would actually be more likely to recommend it to a writer who is stuck on a specific part of their story. Each section is pretty self-contained, and I feel like it will serve me well when I get stuck and need a bit of a helping hand.
Profile Image for Shan.
634 reviews32 followers
June 29, 2020
Clear, concise, practical advice, with useful exercises geared to both short stories and novels. A lot of good information packed into just over 150 pages.

I appreciated the chapter on getting unstuck in the middle, whether the reason you're stuck is fear of failure, fear of success, fogginess (just plain not knowing what should happen next), or discovering you don't love your story anymore. Hint: the answer isn't "to shed your spouse, career, national citizenship, or material possessions."

The final chapter describes one approach to revision, focusing first on the promises to the reader, then scene analysis, major rewrite scene by scene, checking for imagery, and finally polishing the prose.

The bulk of the book, though, is exactly what the title suggests: how to write a good beginning that draws the reader in and sets expectations for the story, then how to build on the beginning in a way that leads directly to a satisfying ending. It's all very practical, and the illustrative example carried throughout makes it easy to understand.

Profile Image for Brooke Johnson.
Author 9 books57 followers
May 15, 2018
This was a really quick, easy, and informative read. A lot of what Nancy talks about in this book is stuff I already knew, but I've increasingly found that the value in craft books for me is not so much the "knowing" of something, but the trigger to look at it in a different light. This book breaks down stories on a macro level that makes it easier to see the whole picture of how beginnings, middles, and ends work together to make a satisfying story, while still offering examples and exercises of how to accomplish that synergy on a sentence by sentence, scene by scene level. I ended up dogearing several pages and highlighting multiple tips and exercises within the book for later reference. I think this book is good for writers of any skill, from beginners to professional novelists.
Profile Image for Isobel.
420 reviews11 followers
September 19, 2018
This writing guide breaks all stories down into 3 elements (I will let you guess which ones; if your answer is similar to this book's title, you're on the right track...), both summarizing what elements the writer will want to focus on, and offering concrete ways to overcome blocks or fine tune the sections. Due to this layout, it can be read in one go, or a specific section can be referenced when difficulty is encountered while writing. Kress uses literary examples, and offers advice that is generally sound. Of course, your story is your story, and there are exceptions to every rule, but generally, I think most writers will find this book a helpful reference they can turn to again and again.

Highly recommend.
Profile Image for Collin.
999 reviews36 followers
April 11, 2018
Thoroughly average book on writing, except that there were a few major points where I did not agree with Kress at all (the last paragraph/line of a novel, as opposed to a short story, doesn't make that much of an impact? she makes no acknowledgement of the kind of ongoing-story type of novel series? what?).

I'm not sure if I'd rec this to beginners, because there are a lot of rules and generalizations that I think could be detrimental to writers just starting out, but, at the same time, writers who've done their research probably get this kind of thing already. So... yeah, I'm not sure what to do with it.
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